By Sam Lipsyte
300 and whatever pages
GL Rating: 2
I seem to be in a small minority of reviewers who had a viscerally negative response to Sam Lipsyte’s third novel, The Ask. I put it down after 130 pages.
Given that other negative reviews of The Ask seem to be rare, maybe take mine with a grain of salt if you’re curious about the novel. Maybe the novel comes alive at page 150. I don’t know, I just couldn’t bare any more of it.
I loathed it because the writing is lazy, and because the characters are flat and undifferentiated. A snide, jaded rant from a character named Horace could just as easily have been mouthed by the double amputee Iraq vet named Don 20 pages earlier.
It grated also because it markets itself as funny, but I didn’t laugh once, even though I went into it favorably inclined, based on high praise from a writer I respect.
There are lengthy stretches of dead exposition that don’t serve to develop the story or the characters. There are flashes of life in the writing, but there are also passages that read like the first draft of a talentless 20 year old in his first creative writing class.
All of the characters have a chip on their shoulders, and it’s the same chip. Lipsyte, in lieu of creating viable characters, attempts to build an entire novel around an attitude, or more precisely a facial expression — the sneer — and it makes for tedious reading.
There’s nothing wrong with a novel full of repulsive characters, but they have to be at least be foul in interesting ways. It also helps if there is some kind of authorial or anthropological remove from the characters’ pathologies.
The Ask has none of those things going for it. It’s a third- or fourth-tier novel crouching defensively behind the label of satire.
And then there are the gender issues. The Ask was published in 2010, seemingly a dozen centuries before #MeToo. So, maybe Lipsyte would have approached his female characters differently had he sat down to write it last week.
That said, the fact that every female character in the novel is run through a slimy meat-grinder version of the male gaze is, candidly speaking, creepy. It’s not just that the characters are being gross, it’s the novel’s perspective that’s gross.
A co-worker of the protagonist is named Vargina (HAHAHA THATS A REALLY FUNNY JOKE! GET IT?! “VAGINA”??!!) and, yep, Vargina is a “crack baby.” I don’t recall if the novel states explicitly that Vargina is African-American; regardless, I think this is what the New York Times might call “racially insensitive” writing. This illustrates how the novel itself is boorish and slimy, not just its characters. Lipsyte is right in the trough with his characters.
The representation of women in The Ask is toxic even by the standards of 2010.
In short: steer clear.