Okay, I need some help from you. The next time you see me reference a novel, by a man, that reviewers say does a good job of portraying women, you have to politely remind me NOT TO READ IT, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT'S HOLY.
So all summer I saw positive reviews for Matthew Klam's new novel Who Is Rich? And once again, just as I did for Nickolas Butler's appalling novel Shotgun Lovesongs, I fell for it. Why, I don't know. Am I this needy for a male author who writes literary fiction who a) doesn't lovingly detail masturbation (I'm looking at you, Sam Lipsyte) and b) seems like he might actually like women and want to portray them as actual people? Well, yes, I am.
But I'm going to get over it now. That's where you come in, what with the telling me not to read literary fiction by men anymore.
Here's the story: Forty-something cartoonist/magazine illustrator Rich Fischer leaves his wife and two young children every year to teach at an arts conference. He's in his midlife crisis, of course: he's struggling a bit in his marriage, he's sleep-deprived because he's got young kids, the buzz surrounding his published memoir/graphic novel/comic is long gone and he feels like a has-been at the conference. But this year, he has the anticipation of continuing an affair with one of the conference's students (that began the previous year), a married mother of three who despises her rich husband and yet seems fully at home in her one-percenter lifestyle and philanthropic activities. What's a poor schlub who loves his wife and kids and yet really wants to bang another woman supposed to do?
And that's it. That's literally it. It goes on for 300 pages like that, and yes, I read the whole thing, because I am an idiot, and at first I thought it might get better, and then I just couldn't believe that nothing else was going to happen.* And yes, I did try to skip to the end and just get some closure, but because this is literary fiction, there really wasn't any closure.
I don't want to be too hard on this guy. For one thing, it took him fifteen years to produce this book after getting a lot of press for his first book, so that must have been a bit nerve-wracking. For another, I really had no business reading this book, and I certainly shouldn't have stuck with it as long as I did. (I shouldn't even have started: with blurbs from Curtis Sittenfeld and Lorrie Moore, two of my least favorite female authors ever, I should have known to run screaming.)
As Albert Brooks once said in Broadcast News, I grant you everything. But GIVE ME THIS: stop referring to women characters who exist only as the wronged (or harpy) wife or the new fuck interest as "fully realized, whole, equals." That one's on you, reviewers, not the author.
So anyway. Here's your flavor of the book, just so you can see what I had to put up with:
"It seemed the parts of us were smarter than the whole. Or dumber, much dumber. I felt sorry for those parts, worn and red and working away down there when all we wanted was to cry. I was sad, patient, and careful with her, but very connected, impossibly close, and as I got closer I could hear her breathing with me. This was undeniably an activity in which we both excelled. We came at the same moment, kablammo, which of course I'd read about in dirty magazines as a youth, and had imagined but never in my life experienced until that instant." (pp. 213-214.)
I don't care if it's meant to be funny, or ironic, or what one of the reviewers called writing sex with "such verisimilitude you might think you've slept with him." I think it should be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for 2017, myself.
We're done here. But you won't forget your help, will you? Please knock the next novel of this kind out of my hands. Thank you.
*If anyone ever tells me, again, that "nothing really happens" in Anne Tyler novels, I am going to punish them by suggesting they read this novel right away.