The trouble I ran into when reviewing Sam Lipsyte's new novel The Ask is that no amount of critical fawning could sell this book as effectively as Lipsyte himself does, from the book's opening lines. The best way to convey how good The Ask is would simply have been to print 570 words of his prose. So, in lieu of piling more adjectives on an already overburdened book, here are the opening paragraphs:
"America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic's whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who'd stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for juvenile wolves.
'We're the bitches of the First World,' said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.
We all loved Horace, his clownish pronouncements. He was a white kid from Armonk who had learned to speak and feel from a half-dozen VHS tapes in his father's garage. Besides, here at our desks with our turkey wraps, I did not disagree."
Shit, even typing that was exhilarating. Lipsyte is reading at Powell's tonight, and if you are interested in contemporary fiction you should probably be there. My interview with Sam Lipsyte (for the record, incredibly pleasant to talk to) is after the jump.
Mercury:Can you talk about giving readings of this book as a work in progress? That’s a little unusual.
It is pretty uncommon. I have in the past read work in progress, but this was a little different because my editor cooked up the idea of reading parts of the book—this is going back a year and a half ago—in a series at a place in NYC called the Russian Samovar. So the first reading I read chapter one, and then next reading I read another chapter. I was still working on the book, but the parts I read I certainly felt strong about, and wasn’t deeply revising anymore. I think I would’ve been a little hesitant to read something that just came out of my printer for the first time that day.
Did you find yourself making any revisions based on audience feedback?
Yes, I did, and I do. It’s not necessarily audience feedback. Really, what you can tell is if they think something is funny, and you can tell if they’re bored because you hear the chairs scraping and people moving around, but short of that you can’t tell anything. There have been times I’ve looked out into the audience and seen an expression on someone’s face that seemed to be indicating that person was stricken or upset or not enjoying the reading at all, and then that’s the person who comes up afterward and says how much she or he liked it. So you can’t try to guess that stuff. But you can sense when people are restless. And also in the reading, in reading something aloud, you can see where your rhythms are off, and that’s always really helpful.
When you’re writing do you read your stuff aloud to yourself, to find rhythms?
I mumble it. It’s a lot of grunting and mumbling.
Your humor is pretty cutting and it seems like just about every subject is fair game—obviously child molestation is on the table… the Holocaust… Is anything off limits?
I haven’t hit it yet. But I don’t sit down and say, “Wow, I’m going to be so damn shocking right now.” This is just the stuff that bubbles up. Sentences start to veer toward these perhaps risky areas of discussion, and then I like to kind of play in the dangerous area, in the high-voltage zone. I think that what’s off limits is just being cruel for the sake of cruelty. What’s off limits is not presenting characters with as much dimensionality as you can. So the characters and the narrators can talk about anything, I don’t really try to censor that, but I want it to be coming from some place organic in the work.
It’s about considering who the victims are of your humor. And the number one victim should be yourself.
You as the writer?
Or as a person. As a speaker. As long as you’re taking yourself out, you can take everybody else out with you.
Milo’s voice in The Ask is similar to Teabag’s voice in Home Land, which kinda begs the question, how much of that is your voice?
Every character is always the writer, and don’t let people tell you otherwise. But there are differences—some people have noted this to me. Lewis Miner [Teabag] is a younger person and he has this streak of romanticism that runs through his skepticism or cynicism or whatever you want to call it. And I don’t think Milo at his age and his level of experience with disappointment has [that] anymore. But I guess I’ve always been interested in narrators who could narrate. Who found because everything else had failed them that language was still something that they could wield with control and power. I’m certainly drawn to narrators who can sing, on some level.
Structurally, The Ask is the most conventional of your novels. Why did it take so long to write something so straightforward, and how was it?
In the past I’ve been really interested in finding a device. In The Subject Steve they were basically journal entries, and Home Land is a series of letters—I’ve always been fascinated with discovering some sort of container for the speech, for the language, that would serve as structure so I wouldn’t have to worry about structure so much. This one, I thought about some way to find that container, and I couldn’t, and I felt I would just take the leap and let the story go and see what happens.
