Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Sideways Review: From Reading to Quarantine

Erika Anderson
on The Ask
by Sam Lipsyte.
Readings: Brooklyn Book Festival, then at the Franklin Park Reading Series—9/8/11 and 1/9/12

~3rd in a series
“Dreams required quarantine.”

This line stayed with me all autumn. I quoted it to friends and family. I even used it to explain my childhood; if that could be done in three words, these were the words. In response to my recitation, people nodded or sighed the post-poem “aha” sigh. Somehow, they needed this line. So did I.

I’d heard it in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival, under a drop ceiling and fluorescent lights, among a hundred others on orange plastic chairs, when Sam Lipsyte read about a mediocre marriage from his novel The Ask:

Our intimacy was largely civic. We spoke at length about our shared revulsion for the almost briny-scented, poop-flecked plunger under the bathroom sink, and also of a mutual desire to cut down on paper towels, but we never broached topics like hopes, or dreams. Hopes were stupid. Dreams required quarantine.

I bought the book immediately afterward.

In January, Sam Lipsyte came to read at Franklin Park, a neighborhood bar. A late arrival, I leaned against the glass-walled entrance, able to hear but not to see him. Later, standing on the poured concrete floor between clumps of people, some who’d already talked to him and others who hadn’t yet, I met Lipsyte and recounted how his sentence had kept me company since the book fair.

On the title page, underneath my correctly spelled name, he wrote in blue ink, “They (dreams) really do require it!”

I kept quoting The Ask. I wanted to tweet the whole damn thing but more so, I wanted everyone to read and adore it. I read the following sentence regarding the narrator Milo’s “good shitty job” to my roommates:

There was a quality family plan, plus a quality theft plan, the paints and brushes I smuggled home for those weekends I tried to put something on canvas again, until the old agony would whelm me and I’d stop and briefly weep and then begin to drink and watch Maura cruise up and down the cable dial all night, never alighting on anything for more than a moment, her thumb posed like a hairless and tiny yet impressively predatory animal above the arrow button, Maura herself bent on peeking into every corner of the national hallucination before bedtime.

Sentences like these are rare. They are also why I read.

When The New York Times profiled gentrification in our Brooklyn neighborhood on January 31, 2012, I quoted Lipsyte’s novel again, this time to my neighbors:

They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.

Perhaps the Brooklyn infiltration of Me’s also requires quarantine. As a fellow Me and recent infiltrator, should I not be here? Will my salad specificities wreck everything? A tattoo parlor near Franklin Park recently reopened as a salad stand. But I wonder: what is Crown Heights’ dream?

Quarantine implies contagion. Dreams beget more dreams. Milo’s almost dormant college aspiration to paint pokes at the lining of his life, reminds him of his creeping dissatisfaction. Dreams infect the status quo to which he so desperately clings. Similarly, the dreams of neighborhood newcomers threaten the present reality to which its current residents also cling. We might ask if the status quo in a marriage or a neighborhood is the truly unachievable dream.

*Photo of Sam Lipsyte by Henoch Getz, with permission from the Franklin Park Reading Series.


Erika Anderson has just finished a memoir about a murder-suicide in college and holds an MFA from VCFA. She has not yet quarantined herself in Brooklyn. For more about Erika, visit with her. For more from Erika, read another sideways review and her craft essay.

More Sideways Reviews


The Ask
Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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