A familiar pattern plays out repeatedly in American literary fiction, especially in American literary fiction written by male authors stumbling through middle age. We know its circuit by heart: A man settles. A man stirs. A man strays. A man settles again. The tale is cyclical, each regression already promising a return, which must be why we can never escape it.
It is surprising, then, that Matthew Klam’s Who Is Rich?—the first novel from the beloved author of the short-story collection Sam the Cat—feels so vital, even when we know we’ve been here before. Here is Klam’s story in brief: The book’s narrator, Rich, comes to a bucolic “college you’ve never heard of” to teach at a summer arts program. He’s a frustrated cartoonist who hasn’t produced a comic in years. Unhappily married, he’s hoping to rekindle an affair that he’d begun with the impossibly wealthy Amy—a student in the program, though not one of his—the summer before. He does, and they do, and it’s disastrous, and delirious, and in the end, very little changes for him.
Subtly eroding the border between professional and romantic yearning, Klam suggests that Rich’s longing for Amy is a symptom of his broader fixation on, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips would put it, his unlived lives. In the opening pages, we learn that the program’s director had asked Rich to recommend another cartoonist who might join the faculty. Rich never responded. “I worried, because of the way my career had gone, that I’d be hiring my replacement,” he admits.
When Rich arrives on campus, his class is fully enrolled and his position seems secure, but his possible replacement is there too, stalking him like his own shadow. Angel Solito is the author of an acclaimed graphic memoir about his youthful journey from Guatemala to California. It’s clear that Rich would love to hate the book, but he can’t quite bring himself to, enchanted as he is by its story, “rendered in clear bold lines, with faces delicately hatched, with big heads and a ferocious expressiveness.” Somewhere along the way, Solito wins a major literary prize—probably the Pulitzer. His career is everything that Rich’s no longer is and everything it never really was.
With a family to support and a dearth of stories to tell, Rich has slipped into the life of a professional illustrator. He works almost exclusively for a magazine that seems to be a thinly disguised analogue of the New Republic. Bemoaning his lot in life, he observes, “Illustration is to cartooning as prison sodomy is to pansexual orgy. Not the same thing at all.” It’s a striking phrase, in part because it gets at what Klam does so well, using the pull of sexual pleasure to access the mundane realities of professional frustration.
There are, as it happens, no pansexual orgies in this novel, but it is still an unnervingly carnal book. At times it is raw in its honesty, as when Rich describes his increasingly rare, and invariably perfunctory, couplings with his wife Robin. Summing up their relationship, he explains, “It was just the usual struggle to stay in love, keep it hot, keep it real, the boredom and revulsion, the afterthought of copulation, the fight for her attention, treating me like a roommate, or maybe like a vision of some shuddering gelatinous organ she’d forgotten still worked inside her.” Then there’s this, where he attempts to capture her experience of his “tongue on her clitoris every who knows when,” and lapses into bitter recrimination: “I think she mostly thought of what I did as a way to save batteries.”
By contrast, Rich’s dalliance with Amy tends toward the implausibly erotic, even after she breaks her arm in a softball game gone wrong. Some scenes resemble an unusually artful, uncommonly perverse porn film: “We stuck our tongues and fingers in each other’s ears and mouths and asses, like a single crazed body reconnecting, or like a family of Chihuahuas molesting a turkey leg, and sucked on each other’s lips and privates.” They mutter phatic words of praise to each other, and it’s rarely clear who is talking, who calls who “angel,” who says “I love you.” They know it won’t last, and that’s the secret of their hedonic abandon. As Rich puts it, “It turns out that all you need for kundalini multigasmic monkey sex is two people who know each other just well enough to feel safe but don’t share a kitchen.”
This is hallucinatory stuff, but Klam is at his best when he’s describing other sensations, the kind that emerge out of domestic life’s quotidian rhythms. Some chapters descend into Rich’s past, and when they do, Klam’s prose is like the feverish swoon of a dying man revisiting his childhood, each drop of sweat a memory in miniature. For the most part, though, we only meet Rich’s wife Robin as she is today when he calls her. His cell service out on the “sandy, hook-shaped peninsula” of the college town is spotty, but he still recognizes the audible evidence of their shared world back home, “the mason jar of macaroni being opened, the lid rattling on the counter, the sound of pasta hitting the glass measuring cup, the whoosh as it spilled into the pot.”
It’s tempting to suggest that these fragments of domestic minutiae are the only true details in Klam’s fictional narrative. “There is no such thing as a reliable narrator,” Rich admits near the end, but the occasional hum of home, the noise of his children playing in the background, is reliable in a way his own tale could never be. However terrible Rich’s attempts to break free may be—and some of his betrayals are far worse than sleeping with another woman—these small truths anchor him to his life.
And yet, there’s a reality to fantasy too if only because it keeps us moving. The desire that really drives Rich, what he needs more than he needs Amy’s body, is for a way to relaunch his stalled artistic career. Even as his affair picks up steam, he’s imagining how he might turn it into a new book, one that might finally bring him to Solito’s level. He needs Amy not for the delights she offers, but because he needs the story of their affair so he’ll have a story to tell. The possibility is on his mind before things are even underway: “I’d cough it up—the ugly, urgent truth—and deal with the fallout later,” he imagines.
This is a fantasy too, of course, the kind built on our anticipation of future satisfaction. Given Klam’s own long absence from the cultural eye, it’s hard not to read something autobiographical in this admission. But where Klam himself has given us Who Is Rich?, however long the novel may have taken him, his protagonist seems less likely to succeed. In the end, we know, he will stumble home. He has nowhere else to go.
Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam. Random House.