Milo Burke, once a painter, now an administrator in the dingy development office of “Mediocre University”, narrates Sam Lipsyte’s latest novel, "The Ask" (reviewed this week in The Economist). Milo is a loser, but also hilarious, full of self-deprecation, acute self-consciousness and defeatist realism. This distinctive voice may be the only one possible in his (and our) depraved world: his manager is a former crack-baby named Vargina; his wife may be philandering with a coworker; his friend's son, a drug-addicted, paraplegic vet, is suddenly his responsibility; and a rare source of comfort is a turkey wrap from the deli next door. And then he is fired.
Amid this misery, Milo has an acute sense of the absurd. Lipsyte endows his narrator with a sharpness of wit and dexterity of language arguably unmatched in contemporary fiction.
Here Sam Lipsyte speaks with More Intelligent Life about word play, higher education and the relationship between style and content.
More Intelligent Life: You have a real eye and ear for the absurd. At times Milo's narrative reads like humorous travel writing: somewhat disassociated, attuned to distinctly American oddities. It's hard to imagine his perspective being totally invented. While reading, I couldn't help but assume that his observations were yours. Do you keep a notebook? How closely does Milo's interior monologue resemble your own?
Sam Lipsyte: I've never been a great notebook person. I take some notes while I'm in the middle of a novel or story, but not before. I like to surprise myself when I sit down to write. I'm not sure how much of Milo's worldview is mine. His is probably a part of mine, but I've written lots of first-person narrators. They all come from me, but then the narrative necessitates different contours.
MIL: You obviously hold language in high regard. The punning and cleverness almost suggest an author writing in a second language, an author very aware of phonetics, rhyme, and literal meaning. The plot of The Ask, though not at all incidental, does at times feel secondary to your linguistic games. Do you riff and then apply a plot or vice versa? Do the two projects feel at odds? Do you even consider them two separate projects?
SL: I try to avoid punning. James Joyce could get away with it, but not the rest of us. I do concern myself with serious play when I write. I think all writers should pay attention to the sounds they make. I don't see style and content as opposed. They flow in and out of each other. If a book of fiction is worth reading you should be able to open it up to any page and be at least somewhat enthralled by the words there. Otherwise you are just reading a plot mule.
MIL: With Milo's workplace (a fundraising department for an art school), you managed to create a believable cast of tweaked archetypes without sacrificing the office-drone atmosphere. This 9-5 world is very different than that of a writer. Did you have to do research? Rely on past personal experience?
SL: I've worked in offices in the past, and that helped me a bit. But I really only wanted cube life to be a thread in the book. Most of the action takes place away from the Mediocre headquarters, out in the field. There have been some stellar and hilarious explorations of office life recently, so I didn't feel I had to cover much of that ground, except to give the reader a sense of Milo's particular place in the hierarchy, as well as his relations with the mad temp, Horace, and his supervisor, Vargina.
MIL: Your characters, especially Milo of course, spit out one-liner after one-liner, but their voices are still genuine. Lorrie Moore, for instance, is sometimes criticized for her wit, on the grounds that her characters – usually adolescent girls – couldn’t think or speak so cleverly. Is this something you think about when writing? Do you find yourself having to temper the language for the sake of verisimilitude?
SL: Huh? Veri-what? What you talkin' about? Where you get a fancy word like that? Don't bring that stuff 'round here. We talk real these parts. Seriously, I just never know what critics mean when they say "average" people don't really talk this way or that way or are not capable of wit or playing with the language. I've met lots of different people in my life and many of them don't fit into the stereotypical speech slot others would have them inhabit. That said, I would never have a man with no formal education spouting detailed explications of string theory unless I'd first established that he'd been to Google.
MIL: In the New York Times review, Lydia Millet described "The Ask" as a "witty paean to white-collar loserdom." Milo is certainly pathetic at times – at most times – but he's still sympathetic. It's as if his education has humanised him; it's what gave him the vocabulary to describe and lament his world with such sarcasm, humour and sadness. This book is an indictment of higher education, but also a tribute to it. Can you speak a bit about this tension, maybe even as a professor [teaching writing at Columbia] yourself?
SL: I would say it's more about the way money and higher education interact, than an indictment. How could I indict education? No, it's specifically about the anxiety that capitalism in its current form injects into the process of education. I love teaching and I work with some amazing writers. And I've seen how much serious instruction has helped them, and how important an MFA program or an undergraduate workshop can be. But it's important to be able to encourage people without lying about their financial prospects, to be able to say, you may write something astonishing and publish it and be lauded to the skies for it, but it doesn't mean you'll be able to pay your rent.
Picture credit: © Robert Reynolds