The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Punchlines in a knock-out
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The Independent Culture

That old saw about storytelling's importance throughout human history – the one which dullards will generally conclude with references to campfires and the oral tradition – cuts no ice with Milo Burke, the hero of Sam Lipsyte's sad, scabrous new novel. To Milo, stories are an indulgence. "They take so long," he explains, in a futile attempt to defend himself from a looming anecdote. "Most of them are a waste of time. I like jokes. Can you tell me your story in joke form?"

In his youth, Milo might have been the sort of person to spew about storytelling; now, a sadsack and disappointed painter on the brink of middle age, just educated enough to understand that his life doesn't count for very much, he is only interested in ferreting out punchlines.

Lipsyte's concerns go deeper, and The Ask is not quite a story in joke form. But in its gravid, relentless wit, it finds an implausibly effervescent seriousness that suggests Lipsyte, whose fourth and best book this is, could be one of the novelists whose voice will define the next decade.

It is already stealthily defining the last couple. Milo declares himself a member of a generation "stuck between meanings", whose rise coincided with "the fall of the Soviet Union" and "the beginning of aggressively marketed nachos." The holder of a liberal-arts degree who nonetheless found himself with a stultifying university-fundraising job from which he is soon fired for an act of hate speech, Milo in the office is "a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence bobbing along on the energy tides of others, a walking reminder of someone else's error in judgment."

Thematically familiar, Lipsyte's vision of white-collar pallor is brought to life by his stunningly diverse language. If he is amazed by his culture's knack with the deadening name – "open-toed relief chaps", "Vitamin Drink", "Choose Your Own Adventure" – his vaults and swoops from the romantic to the Anglo-Saxon, the sacred to profane, furnish him with a descriptive facility that can make accuracy so fresh as to sound obscene. Bitterness is a "solitudinous roil". Milo's sheltered hands resemble "lovingly shaved gerbils." Sex-obsessed and endlessly frustrated, he grimly ejaculates into a "superannuated tube sock".

None of this is obviously charming talk, but the narrator's self-knowledge, his constant acknowledgement of bathos, makes him impossible to dismiss or dislike. Poor old Milo: assuming the epithet a term of endearment, even his son calls him "pansy". His distressing struggle to win back his job, which sees him, in pursuit of a big donation, becoming a rich college friend's go-between to his estranged and crippled son, is even marked by occasional profundities that do not seem forced or absurd. The tragedy is that Milo can never quite let them stand, always spots the bitterly comical get-out before their force can be felt.

In a funny way, though, that singleminded pursuit of the punchline – which contains a kind of deathwish – also bestows Milo with greatness, the kind of awesomely cantankerous masculinity also found in Philip Roth's Zuckerman, or Saul Bellow's Herzog. Martin Amis, another obvious ancestor, recently complained that since his own heyday there has been a rising fashion for the "unenjoyable novel", prize-winning literature that confuses ponderousness with weight. It's an important message, but it's not one Sam Lipsyte needed to hear. He already knows it in his bones.

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