In a sense Milo’s voice does function as a container. The book is very much from his perspective, and in the few instances where other characters’ perspectives do intrude, you really feel it.
Yeah, there are those strategic moments where you get the reverse angle. So I guess my rule was that a lot of it would be in his head, [but] there are a lot of scenes and a lot of dialogue, obviously. As far as story went, my notion was it just had to keep moving. That was really important to me. It’s really dangerous if you’re going to spend a lot of time in the perceptions of a narrator that time dilates in this crazy way, and things get a little static and slow. My motto was “motion or the semblance of motion,” either one was okay. Either we’re moving forward or it feels like we’re moving forward, and I just hoped that would get me where I needed to be.
To what extent did you intend it as a political novel ?
That’s certainly a strand of the book, but that stuff never works for me if I sit down and say, “Now I’m going to write this novel about the war and capitalism and life in America.” When I’m confronted with those big themes I become paralyzed. Like many of us I sit around and think about this stuff and read about this stuff and it bubbles up and churns in me, and then when I sit down to write I’m just really thinking about this character and his voice and the details of his life, but all this other stuff does come rushing in. I find the task is to control it and find the ways to direct the stream throughout the book.
In Slate’s review of The Ask, the reviewer poses a question, which he calls “the Lipsyte question”: “How useful, in the end, as a life strategy, is wallowing in bitterness?” How would you answer that?
Well, if I thought it was useful, I probably would not have written any books. This has been said a million times, but the task is to raise the questions, and he just phrased one that the book raised for him. But if I had the answer to those questions, I would’ve written as self-help book, and I’d make a lot more money.
You should write a self-help book.
It’d be self-hurt book, probably.
There is one moment that has kind of a life-lesson feel, where Milo tells his kid to “give it all away."
I certainly felt that was a realization that Milo had come to naturally in the book.
Is it going to make him a happier person?
I hope so, or at least have the feeling that he did what he could. I think that’s important. Feeling as though you were hoarding too much of yourself can be a painful realization later in life.
So, you teach at Columbia, and work with aspiring creative types, and Milo works at a university, and works with aspiring creative types, and hates them. How do those facts reconcile? I mean, I know you’re not Milo, but…
I’m not Milo. I have to keep telling people that.
[Laughs] It reconciles in precisely this way. Because he works in a development office, mostly away from the students and their passions and their engagements, he really sees them from this very particular angle. But he was a student like them. And he had these aspirations, and he’s now doing this job, and that can be fuel for his bitterness. But I actually get to engage with the students, and work with them, and teach them, and read their work and get deeply involved with their work, and that’s very gratifying. It’s a completely different dynamic.
Maybe this is a regional thing, or because I’ve never worked in a traditional office setting, but I didn’t exactly understand why you singled out the turkey wrap as the symbol of all that is wrong with Milo’s life.
You know, it’s that Naked Lunch moment, when everyone realizes what’s at the end of their fork—isn’t that the line? It’s the moment when everyone realizes what’s in their wrap. That’s all I was trying to get to. I think Milo is suddenly seeing the wrap as a symbol for a lot of other things in his life because the wrap is so tied, for one thing, to office eating. Whenever an office or a company or a university gives lunch to its worker, often a wrap is involved. When you’re working at your desk and you need something to eat, often a wrap is involved, because it’s not messy. Something about the turkey wrap, maybe it’s a northeastern thing, it’s what you settle for. You say, I want some meat, but I don’t want any red meat, I don’t want anything crazy, I’ll just have some turkey, in a wrap, and everything will be cool. There’s something sad about the turkey wrap. But I’m willing to concede that maybe it’s a regional thing.
I think of them as a health food, more than anything.
You go into, especially in Midtown, those big mega delis where they’re serving a lot of office workers, you see a lot of wraps stacked up. It just seems like the quick thing to grab, otherwise you’re committing to somebody making you a sandwich or something.
Thank you for unpacking the wrap.
Unwrapping the wrap.