Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask: A Novel is exactly the kind of book one expects to be churned out of the academy these days: It’s swift, entertaining, technically perfect, and full of the kind of verbal pyrotechnics that apparently audiences don’t want. As A.O. Scott mentioned in a recent New York Times article: “Since its publication in March, The Ask has sold around 7,000 copies. Disappointing? Of course. Our generation wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For a certain kind of writer, and a certain kind of audience, this fact is less a failure than a badge of honor, mortgage payments and college tuition be damned. In fact, Generation X loves and requires this kind of commercial apathy. It secures them in a safety field of narcissism and rejection of all things mainstream, even though it’s the culture that has passed them by and not the other way around. Celebrating their own failure is the only kind of victory they can achieve.
It’s not that hitting the New York Times bestseller list isn’t a desirable outcome for these culturally-askance auteurs, they’ve simply stopped seeing that as the most accurate measurement of their work. With the media business suffering from disruption from high to low, simply surviving to write the next novel or cut the next album is the new emblem for success. At least until a new economic model emerges for serious literature.
Lipsyte’s book is destined for the big screen, the perfect mark for an affected adaptation by a Noah Baumbach or a Wes Anderson. Why? Because Milo Burke, Lipsyte’s protagonist, is the next evolution (chapter?) in Generation X’s disinterestedness in growing up. Instead of being hounded by their failures, Lipsyte shows a man comforted by them. Milo has not only engineered his own slow withering away, he goes further, actively rooting for his own society’s comeuppance.
Yes, this book might be the first post-America novel. Except unlike a Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood dystopia, Milo Burke’s America isn’t in the throes of environmental or theocratic chaos, just a long, slow slide into mediocrity, one marked by creative impotence, sexual frustration, and professional malaise. The end of white-male-dominated society.
Stuck on the New York City subway during a medical emergency, Milo pines for the presumably swift efficiency of authoritarian power. “Still, why stop the whole train just so paramedics could board the car and pull some poor slob back from the white light? We couldn’t waste time like this. Not for an individual life. We were losing our superpower superpowers. Would they stop this train in China?”
Milo’s meekness is probably best characterized in his interactions with his son, Bernie, and his wife, Maura. Time was when a sensitive soul like Milo was seen as a positive evolutionary leap, progress from antiquated norms of manliness defined by the likes of Marlboro Men and hard-drinking novelists. Lipsyte shows us what happens when men get too comfortable with being the sensitive type: They become worthless. When he calls himself an idiot in front of his wife, she can only agree. Later that same night, Milo ponders the possibility of circumcising his son in the middle of the night: “Someday I thought I might go in there with an X-Acto blade, Jew-cut the little crumb right back into my tribe, my half-tribe. Wonder if it’s legal. Be good to do a little time.” Milo’s conception of his own self-worth is the real jail-able offense. (Maura, Milo’s crudely drawn cardboard cutout of a wife, is obviously having an affair. With a gay colleague. That about covers that.)
So what is the cause of Milo’s acute misanthropy, his malaise? It is simply his failure to create. Halfway through the novel, Milo, the failed artist, vividly recalls a critique he received from a teacher, and sometimes lover, back in college: “So, like I always say, it all comes down to how much you need to inflict yourself on the world…If you kiss the right ass, you could certainly make a career…You have some big-dick fairy-tale idea of the art world, so you don’t understand this yet, but hanging in, surviving, so you can keep working, that’s all there is.” Moments later, Milo’s forgotten the criticism, cherry-picking only the parts he cares to remember, and totally repressing the thrust of the critique. “Soon I would not remember what Lena had said. Already it seemed kind of jumbled. Lena just really made no sense.”
Yes, she made no sense—to Milo, who would forever be left wondering why he couldn’t cut it as an artist. The failure to achieve his goals, but more so the failure to take responsibility for that failure is the anomaly of Generation X, that not-so-greatest generation that has bequeathed us a sad sight indeed. Is it any wonder that it’s not flying off shelves? Or will Generation X just lament the death of print, the death of belles-lettres instead? Maybe they should stop using their own failures as emblematic of the failure of society around them and instead seek the solace of Sundance.
Sam Lipsyte The Ask was released on March 10 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. To purchase it, click here.