The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Posted: 20th November 2010 by Mister Critic in Random

You can’t escape the media frenzy over the engagement news of Prince William and Kate. Not even on Mister Critic. I only mention them because while consuming every bit of gossip that was being forced down my throat, I was treated to a video that I thought was perfect to make my point in this review. I always dreamed this day would come, and here we are.

So, of course, part of covering the engagement from every single possible freaking angle includes comparing the young, happy couple to the disastrous relationship of Prince Charles and Diana.  Way back when, in an exclusive television interview with the press, Prince Charles and soon to be Princess Diana are asked if they are in love. Diana quickly answers, “Of course!” as any normal person would. But Charles wears a sheepish grin, and says, “Whatever in love means.” Long awkward pause.

Now some critics would say that was a pretty inappropriate comment at the time, but not Mister Critic. I would say the Prince was just a comedian before his time. That same scene is played out  constantly on shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation and it gets a laugh every time. That awkward, embarrassing, cringe-worthy moment is pure comedy gold, and this video is proof that Charles was a comic genius. I mean can’t you picture Ricky Gervais, I dare say the king of awkward comedy, delivering that exact same line while fiddling with his tie, eyes shifting, sweat building, British accent, et al. “Whateva in love means” Camera zooms to closeup on death glare from girlfriend. And scene. Perfect.

But you don’t get the laugh in real life. Somethings cut a little too close. Somethings just aren’t that funny no matter how awkward the scene becomes. Sometimes the comedy goes a little too far and is just a little too dark.

In Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, the main character, Milo Burke, works for a small art college in New York City. His job is to raise money for the college by hitting up alums and seeking donations. They call this request for cash an “ask.” I call it a horrible job. I’m not sure why anyone would ever want it, and Milo makes it quite clear that he doesn’t know either. So he does what we all have dreamed of doing, telling off someone at work. And just like we expect that day dream to end, Milo loses his job. His only chance at redemption is to satisfy his boss by landing a big Ask. The only problem is that might require Milo to do a little work.

There are some funny moments in The Ask. I appreciated some of the commentary about how we spend time working on trying to teach our children to talk, worried that they many never speak, and the next thing we know, we’re on our death bed with our child looking over us saying, “It’s time to pull the plug.” And I will say this book did get a lot of positive reviews from other critics, so maybe I am missing something.

But beyond the occasional laugh, I didn’t get much out of the book. When it came to the main character of Milo, a better title would have been The Ass, rather than Ask. I just did not like him, or the decisions he made, or his attitude, or interactions with people. Just wasn’t that funny.

I mean I love dark comedy. I love it when comedy exploits the awkward moments in life. And the main character from the US version of The Office, Micheal Scott, is also an ass at times, but he also contains a human quality that makes you feel for him. I recall an interview with the actor who plays Micheal, Steve Carrell, where he recognized that if he played the character to the extreme he would lose people. I think that is what happens with Mr. Lipsyte’s character. However, I think this was the author’s intent because there was a point where Milo asked another character,“. . . if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?” The other character responds: “I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can’t think of anyone who would. There’s no reason for it.”

I agree. The dark comedy just didn’t work for me in this book. Maybe I’ll like it better if it is made into a movie. But my only request is that the movie stars Prince Charles.