In general, there's one sure-fire way of ensuring I don't review your book, and that's saying you'll send me a copy and not doing so. Not only am I offended, I also still have a spark of hope that it might arrive in the post any day now - so I'm certainly not going to go to any effort to get hold of it myself. On the other hand, asking me to translate your book before it's even published is an extremely flattering trick, provided the book does actually get published at some stage. Any type of cheap flattery between these two poles will probably get me to read your book, if not necessarily review it.
In this case it was a vague smile in my direction at a party that prompted me to get hold of Sascha Lobo's Strohfeuer. Of course it wouldn't have worked had the smiler not been in possession of a highly characteristic red mohican and a rampant media habit. This is a guy with 46,000-odd followers on Twitter, who kindly provides a Google maps thing showing his current location on his website, just in case anyone wants to stalk him. So you know, it's kind of flattering to get a vague smile in your direction from someone like that - it makes you wonder if you're just looking particularly gorgeous or the smiler is particularly well-informed about people who blog about German books in English.
Last night was the launch of his debut novel in Berlin, where it's set. It's the story of a wannabe advertiser who jumps onto the dotcom bandwagon just before it goes off the rails in 2001. The event was top-banana: high audience attractiveness quotient, high laughter to confused frown ratio, high blogger factor. My friend Annina liked it too. I also experienced another incident to add to my collection of scintillating exchanges with literary celebrities, which I will now relate in full length, in the original German:
Mutual friend: Sascha, das ist Katy
Sascha Lobo: Hallo Katy, ich bin Sascha.
Katy: Hallo... Ja.
I was a tad star-struck. What I ought to have said was: Hi, I translated an excerpt (pdf) from your last book, I didn't like it all that much though because it was about how to get things done with minimal effort and you seemed to have put minimal effort into writing it. But of course why would anyone put maximum effort into something like that, that would be stupid. Although it was quite funny actually. Anyway, the translation was fairly labour-intensive I'm afraid so I'd appreciate you getting me a drink, I bet you have a tab at the bar, don't you?
But you know, you're not always on your best form. So anyway, Sascha Lobo entertained us all by reading from the novel and fielding questions. I'd actually read it all in one go yesterday, in a mammoth lazing-in-bed session that seemed a suitable way to enjoy the book. And enjoy it I did - unlike a number of other people, critics and literary laymen alike. I'm not entirely sure whether that's because Lobo's one of those people people love to hate, or because he doesn't impart any actual new information about the dotcom bubble, or because German critics can be a bit snooty about humour.
Strohfeuer is a funny book. A chuckle-raising, laugh-a-minute good fun read. Our horrible hero Stefan bluffs his way into the advertising industry - not known for its great morals and humanity in the first place - and makes large amounts of money with smoke and mirrors. Then it all goes wrong when other people's bluffs fall through. The internet streaming device that doesn't actually work, the 3D-glasses that don't actually exist, the small print added to the contract at the last moment. It's all fairly predictable, but then we know from the beginning that the bubble's going to burst, and part of the fun is in the schadenfreude of waiting for the house of cards to collapse.
The book's first strength is in its characters, from the out-and-out nasty Thorsten who turns out to have a reason for his misbehaviour to the scaredy-cat funny guy Phillip who surprises us at the end to the self-obsessed narrator Stefan who constantly manages to override his conscience and often common sense too. Plus lots of cameos by women who fancy him: the drunken divorcée who lands the agency its first major contract, the pregnant (?) designer who's just been fired, and so on. Mister Lobo claimed (after the above scintillating exchange) that you have to have sex scenes in a book about characters like his. Absolutely, but I agree with one critic that the sex scenes are lame. If you're going to give us a gratuitous drunken threesome in the first chapter, would it be asking too much for you to share a couple of details?
The second strength is the novel's language. It probably wouldn't come across quite as well in translation, but it's full of toe-curling anglicisms like the verb delivern, ad agency in-jokes like irony-free zone, buzzwords like Hitler (as an expletive) and the like. And all related in a deadpan tone with an eye for detail - like a project manager's liking for maritime metaphors.
And the third is the sense of timing. Because what might have been just a string of funny ad agency incidents is broken up by little extra scenes from the narrator's childhood, escapades in various cars and bars, and a couple of last-ditch slapstick attempts to save the company. All of which make the book much more - well, likeable.
It's not going to change the world, but if you fancy a quick and enjoyable read with characters you'll love to hate - and you weren't part of the New Economy at the time - I'd say go for it. Because you're not going to be able to ignore it this season.