By Sam Lipsyte
It would be an inspired feat of academic guerilla terrorism to sabotage every American College Freshman Summer Reading Program by supplanting the usual earnest offerings with Sam Lipsyte's uproariously cruel third novel, "The Ask." It's the kind of fiendish daydream nurtured by disaffected faculty members or, in this instance, a man whose job entails cultivating donors for a delusionally self-important university when he'd rather be watching Internet porn.
Meet Milo Burke: an under-performing development officer at Mediocre University - "named for its syphilitic Whig founder" - on the cusp of forty who loses his job in the novel's opening pages. It's not a job he particularly relished. "Our group raised funds and materials for the university's art programs," Milo explains. "People paid vast sums so their spawn could take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk."
If not for the respectable salary his "good shitty job" provided, and the measure of freedom that salary allowed his wife Maura, Milo might have welcomed the end. Which arrives, unceremoniously, in the form of an anorectic student bent on humiliating her perceived social inferior. This particular spawn - an aspiring painter and the daughter of a major donor - is the sort of person at whom Milo takes pitiless aim throughout the novel. In a breathtaking expression of youthful overconfidence sure to send formidable chills down the spines of many an educator, she tells Milo: "You really are here to serve my needs. My father taught me that the consumer is always right. I am the consumer. You are actually the bitch of this particular exchange."
Milo bristles, as well he might. And in an uncommon gesture of assertiveness, he rebels, cuts down this "arrogant, talentless, daddy-damaged waif" with a ferocity that startles him - as well as said waif. Milo doesn't disclose the substance of his remarks, except to say: "It probably was hate speech." To himself, he offers as reasonable an explanation as any for snapping: "I really [expletive] hated that girl." But this isn't how things roll in the groves of academe. "We were in what they call a university setting. A bastion of, et cetera."
Unemployment is the least of Milo's swelling list of troubles. Nothing in his world is right. Milo's wife Maura has grown callously indifferent to his enduring love for her. Even his affectionate four-year-old son exhibits distressing signs of indifference. Although he's scarcely old, Milo lumbers through each day exhausted, with the brittle spirit of the cantankerously infirm. The lightest chores prove unbearable, the people around him all perfect models of mindless sterility. Milo is no fool: quite the contrary. If anything, he thinks and feels too much. Indeed, Milo has taken to drinking; it's as if he wants to join the zombies so he doesn't have to think about them.
Then, too, there is the urgent matter of his joblessness. But just when all seems lost, Milo's supervisor - an imperious former "crack baby" named, of all things, Vargina - offers him a second chance. Not because she likes Milo, but because she needs him to secure an enormous gift from one Purdy Stuart. Stuart, it turns out, is an acquaintance from Milo's college years and the "ask" of the novel's title. In a fantastic twist that gives "The Ask" its relentless drive, Stuart - never one of Milo's favorite people - emerges as the man who can save Milo's job and, in a sense, his life.
Needless to observe, it's an unhealthy match. Stuart, like the young woman who cost Milo his job, lives to humiliate Milo. Milo may belong to the hedonistic, devil-may-care Generation X satirized by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, but the fabled bright-light success of that generation - and the towering self-regard that nourished it - always eluded him. In short, he is no Master of the Universe. The same, however, cannot be said of Purdy Stuart: a vastly rich contemporary in whom Milo cannot discern the faintest hint of himself, only the predictable shades of envy that such men - with their bronzed skin, thirty-two-inch waists, and model girlfriends - arouse in their bloated, less accomplished peers.
As Milo and the nefarious Stuart come together in an uncomfortable embrace, the novel acquires a lurid expansiveness that will have you laughing aloud - and grimacing - to the very last page. Milo's shrewd observations about people elevate this novel high above the rest. "The Ask" eschews the shopworn conventions of modern fiction; it offers a rare and welcome departure from today's contrived, uber-plotted novels written for the big screen. Here is satire in its purest form.
In less gifted hands - Lipsyte possesses the syntactical dexterity of a top brain surgeon - "The Ask" easily could have been yet another recent novel crammed to the gills with tiresome allusions to what ails us: the economy, the Iraq war, the fin-de-siècle pointlessness of it all. But Lipsyte manages, with enviable success, to render Milo's life so plausibly and with such sureness of hand that the novel's wildest developments seem as inevitable as they are believable. Lipsyte doesn't strain for relevance, though he isn't above parodying novelists who do. Yet when Purdy's illegitimate son - a battered Iraq veteran - enters the story, he serves a purpose. He isn't the clunky, gratuitous appendage you'll find trotted out in dozens of novels published this season.
"The Ask" is not in any conventional sense an academic novel. For Lipsyte, who teaches creative writing at Columbia, Mediocre University is merely the fetid laboratory in which America's dull and benign become monsters. Yet "The Ask" invites comparison with the best of the genre, including Richard Russo's "Straight Man" (1997) and Randall Jarrell's ingenious send-up of university culture, "Pictures from an Institution" (1954).
You put down "The Ask" with that sinking feeling of loss that only the best reads can engender. If redemption doesn't exactly find Milo - Lipsyte is too fine a writer to traffic in redemption - it hardly matters. Milo emerges in these pages as something greater than a graceless, aging specimen of these grim days. He has what the hordes tend to lack: a debilitating - no, paralyzing - capacity for self-awareness. Moreover, he's generally right about subjects we're taught to find offensive. Sam Lipsyte is nothing less than an Evelyn Waugh for our time, and he's considerably funnier too.
Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University.