The Ask: Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Loathing Gentrifier

04/14/2010 2:00 AM |

The Ask
By Sam Lipsyte

Straus & Giroux

If you’re over 30 and nursing increasingly sickly artistic aspirations, this book could be your life. The hero is Milo Burke, a failed painter toiling in a thankless corner of a mediocre university (helpfully dubbed “Mediocre University”), supporting an indifferent wife and an increasingly unsettling child, and rapidly approaching the end of his rope. He’s pushing 50, but give or take a decade and he could pass for half the people in North Brooklyn.

As forecasts go, it’s not good news. Aside from attending to a lurid family drama (more on that in a minute), poor Milo spends a great deal of his time dwelling on his days as a gloriously stoned college painter too eager to understand the cruelties of the world. Understandably, he’s curious about where it all went wrong. It doesn’t help that he keeps running into old friends who made good, including a startup founder named Purdy Stuart. (If you hadn’t noticed, Lipsyte has a way with names.) Stuart has a secret child who’s reappeared as a disgruntled war amputee, and soon enough Milo is tasked with the soul-destroying work of keeping him under control. As it turns out, nothing makes you rethink your priorities like swapping expletives with a legless veteran.

Like most of Lipsyte’s work, the prose overflows with tweet-worthy phrases. There’s Milo on television (“the national hallucination”), pot-fueled torpor (“bong slavery”), and best of all, the novel’s McKibbin lofts stand-in (“a homeless shelter for people with a liberal arts degree”). He may be staggering through post-bohemian squalor, but Milo is rarely at a loss for words. In fact, his verbal faculty is part of what makes his situation so frustrating. As they close in, the walls are described more and more vividly.

All of which makes for some surprisingly hard-won wisdom. For all the pessimism on display here, Lipsyte never loses touch with basic human sympathies. If anything, he seems to think that we have.