Sunday 15 September 2019

Cartoonist's addictive mid-life saga

Fiction: Who is Rich? Matthew Klam, 4th Estate, €18.99

'A cartoonist by profession, Rich is finding it harder and harder to dine out on the cult graphic novel he penned several years ago'
'A cartoonist by profession, Rich is finding it harder and harder to dine out on the cult graphic novel he penned several years ago'
Who is Rich?

Hilary A White

Who indeed? Rich Fischer, the first-person epicentre of this inwardly expansive novel, is having a mid-life meltdown. It's bubbling up to the surface in ways that are all fiercely male in manifestation. His sense of self is in flux, dawdling between 42-year-old, self-pitying, gluttonous, romantic has-been with love to share - and world-weary cynic looking to be sealed off from everything and everyone.

A cartoonist by profession, Rich is finding it harder and harder to dine out on the cult graphic novel he penned several years ago. Since then, it's been a case of second-album syndrome. He scrapes by doing political cartoons for a current affairs magazine that was once essential reading for politicians but is now spiralling into obscurity.

Each year, he sets off for a New England seaside town that hosts a large arts conference, a bizarre, kitsch destination where the shops sell tawdry knick-knacks and the locals grumble at the influx of holidaying blow-ins and conference-goers taking up space and slowing down traffic.

This annual excursion away from the family brings into sharp focus not only his perceived failure to capitalise on the talent and inspiration he was once able to wield at his fingertips, but also the yawning existential futility of all that defines him.

As Laurent Binet and Herman Koch have recently shown, creative hubris is ripe hunting ground for humour in fiction. Rich is trapped as pompous peers preen themselves aloud, humble-bragging about publishing deals and film optioning and scrounging for an ego massage. Rich openly suggests that his could also do with a deep-tissue treatment, especially while giving mind-numbing workshops to hopelessly talentless aspirants.

Perhaps the thing that really brings Rich's navel-gazing to debilitating levels is his affair with Amy O'Donnell, the unhappy wife of a horrid billionaire and mother of three. Rich is going to be seeing her again after first contact 12 months ago. An interim period of heated electronic communications has been fuelled by an undertow of hunger for warmth and human connection.

Rich, you see, is also unhappily married, or so he variously convinces himself. Robin is the wife with whom he sleepwalked into a child-bearing union that is only bandaged together by the little ones themselves. No emotional or physical affection is offered by her, and when the screams of the kids are finally hushed, all that he is left with in the marriage are thoughts of how utterly alone he feels within it.

Amy, who could also offer the financial security he is continuously grasping for -although it reviles him to admit it - is either the strikingly perfect soulmate he belongs with, or a symptom of his own self-loathing, depending on how the wind blows.

Matthew Klam's first book in 16 years since his award-winning short-story smash Sam the Cat and Other Stories would be an exercise in self-indulgent "man-opause" were it not for the addictive, fleet-footed and momentous qualities of his writing. Rich's internal monologue is entirely consuming and compelling to sink into because the character is built on a three-dimensional frame, as untidy and infuriating as real human beings can be but also ramped up in the absurdity stakes by being a self-involved creative who experienced success cripplingly early in his career.

Some of the passages - including one or two contenders for the Bad Sex in Fiction award - gush with the generosity of spirit of someone returning to their natural writing habitat after a long absence. It makes the muted denouement all the more puzzling and a tad irksome. Klam has brought us through torment, angst and deliriously dotty humour only to abandon us abruptly.

Let's hope he is just holding back for Rich's second outing.

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