Mining the mundane: Sam Lipsyte finds dark humor in the everyday
In my office there's a woman who uses the word "wrap" as a universal replacement for the word "lunch." "Want to get a wrap?" she'll ask, daily, as if no other possible lunch existed. She can't conceive of a hoagie, a pasta salad. In the office, lunch equals wrap. On TV this might be played for laughs. But in Sam Lipsyte's new novel, The Ask, which is constantly hilarious, the wrap is a sad thing indeed. The turkey wrap, in particular, serves as both emblem of and paltry consolation for the enslavement of practically everyone to the imagination-starved regime of late capitalism.
Think about it. Wraps, as the author explains in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan, are "perfectly designed to keep you at work." They're foldable, sauceless, tidy: you can eat them at your desk. It would almost be weird to eat them anywhere but at your desk. You can type or hold the phone with one hand while eating the wrap with the other. They echo the shapes of various ethnic foods, but all the interesting parts of the cuisines they copy have been erased, leaving them free of startling variations, so you can concentrate on your spreadsheets.
"There's something really dispiriting about it," Lipsyte says. "And the turkey wrap, that was sort of the apex of that predictability and despair. There's not a lot of autobiography in the book, but my confronting what the turkey wrap means to me comes from experience." He pauses, chuckling but not entirely unserious about this turkey-wrap riff. "It's something we all feel."
Which isn't to say that the novel hinges on a turkey wrap. But if you had to pinpoint just what exactly has enraged Milo Burke, hero of The Ask, it would be a good start, or at least a telling example. After all, as Milo says near the end of the novel, "I believed in symbols and the wondrous ways they could wound." The benign turkey wrap, as a symbol, is far from harmless.
Milo works for the fundraising arm of the arts department of what he calls the Mediocre University at New York City. He's not very good at his job. He was an artist in college, a painter, "at least at parties." But somehow that idea faded, and now he's an office guy with a 4-year-old son he loves to pieces and a beautiful wife he hasn't touched in a long time.
When, inevitably, Milo is fired—for lashing out at an "arrogant, talentless, daddy-damaged waif" who visits his office—he finds himself adrift in the lousy job market, unable to find work. "The whole work thing was over," Milo concludes. "I'd grown morose, detached, faintly palsied. I stopped reading the job listings, just rode the trains each day, simmering, until dinnertime."
Fans of Lipsyte will recognize that simmering detachment from his previous novel Home Land, an underground hit written in the form of outrageous letters from a guy called Teabag to his alumni magazine in the months leading up to a class reunion. Lipsyte, who was born in 1968, says he started working on it around the time of his own 10-year reunion. "I think I wrote that book to deal with the fear of going," he says. "And I still didn't go."
The two novels are similar in tone, though Home Land tackles crises that tend to occur about 10 years earlier in the standard American timeline. Both books culminate in episodes of ill-advised but wildly satisfying violence, and both are hysterically funny. But The Ask is more expansive and varied, both in plot and in emotional tenor, with subtler and more sophisticated levels of sadness balancing out the humor on its surface.
"I didn't really mean for Milo to be like Teabag 10 years later," Lipsyte says. "They do share certain kinds of disillusionment. The real difference is that Teabag has this streak of romanticism that may have been beaten out of Milo a little more."
The novel makes reference to The Infortunate, a real-life narrative of an indentured servant, William Moraley, in Philadelphia during the Ben Franklin era. "He seemed a very contemporary character to me,” Lipsyte says. “He's not coming to the New World for religious or political reasons—he's just coming to the New World because he's in debt. It’s like he's run up his credit cards or something. It's a miserable story and he's kind of a miserable guy." The contrast between Moraley and Franklin, the ideal of American resourcefulness and ingenuity, parallels the relationship between Milo and his former college buddy, Purdy, now his big “ask.” Both, like Teabag, are American archetypes, adding weight and depth to these highly entertaining books.
When he's not writing, Lipsyte teaches creative writing at Columbia. "I really like teaching," he says. "I think it informs my writing a great deal. I get energized—I recognize patterns in my work and in other people's work. I get out of the workshops the same thing the other people get out of them, and hopefully give something, too. But it is hard to do both at the same time. Most of my writing happens in the summer. I love and need both, but they don't happen at the same time for me."