The Tell

Sun Apr 25, 2010

I saw a reference to Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask in Benjamin Kunkel’s LRB essay on Fredric Jameson, and it activated my impulse-buy reflex. I had read nothing by Lipsyte before, but I did glance at some of the Library Thing comments and was intrigued by what would seem to have been a relentless and bleak satire. That it was a satire of academia somehow is what I expected from Kunkel’s reference, which mentioned that the protagonist remembered learning about only two things in college: late capitalism and how to shoot heroin.

It turned out not to be about academia so much. Milo Burke works as in the development office of a university that might be identifiable, though little information is given about it,* and he gets himself fired for mouthing off to a rich student who was treating him too plainly like the help. Milo had painterly aspirations, as it turns out, and has become instead a painful case. It was probably Frye somewhere who wrote about the modern progression of expected readerly attitude towards the protagonist—from heroic and far beyond you, to an idealized self-image, to what is clearly beneath you, with the catch being that you the reader are, of course, just as damned and pathetic; you just haven’t realized it yet. The Ask is of this later type.

Most of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Don’s mother and Milo’s wife and son, are grotesque caricatures, though often hilariously drawn. (Horace, an urchin somewhat mysteriously employed in the same office as Milo, and a Lee Emery-like** Dean Cooley, the Chief Development Officer, are given many of the best lines.) The plot revolves around an undergraduate friend of Milo’s, Purdy Stuart, who was rich then and became significantly richer, and how the university wants to give Milo a second chance by hitting Stuart up for a big gift. Milo then learns that Stuart fathered a child with a woman he knew, and the boy ended up losing his legs to an IED in Iraq and then finding out about his real father. Stuart is worried about the blackmail potential and tells Milo that he wants to hide all of this from his wife.

So Stuart requested that Milo work with him to try to apparently try to get his help with the Don (the son’s name) situation, but it turns out that all is not as it seems. Don has known for some time, as has Stuart’s wife, and the dark suspicions that Milo has of Stuart having had Don’s mother killed or heartlessly transferred to an inferior hospital while in a coma seem to be unfounded. Purdy Stuart apparently wants to be justified, just as the arts that he’s going to fund will, in some manner, justify the money spent on them. The various knowing references to the Frankfurt school, etc. provide an amusing irony here, particularly as Milo is unable to articulate what he may have once learned about late capitalism to understand the situation.

One particularly well-done bit was a long speech by a film producer who hears Milo’s somewhat drunken pitch for a reality tv show about cooks who would prepare the last meals before state executions, articulates the reasoning behind such a show far better than Milo has or would be capable of doing, and then rather devastatingly suggests that such a premise’s only interest is what it reveals about how reality tv has deformed the imagination of its viewers, about which she proposes a documentary. Compared to the treatment of these matters in Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel,” for example, it’s superficial, but still very funny.

*Or was it? I don’t know if I wasn’t paying much attention, but I was never quite sure if the university where he works is the same one he attended as an undergraduate, which both seem at some points to be like NYU, but then not really. Would Cooper Union would fit better with “an expensive and strangely obscure institution, named for its syphilitic Whig founder” ? Not the expensive part? I don’t know.

**See ”I don’t give a slutty snow monkey’s prolapsed uterus for your office politics” (25), etc.