Sixteen years ago, the fiction writer Matthew Klam released his first book of short stories, Sam the Cat, to much fanfare. He won several awards, and the New Yorker named him one of the 25 best writers under 40. He didn’t publish another book. Six years ago, the cartoonist Rich Fischer released his first graphic novel to similar fanfare. Since then, nothing.
“I had an appointment with destiny, I’d barely started, then I blinked and it was over,” Rich explains in Who is Rich?, Klam’s long-awaited follow-up to Sam the Cat. Rich, you see, is Klam’s fictional creation, and, it’s hard not to imagine, in some ways his alter-ego. Over four days at an arts conference in an unnamed town that looks an awful lot like Provincetown, Mass., Rich goes through a personal and artistic crisis, wondering if he should write another autobiographical comic about his affair with a wealthy conference-goer. If it does, it will likely wreck his marriage, but it may save his life. For Rich, to write or not to write is an open question, yet a metafictional one, since we have Klam’s book, complete with illustrations, in our hands.
In the novel, Klam intersperses dead-on descriptive passages and snarkily funny scenes of arts conference life with long stretches of wide-ranging exposition on everything from the nature of marriage to global income equality. Rich has been (barely) making his living as an illustrator for a New Republic-like magazine, one of the last bastions of liberal, politically conscious journalism on the brink of being gutted by its callow new owner.
The object of Rich’s guilt-soaked affections is Amy, the wife of a crass, abusive billionaire with both feet unapologetically planted on the wrong side of the political fence. Rich loves Amy, even though she is the living embodiment of the forces not just ruining his life, but the planet in general. Klam deftly sketches Amy as a real person, acknowledging that her philanthropy has done more good for the world than Rich’s measly $50 charity donations ever will, and keeping the reader undecided about whether she is a good person stuck in a bad marriage, or a dangerously self-deluded hypocrite.
Rich, too, is a complicated character who skates the spectrum between hero and anti-hero. He loves his children passionately, marveling at the “surfeit of beauty” they bring into his lives, “their lightness and willingness and spirit and stupidity… their readiness to bravely step into a world they couldn’t understand.”
But does he love them enough not to torpedo his marriage to their mother, a woman he used to adore equally, but lately has been going to bed with “without remembering to say good night, or saying it without meaning it, or meaning it without saying it”? Sex, needless to say, has pretty much gone off the menu: “Like our anniversary, we weren’t sure anymore when it was supposed to happen.”
To write all this, to confess the sorrow, frustrations, murderous rages, bottomless loneliness and ignoble impulses of his imperfect marriage would be to imperil his already shaky bond with his wife. Plus there is the practical matter of how: with two children and a day job, where will he find the solid months to write, draw, and ink in a book-sized comic?
At the conference with Rich is Angel Solito, a young graphic novelist whose autobiographical comic about walking from Guatemala to California at the age of eleven is the latest sensation, and who reminds Rich of his younger self, brimming with promise, certain this early fame is just the beginning. Here, again, the book flirts with metafiction. Sam the Cat was filled with stories featuring protagonists not unlike Rich – sex-obsessed, semi-decent, semi-depraved men asking themselves, “is this the best love gets?”
At a lecture, Solito backhandedly compliments Rich’s work: “These days, bumbling antiheroes are commonplace, even quaint, but six years ago…” In this way, Klam acknowledges the growing appetite for stories by traditionally underrepresented writers like Solito, and forestalls critics who might wonder if we really need another book about a middle class white guy whining that his wife won’t have sex with him. “Until the day people stopped wishing they could cram their spouse into a dumpster, my story was relevant, too,” Rich decides.
Who is Rich? can be read several ways. On the surface, it is a fast-reading, chuckle-inducing examination of the trials of marriage and parenting and the foibles of would be artists indulging their inner teenagers at a beachside town. Just under that, it burns with legitimate rage and despair at our current economic and political situation (even though it is set several years ago) and the ever-growing wedge between the classes.
But at bottom, it is an inquiry into what it means to have a life, to have a story, to decide to tell that story, what to omit and what to conflate, what responsibilities a storyteller has to his loved ones and what responsibilities he has to himself, and how he should navigate the inevitable conflict between the two. “There’s no such thing as a reliable narrator,” Rich says. “A story is an interrogation, an act of aggression, a flirtation… I felt the inevitable letdown of having produced anything at all, of putting myself into it and giving it away.”
It is impossible to know how much of Klam is in this statement, but, on the part of the reader, there is no letdown, just pure appreciation.