Since You Ask

Since You Ask is a book that sneaks up on you. From its unassuming beginning, Louise Wareham’s consistent use of a detached, first-person narrative begins to do its job, a position you’re not quite clear about at the onset. The first paragraph of the book ends with these lines:

Usually, I was nervous around Ray, but I wasn’t that day. Partly because I didn’t live at home anymore and partly because Ray didn’t bother me anymore.

A recent reviewer of the book commented:

We soon realize that as a narrator, Betsy is a master of detached understatement. That “bother me” actually means she endured years of sexual abuse by her drug-addled sibling.

The phrase “detached understatement” is itself an understatement that doesn’t quite capture exactly what’s going on in the way Betsy sees and describes the world.

The writing style, which often overpowers the content with seemingly amateurish preoccupations with trivial descriptions, takes a while to get used to. For example, almost every new character, place, or object is introduced almost solely in terms of details that do little to flesh out the person or thing being described. Short, matter-of-fact statements describe scenes with more detail than is necessary, but with less feeling than you’d expect to come from such overdescription. Color is often the most identifying characteristic in any given description. We learn that “the grass was long and green” or that Betsy was “drinking from green bottles of beer,” but these descriptions seem both unnecessary and incomplete. At some places, such descriptive sentences just follow one another, creating what appears to be an unnessessary inventory of the colors in a given scene:

His shirt is pale blue, with the smooth light sheen of part polyester/part cotton. His tie is navy blue and loosely knotted. Out the window, the grass is thick and green and dark.

The irony of such overdescription is that it actually doesn’t describe enough. It reduces an otherwise rich circumstance, event, or person to a collection of superficial identifying characteristics.

This style becomes relentless and numbing, like the early stages of Chinese water torture, but the more you read the more you begin to realize that’s the point. The style itself gets the reader into Betsy’s head, which has itself been numbed by years of actual abuse, manipulation, anger, fear, and self-loathing. She sees the world with this cold, alienated gaze, in which surfaces hold more interest and less danger than the personalities inside. As a reader, looking to understand her environment on a deeper level, we’re left constantly disappointed and made acutely aware that we’re seeing exactly what Betsy sees, a world that might be colorful but that is far from pretty.

Ultimately, this style is a tough device to maintain and still offer a payoff in the end. Though resolving the novel’s main conflicts without oversimplifying them would be inappropriate and rather insulting to the reader, leaving them unresolved makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. Still, it’s a brave ending. You realize that Wareham’s goal is not to satisfy but to unsettle, and she definitely succeeds in doing so. The itch you go the whole book looking to get scratched remains tingling in you after you’ve put the book down. Since Betsy gets little relief herself, this seems fitting and fair.

A note on the design: This book’s main handicap is its unfortunate cover. Based on this cover, I would never have even bothered picking it up at the bookstore, which would have been a shame indeed. Akashic would be wise to redesign the book before its first reprint. I’m sure it would help sales.

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