I ran across this book on a podcast and thought it sounded like my cup of tea, to the extent that it was a comic novel that would send up rich people, always a proud moment for the folks at home.
The book has been very well reviewed and deservedly so. This is Klam’s debut novel, and he has a great grasp of the language and the art of storytelling. The story is about a struggling/failing graphic novelist who teaches in the summer at a seaside conference where functioning adults with a passion for a wide variety of different art forms come and take classes from practitioners.
The narrator is married and seemingly unhappily, though he has trouble making up his mind on that topic. The descriptions of the struggles of a mature marriage with kids and then with his wife and the lack of sex are so effectively descriptive they border on the hard to read. Meanwhile, he has been carrying on a mostly email-based affair with a student from the conference. She is married to a financial manager who makes $120M a year.
The book was advertised as funny, and it is. It was never laugh-out-loud funny…and for reasons to be discussed below occasionally lost the humor in poor assholeness…but there are some excellent lines, as in here:
…I’d heard from Amy how hard he worked to unlock potential value in undercapitalized industries. I worked just as hard to unlock the business in her pants.
Klam also has the ability to compile lists–long lists–that are funny and descriptive…and incredibly perceptive. He has an eye for the life we are living and it cannot be denied. As in here as he describes his mistress’s kitchen:
The marble island was the size of my kitchen and covered with stacks of home design magazines, cookbooks, baskets of fruit, onions, pads of stationery, phone chargers, mail, a box of essential oils, a basket of ribbons, scissors, a stack of delicate-looking white bowls that, when I touched them, turned out to be made of rubber. The island was entrenched with things that could’ve gone in a drawer, Scotch tape, stapler, pie weights, cutting boards, a pewter mug of unsharpened pencils. It looked like the staging area for a yuppie war.
“Things that could’ve gone in a drawer.” That’s writing. Anyway, Klam seems to know how good he is at this, because he trots it out on a frequent basis and maybe a little too often, as opposed to looking for another super-power.
The reviews of the book have talked about things like the “Literature of Infidelity.” I guess that will get the conversation started, but I want to focus on a couple of challenges this book presented to the storyteller.
The first is that the narrator is difficult to like and difficult to root for. He’s sort of Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways…with a seriously poor track record at making decisions. I found him abrasive and it was sometimes jarring to keep reading about a guy who is as wantonly and knowingly self-destructive as this guy is.
Which Klam gets done. I mean, I did finish the book. There were just times when I wanted to slap the narrator. I kept reading because the narrator was funny, but there was also a morbid, grim sense of watching to see how bad it could get. He can’t stay his big an asshole, can he?
The other challenge was to keep the story moving along. When you (the author) present a character as pretty much unredeemable and fucked up in the early pages of a book, you have made the choice to forego showing the process of him getting fucked up and brought yourself face to face with the question of how do you make the rest of the story happen.
Klam’s choice was to heap more stuff onto the narrator, some from self-destruction and some from a malevolent world throwing ill-timed bombs. It literally keeps getting worse and worse over the few days of the conference.
But what you are left with is a long-rally Wimbledon match, with the two poles of his life going back and forth. He can’t live without his mistress/he hates his wife. He hates his mistress/he loves his family. His mistress fucks him/his wife won’t fuck him.
There’s a cycle on that that maybe ran a couple iterations too long to make the book really great.
The most interesting idea in the book is the one that dealt with the narrator as creator. He’s an artist and he’s considering resurrecting his career with a graphic novel about his adultery. This is a really interesting paradox. He views the novel as a creative and financial redemption and then also a personal redemption (or revenge) against the two women he is involved with. And while it is a redemption, he recognizes that it would destroy both relationships and leave him estranged from everything.
Then, having spent 300 pages in this guy’s head, we start to wonder about the world he’s describing.
Is it real? Or has he neurotized it into being? Whenever he had a phone conversation with his wife, she seems reasonable and mostly stressed because he’s away at a conference and she’s alone with two difficult children. Finally, this thought occurs to him:
There’s no such thing as a reliable narrator. There’s more reliable and less reliable, but any light that passes through that lens is shaped, bent, divided.
Such is the power of myth, and here we are reminded that we all build myths every day, and the stories a novel tells us are no different than the stories we tell ourselves to explain our day and feed our righteous indignation at the world.
Ultimately, I found this book almost good. It hit painfully close to home in many parts and is well-written, funny and perceptive. As in…Klam sees everything in front of him and looks without illusion. It’s just an awful lot of time in the narrator’s head, chewing the same things over and over again.