There are basically two ways that novels hang together: you either get terrific plotting that overrides pedestrian, plodding prose or you are carried on a tidal wave of stylistic overkill that holds the reader transfixed for the length of the book. The Ask belongs in the latter camp, not to say that there isn’t a plot but rather the idea seems to be that the virtues of plotting are beside the point. In “the era of late capitalism,” narrative seems a little too long-winded and in earnest and competes poorly with the well-crafted pun which the protagonist, one Milo Burke, would surely have pointed out.
Milo, when we first meet him, is a failed artist and recently fired fundraiser for a mid-to-bottom level New York university who is grudgingly hired back at the behest of a potential benefactor: Milo’s erstwhile college friend Purdy Stuart. Purdy, who in the intervening years has amassed a considerable fortune, has an ulterior motive for insisting on Milo: in return for committing funds Purdy wants Milo to keep tabs on Don, Purdy’s son by a deceased girlfriend. Don, in turn, is blackmailing Purdy and threatening to expose the fact of his illegitimate existence to Purdy’s elevated social circle. This, in sum, is the extent to which the author is willing to go in the direction of story: just four bare walls and a roof really but a splendid echoing chamber nevertheless for the real themes of this novel: dissolution, desperation, self-loathing, envy all eventually coalescing into Milo’s turning against Purdy.
The author explores these themes along two lines at once: a culture in decline (“…a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whore-master days were through.”) and Milo’s ironic subversion (Milo’s is a generation “stuck between meanings” that requests stories be told “…in joke form”) of any inkling of gravitas that might prompt him not to postpone or avoid or elide his own life or what has become of it. Rather than subsequently launch some grand re-awakening in Milo, the novel dips deeper into a stylistically dazzling helter-skelter ride that luxuriates in the spectacle of everything from “aggressively marketed nachos” coinciding with “the fall of the Soviet Union” to the sight of America departing “the age of the big give” as the distance between top and bottom tiers becomes increasingly impassable.
All of this – conveyed through Milo’s signature puns, witticisms and ironic flourishes – is overlaid with Milo’s staring back from the present at the dreams of his youth, precipitated by the return of Purdy. Finally it is this mimicry between the pun and the punned-upon, a way of telescoping the distance between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’, that negates the return to the rote and well-worn rut. Milo finally sees in his aversion to narrative a resistance to the fact of an ending but recognizes too that neither are puns death-free vehicles: the ironic shirking of the present moment is a kind of death wish too. “You had to either have everything or have nothing to act in this world, I mused then, to make the move that will deliver you, or cut you to pieces.”