Sunday 27 May 2012

The Ask - Suzi Hightime's favourite ever book

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2010) A comic novel following the slow decline of Milo, a middle class American struggling to keep afloat emotionally, economically and socially. His life gets taken wildly off course after an old college chum asks for a favour.

A recurring point of discussion between Mrs GBR and I are the one-line endorsements on movie posters (we lead unbelievably exciting lives).

You’ve seen them, right? The big quotation marks, hugging an out of this world thumbs up from some respectable observer.

Except that’s the thing. They’re not always respectable. Too often, a film will be sold with a six foot high “this will change your life” quote. Then, underneath, you’ll find in size 8 font the quote came from Suzi Hightime, a painfully chirpy cub reporter at the West Pontefract Weekly Review who thinks the whole world and everything in it is just brilliant.

So Mrs GBR and I have learned to take these one-line endorsements with large doses of salt (and often openly point and ridicule them in public). All the more so since I learned Jonathan Ross once had a competition with a fellow reviewer to get his quotes on the movie poster for Godzilla, and won by calling it the “best film I’ve ever seen - period” (or something like that).

The Ask has five such quotes on its front cover (and a bunch more on the inside cover), all saying this is one of the funniest books of all time. To be fair, the sources are more respectable than Suzi Hightime. No less than Vanity Fair said this is "so funny you might lose an eye". Despite all my cynicism of this marketing tactic, I still opened the first page expecting to have a laugh.

I did not. Do not be fooled - this is not a fall-out-of-your-chair-laughing book. It has comic qualities, and it’s witty, but roll-in-the-aisles funny? No.

It’s a shame they marketed it this way, because it has so many other good qualities. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s been lauded by critics the length and breadth of the internet. It’s been compared to Joseph Heller, acclaimed as one of the great books of the modern age, and Lipsyte has been labelled as a voice that will define the next decade.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. It’s good, no doubt. The satire is brilliant and is couched neatly into the story. It never oversteps the mark into pomposity or arrogance. There’s a lot to agree with in his view of things, and plenty about the flawed central character with which to sympathise.

Lipstye also pulls of one of those great author tricks - he makes you see the world differently. Only a little, and it wears off, but he touches on so many of the nerves in modern society that you can’t help but look at the world through his eyes for a few days.

But the plot meanders without much noticeable point. Lipsyte struggles to juggle the page-turning author in him with the societal critic - the two sides of his persona fight for room on the page, and neither ever gets a satisfying victory.

And there’s no real wow factor to his prose. It’s neat and it’s tight and it’s bold in places, but nothing really leapt off the page and smacked me in the face. And everyone likes a refreshing face smacking every now and then.

Above average. Way above average, really. But a generation defining novel? The next legendary comic voice?


No. Really good. But not "a masterpiece" (Dazed and Confused review, circa 2010)

Next week (if I finish it in time) a bit of history.

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