What It Takes
May 14, 2010, 04:57 PM
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In The Ask, the celebrated new comic novel by Sam Lipsyte (son of leftist sportswriter Robert Lipsyte), narrator Milo Burke is a failed painter now employed asking rich people for money for the arts programs of what Milo calls the Mediocre University at New York City:
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. Still, the sums didn't quite do the trick. Not in the cutthroat world of arts education. Our job was to grovel for more money. We could always use more video cameras, more caulk, or a dance studio, or a gala for more groveling. ...
An ask could be a person, or what we wanted from that person. If they gave it to us, that was a give. The asks knew little about the student work they funded. Who could blame them? Some of the art these brats produced wouldn't stand up to the dreck my three-year-old demanded we tack to the kitchen wall. But I was biased, and not just because I often loved my son. Thing was, I'd been just like these wretches once. Now they stared through me, as though I were merely some drone in their sight line, a pathetic object momentarily obstructing their fabulous horizon. They were right.
When Milo tells the presumptuous daughter of a donor what he actually thinks of her art, he loses his job for hate speech. With nothing to do, he spends a lot of time at the Post Office:
I bought pistachios, ate them in line at the post office. Or on line at the post office. I could no longer recall which phrase came naturally. Either way, there was always a line at the post office, people with enormous packages bound, I assumed, for family in distant, historically f—-d lands. What were they sending? TVs? TiVos? Hamburgers? Hamburger Helper? ... The line hardly moved. People couldn't fill out the forms. Others did not comprehend the notion of money orders. Come on, people, I thought-beamed. I'm on your side and I'm annoyed. Doesn't that concern you? Don't you worry your behavior will reduce me to generalizations about why your lands are historically f—-d? Or does my nation's decline make my myopia moot?
That's a terrific passage, but that's not an unemployed painter worrying about whether he is in line or on line, that's an unemployed writer. Milo is never truly believable as a not-quite-good-enough painter, as, say, Charles Ryder was in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh had clearly thought a lot about the visual arts, while Lipsyte's obsessions are restricted to text and music, to putting some punk rock rhythms into his carefully crafted prose. Lipsyte is just repackaging his experiences in Creative Writing classes as painting classes without actually thinking like a painter.

So, The Ask's glass is only half full, but it's full of some fine sentences. Lipsyte is receiving much acclaim this spring for the excellence of his prose, a sentiment I share.

On the other hand, I wouldn't proclaim him a better prose stylist than, say, Dennis Dale of Untethered. Of these two slightly similar personalities, Lipsyte is somewhat funnier because he's more hostile, but Dennis has a superior eye. To pick a shard off the top of Untethered today:

Summer. Nineteen eighty-something. We were parting the traffic on the 605 southbound for Huntington Beach; I was wearing nothing but shorts and sandals, one hand holding on to the motorcycle seat, the other cradling a six-pack of beer, football-style. We leaned headlong into the wind like a pair of ski-jumpers, as P. effortlessly weaved the stodgy Honda CB350 through the cars, rendering them still as haystacks. I peered into them as we passed, looking for girls. My head rocked with spontaneous energy, to some silent beat, the effect of the youth spending itself within me. The exquisite expiration of childhood. We shouted back and forth in the gale we carried along with us, laughing through mouths windswept into lunatic grins; we cheerfully harried the odd fellow who was momentarily abreast and sharing our direction. We turned with the road into a direct and endless path toward a sun that will never set...
That paints a more memorable picture with words than anything Milo Burke does.

Sam Lipsyte's hostility is likely partly heritable. Here's a paragraph from the author's father, Robert Lipsyte, a sportswriter who takes pride in hating athletes, that I noticed while looking through his Robert.Lipsyte.com. The elder Lipsyte explains his reaction to the Columbine massacre thusly:

When I attended high school, I had so much built-up anger from being treated unfairly that, if I had access to guns or explosives, I would have been driven to do a similar thing to take revenge on the bastard jocks who dominated the school and made those four years miserable for me. After high school, I was not surprised to hear that a handful of these jocks had either died as a result of drunk driving and drug overdoses, or had spent a little time in jail for violence or drug possession. As for the dead ones, I would probably pee on their graves.
The younger Lipsyte's narrator has similar anger issues, but Sam is self-aware enough to be self-loathing. The Ask is a minor masterpiece of amorphous Jewish hostility in the tradition of Portnoy's Complaint and Annie Hall.
I want to end by quoting from a useful section of The Ask, Lipsyte's fourth book, where he is sincere about what it takes to be a novelist. Milo is remembering when he asked his painting professor at college to compare him to the other top painter at his school. She replies:
"Okay, fine. I know you think you're a better artist than Billy Raskov, but you're just a better draftsman. That's something. But there are mentally handicapped people who draw and paint with far more technical skill than either of you. So, like I always say, it all comes down to how much you need to inflict yourself on the world. You're good enough. If you kiss the right ass, you could certainly make a career. Get some shows. Teach. Like me, for instance. I'm not a failure. I'm in a very envied position. 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. Sure, there are stars, most of them hacks, who make silly amounts of money, but for the rest of us, it's just endurance, perdurance. Do you have the guts to perdure? To be dismissed by some pissant and keep coming? To be dumped by your gallerist? To scramble for teaching gigs? It's not very glamorous. Is this what you want? You're good enough for it. You're not the new sensation, but you're good enough to get by. But you have to be strong. And petty. That's really the main thing. Are you petty enough?"