The Line Between Funny and Sad

Sam Lipsyte is a successful American writer, a novelist and teacher of fiction at Columbia University. He knows his way around a plot and is very adept at the witty observation, the sarcastic aside and the comedic rant. Lipsyte’s 2010 novel, The Ask, is one of his most popular works. Recommended to me as a funny book about higher education, I decided to give it a try.

The Ask could be read as funny. I write that, though, with a particular understanding of “funny” – meaning the dark sort of humor that feeds on things turning out poorly. Classic Russian short stories can do that sort of disaster as humor well. This novel is set in academia, an advancement office in a New York City university, but higher education doesn’t really drive the story. It has more than a few ridiculous situations and is chock full of sharp barbs and witty asides. The situations are often over the top. All that said, I did find it to be a terribly funny book. The Ask, at least to my thinking, is profoundly sad. It is insightful and somewhat damning, especially when it comes to thinking more deeply about what it might mean to be a man, a good father, a competent worker or professional. Reading it made me wonder about how personal a sense of humor might be to each of us. Is it unique? Or is something different at play?

The novel is written in the first person. It’s an account from the perspective of an anti-hero or hero, depending upon your viewpoint, a witty loser whose life is unraveling. A failed artist who is fired from his development position at the start of the book, Milo is rehired thanks to the machinations of a wealthy college friend. That’s one strand of plot for the hapless Milo. Accompanying it is the dissolution of Milo’s marriage and his awkward attempts to be a good father. Amid his self-destructive activities, he genuinely wants to be a positive influence in his son’s life. Flitting in and out are idiosyncratic eccentrics, all well drawn and crafted.

The novel does not offer much by way of revelations. The book is more about realizations, commentary as things unravel. Characters are more often than not ridiculous. Through it all, Milo’s sarcasm, wise cracks and impetuousness carry us along, as do the wild actions and awkward situations.

My difficulty with the novel as humor, I believe, came from taking Milo’s character as the moral anchor of the book. He is ill-considered, impetuous, lacking in judgment, unlucky, and doomed. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the ending would not be happy. Yet through the setbacks and humiliations, Milo wants to do well and be good, especially as a father and husband. It is quite sad, almost tragic. If one doesn’t care about Milo or take him seriously, the humorous bits might carry the reader along. But if you allow him, or the other characters, to be fully realized, the taste of the humor may sour. And once one thinks of Milo and the other key characters as fully realized, adults who find it impossible to be a grown up, the humor disappears like mist in the sun.

At least it did for me. This is a modern day tragedy, lacking catharsis yet strong in critiques. For many others, The Ask is something different – a humorous take on a loser’s misadventures.

David Potash