Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

I saw a blogpost recently about how certain bloggers who write reviews have stopped writing bad reviews. My blog might have looked like that up to this point, but it’s mostly been because I prefer to direct people to terrific books I think they’d enjoy, and because I’ve been lucky with my reading lately. But with this book I was not so lucky. I did feel bad about dissing a book pre-pub so I've held this review for 2 months. But recently I saw a PW starred review, and a 4-star review in EW for this novel, so I no longer feel I need to bite my tongue.

Normally, I adore books about academia, particularly satire. But one word comes to mind when I think about this book: vulgar. And I am not easily offended.

This book certainly reminded me of my time in Queens, NY. I lived in Astoria, and I dated guys who I think could have written this book. Guys who idealized Hemingway and Salinger, and loved to show off their 25¢ words but also bragged about having gone to a minor-campus state school and the last bar fight they were arrested in. Sometimes I really wondered how someone in this century can idealize Hemingway quite so much (not just his writing, but his lifestyle, that misogynistic drunk asshole.)

Milo really feels very sorry for himself. He has an apparently attractive, successful wife who is the primary breadwinner and does most of the work around the house. He has no motivation, barely interacts with her but to express jealousy, and occasionally plays with his son, and yet somehow seems to think he’s horribly put-upon in his middle-class neighborhood (Astoria is no Bed-Stuy) as if he’s entitled to have money and success thrust upon him despite a complete unwillingness to lift a finger. I just want to smack him (yes, I have similar feelings about Holden Caulfield.) Normally hating a main character isn’t a problem for me. I’m not becoming friends with them – just reading their book. But this guy really disgusted me. Which Mr. Lipsyte was obviously trying to do with his verbose and literate disgusting insults but I was disgusted more by his overly obvious straining than by the result of said straining. It gave me the impression that the author is trying to prove how macho he is. Which normally convinces me of precisely the opposite (methinks thou dost protest too much) particularly when someone is trying this hard at it.

The author is a show-off. No one talks this way.Yes, I do know guys in the outer boroughs living in squalid basement apartments smoking pot and writing very autobiographical fiction in which they talk this way, but in real life, no way. Here’s an example of some language: “adamantine” “perdurance,” “greeting card ontology” “fin de si├Ęcle Nokias” “clunky verbal vamping of vintage porn.” Did he eat a frickin’ thesaurus? Perdurance??? Seriously?!? It’s fricking listed as Archaic in my dictionary. He’s so concerned with appearing smart and educated that he even spells draftsman “draughtsman” which is the British spelling. Now I certainly have nothing against an extensive vocabulary, and I think the best way to learn new words is through running across them in conversation and literature. But I hate when people have characters using ridiculous, overblown, over their own heads words just for the sake of proving how smart the author is. Again, to me it proves the opposite.

The characters and plot felt predictable. Every character spoke in the same way. Every single person was inappropriate and vulgar even to complete strangers, immediately. The book overall struck me as amateurish, although I know the author has written other novels and has a slew of fans. Boy, this one did not resonate with me in a big way. On the other hand, I had a very strong and visceral reaction to this book. It in no way bored me. But hilarious? That's a word that's been thrown around a lot in the reviews of this book. I didn't even crack a smile once.

I have to admit, I didn’t finish this book. I wanted to quit on page 10. I wanted to quit on page 50. I wanted to quit on page 100. At page 126, I gave in to my desires. Life is too short.


nomadreader said...

Thank you for your negative review! I adore negative reviews, and I don't write them often, as I'm a fairly good predictor about what I will enjoy. I've read only glowing reviews of this one too, so I appreciate your response. I'm still curious to read it, but I always like to hear the bad with the good. Thank you!

Jenny said...

I'm another one that appreciates your being honest! You still wrote a very thorough and great review though!