No sacred cows are spared by Sam Lipsyte's laser wit as he chronicles the analog life and digital times of protagonist Milo Burke. What this means is, rather than a sleek, flashy hi-def 21st century video game, Milo's tale more easily resembles an old-fashioned pinball game. This is not to say that his life isn't firmly planted in these troubled times. Indeed, the uniquely troubled economy of the first decade of the 21st century is arguably a real player, a palpable character in Lipsyte's novel.
It's just that Milo is, well, for lack of a better analogy, analog in a world drowning in digital. He is always just a step outside of - not behind - what is going on around him. Everything he does seems to be accompanied by the imaginary sound of wheezing machinery, grinding gears. It's hard to say whether Milo's first person narrative causes this sensation or if it merely accentuates it. No matter. It is due to Lipsyte's estimable talents that we can laugh at poor Milo's pitiable circumstances. It is schadenfreude, I believe - pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. The Ask makes delicious fun at the expense of this man whose job consists of begging (called "the ask") donations (called "the give") from tightfisted millionaires to benefit his third-rate university.
The fun can be rollicking because Milo Burke is not an everyman. The truth is, Milo Burke is an almost-every-person-at-one-point-in-his/her-life-or-another. For instance, in one of the first scenes in the book Milo is joking around with a coworker, gets caught up in the moment, opens his shirtfront and bares his chest to the man. Who among us had never gotten carried away in a giddy moment of trying to outdo or shock a friend or coworker and made an imprudent decision? For a sad encore to that, however, Milo speaks his uncensored mind to a rude student whose wealthy father demands Milo's dismissal. The sound of gears churn as the pinball makes a weak launch and falls back to Start. The slide whistle plunges an octave when Milo's coworker formally charges him with sexual harassment citing the chest-baring incident.
Before long, Milo gets a second chance when a former college classmate who wishes to make a potentially huge "give" to the university demands that Milo be rehired. But as Milo bounces around - trying to comprehend what makes his old friend tick, fantasizing about the mother of his toddler son's classmate, re-establishing a relationship with his mother, and so much more - his observations on everything from organized religion to marriage to parenthood come from a rare place and more often than not they are things that make you go hmmm. Until Lipsyte delivers perhaps the grand slam pinball strike when Milo says to a coworker, "if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?" and the coworker replies, "I would never read a book like that I can't think of anyone who would. There's no reason for it." Au contraire. Au contraire.
This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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