I am about 80% through Sam Lipsyte’s, The Ask and I must get through it quickly (not that it’s a chore) because my first Rumpus book club book, Citrus County by John Brandon, has shown up in the mail.
Sharp, dark, chortle-inducing, extremely New York but 2010 outerboroughy not Woody Allen Upper West Side (whenever I imagine how Americans, meaning myself, imagine New York, it’s the Seinfeld past with Chinese food eaten straight from takeout containers, drycleaners, doormen and Central Park looming) the general story is about a overeducated, unemployed man with a small child, tenuous marriage and a (sort of) job at an unnamed university as a development officer. The Ask is finessing a philanthropist to donate to the school, on the rare occasion that they do that’s called The Give.
But this is not a half-assed review. I’m more obsessed with age because I’m aging and sensitive. Milo, the main character’s age is never explicitly given, though in the chapter I read last night he said “I’m almost forty.” So am I more or less. I’ve got two years and a month. What I’m bothered by is that so many reviews refer to this character as middle-aged. How can the Sex and the City crones be flaunting that 45 is the new 25 when 38 is half-way to the grave?
Maybe 38 is middle-aged just for men. This might be the rare double-standard where women come out on top. Through fashion, makeup, facial injections, whatever, they don’t generally bald and are meticulous about masking grays, females can stave off the schlub more adroitly.
Maybe a better comparison than Carrie Bradshaw is Liz Lemon. Some feminists, and myself I guess, have trouble with this character who is also late 30s (though would never be called middle-aged, which proves my point) childless, unlovable, dumpy, “fat” and gets no respect even though she's a female head of an all-male group of writers at a popular comedy TV show, a career about as elusive as astronaut or president of the United States. And of course in reality Tina Fey is a successful, wealthy, thin, attractive married mom who happens to wear glasses, so uh, loser nerd?
Back to the book. To be fair, the literary biggies like The New York Times and The New Yorker book review stay clear of the middle-aged moniker. And when reading the book it’s easy to picture Paul Giamatti who is 43, closer to true middle-age, playing the role of Milo. (Actually I hadn’t imagined that until this very second because Duplicity is on TV.)
A random selection of review snippets:
Paste: “He’s also the hero of Sam Lipsyte’s amusing, occasionally frustrating new novel, The Ask, a book that probes the anxieties of the modern middle-aged man—a creature wracked with just enough guilt over his inadequacies to get off his ass and do something about them, though he begrudges the effort.”
GQ: “Like the student, Milo was once an aspiring artist, but now he's a middle-aged father, living in Astoria, Queens, with his wife, Maura, who is having an affair.”
Details: “His latest novel, The Ask. chronicles the painfully hilarious failures of Milo Burke, an unsuccessful middle-aged painter (not to mention husband and father) with a dead-end job in university development, one that he will lose unless he can persuade an impossibly wealthy former schoolmate to donate a ton of money to his employer.”
Flavorwire: “Sam Lipsyte's new book The Ask is a riotous, devilish look at a middle-aged slacker trying to pull his life back together.”
The Boston Globe: “In Lipsyte’s jaundiced view, the one fallback is family, and family isn’t quite enough when the social and economic structure seems to be crumbling. That’s particularly unsettling for a middle-aged professional like Milo with high salary demands, a modest skill set, and nowhere to go.”
Technically, sure, 39 is half of 78 and the average life expectancy for an American is 78.2 (75.6 for men, 80.8 for women). Metaphorically, I always thought middle aged was more mid-40s, the point where kids have gone to college (yes, in Brooklyn they’re just newborns) passion has fizzled, men buy flashy cars or start a band and craft new families with younger women. And the wives? I don’t know…start a catering business? Study Ayurvedic medicine? Realize they’re more into women?
When any female over a size 6 is considered obese (and the commenters concur) it's futile to even take umbrage with 30s being middle-aged. I've given up caring; it's just too earnest. Enough with this, now I've got me some True Blood to watch.