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Reviews

Reviews for Charlie P.


Electronic Book Review
Of the Cliché and the Everyday, March 2006
Reviewed by Christopher Leise

RAIN TAXI
Spring 2006
Reviewed by Scott Bryan Wilson

REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY FICTION
Spring Issue, March 2006
Reviewed by Echard Gerdes

BOOKFORUM
February/March 2006 Volume 12, Issue 5
Reviewed by Brian Evenson

American Book Review / Stacey Levine

Reviewed by Stacey Levine


Electronic Book Review
Of the Cliché and the Everyday, March 2006
Reviewed by Christopher Leise

In the October 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, the up-and-coming Ben Marcus set the (“experimental”) fiction world atwitter with his ferocious and funny rejoinder to Jonathan Franzen’s 2002 article, “Mr. Difficult.” Marcus’s examination of the earlier Franzen piece is intriguing for many of its qualities, not the least of which is that it speaks to what was something of a theme for the issue: return. An equally fascinating piece, right at the front of the issue, also reflects upon an earlier essay. In “On Message,” Lewis H. Lapham invokes Umberto Eco’s 1995 “Ur-Fascism” to warn us against the potential danger of reducing certain facets of language to idiom. “[I]t’s a mistake to translate fascism into literary speech,” Lapham, citing Eco, warns. “By retrieving from our historical memory only the vivid and familiar images of fascist tyranny (Gestapo firing squads, Soviet labor camps, the chimneys at Treblinka), we lose sight of the faith-based initiatives that sustained the tyrant’s rise to glory.” (Lapham 7)

Certain skeptics, and maybe Lapham himself, would be unsurprised that “On Message” garnered far less attention than the more dramatically titled “How experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A Correction;” after all, Lapham himself notes that, presently “[t]he author on the platform or on the beach towel can be relied upon to direct his angriest invective at the other members of the academy who failed to drape around the title of his latest book the garland of a rave review” (Lapham 9) rather than protest what he sees as the decline of American democracy into a fascist regime.

Indeed, Lapham strikes the mark with his broader point, borrowed from Eco: language can, and often does, serve a pointed, historical purpose. To resurface that language with the patina of the cliché can imperil the astuteness with which we view our present. By relying on caricatures that are absolutely, clearly “not us,” Americans can easily overlook some disturbing similarities that the American government shares with the actual, rather than an idiomatic hyperbole of the fascist praxis of government.
But we ought not overlook the debates being played out in the literary sphere as mere disagreements on beach towels over the relative superiority of vintages – to do so would countermand the very exercise Lapham’s article enjoins the public to undertake. As “On Message” suggests, we must continue to interrogate the manner in which our language is employed, to question the very nature of the way our world is represented or dangerously mis represented. Lapham reminds us that cliché is more than a shorthand within communities: it essentializes, it “universalizes,” and very often it fails us at moments of greatest urgency. Such a concern strikes at the very heart of Richard Kalich’s
CHARLIE P.

Rather than tackle the clichéd task of writing a Magnum Opus or a Masterpiece, Kalich’s second novel makes of itself something not lesser, but other. Charlie P is an effort at a Subject-piece, as much interested in the idea of the novel as it is a novel of ideas, exposing how a man is made of stories and only self-made inasmuch as he is able to control the process of narrating his own existence; it is the story of postmodern megalomania. Aware that there is not one, but there are infinite contemporary worlds, the title character – or, more accurately, caricature – sequesters himself to a rocking-chair in an apartment, content to control the language that produces his own world(s) by excluding the destabilizing force of voices beyond his own. Hence, to Charlie P, contradiction is not a challenge to understanding but the rule; the ultimate activity is a refusal to participate; denial is the most creative act.

Far from an endorsement of this type of removal, the story of Charlie P is the story of our quotidian, unthinking relationship to language. In the unfolding of this active disengagement, Kalich attempts to write an essay on cliché itself. Constantly employing the idiomatic – often in lists that recall the work of Gilbert Sorrentino – the novel highlights the vitality of language by assaulting us with atrophied conventions:
Charlie P. has spent many long years pursuing the woman of his dreams. Indefatigably he’s traversed the globe, caught a slow boat to China, sailed the seven seas; even built his own space capsule and journeyed to the outer reaches. Still, despite his considerable efforts, the perfect woman continues to elude him. (32)

Familiar to the point of vacuity, the reflexive language in Charlie P illustrates the emptying out of experience through our own inability to narrate the new. Charlie P is himself no exception. Though his world does accommodate the possibility for creating new (if logically untenable) truths, these truths are only ever the product of recycled accounts of ‘experiences,’ couched in the brittle diction of stale platitudes. The fact that these events are the product of fantasy only serves as further evidence toward the indictment of conventional language and conventional narrative forms as the greatest contributors to the homogeneity both of meaning and, ultimately, American life. After all, Charlie P’s fantasy life is played out, by and large, in the fields of stereotype and egotistical projection.

In a way, Kalich’s project functions as a development of early twentieth-century novels such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Like his modernist predecessors, Kalich shirks the florid for concision, and builds a space that is, in large part, aesthetically consistent. As in Winesburg, Charlie P is a novel in a series of more or less discrete narratives that compose its whole. While Anderson attempts to extricate the universal from particulars - linking swollen knuckles to twisted apples that bear a unique sweetness to those able to look beyond the superficial, for instance - and creates a totality out of the fragmentary, Kalich takes to task the kinds of maxims which presuppose that universals can bind the particular into an essential human understanding. Undoing the work of stories recently told, or simply retelling the same events repeatedly, though differing in detail, he constantly subverts the reader’s compulsion to create narrative consistency by contradicting previously given details. And unlike Anderson and West, Charlie P’s language is not the medium through which he transcends the self into a relationship with the larger community - Charlie P feels subject to the tyranny of the communal unless he is able to seal himself off from it and compose his own subjectivity in his own (narrative) image. Because of this self-styled representation, Charlie P is much like his library of books never read, his own novel which is never written; he is a fiction, even in the world of the fictive.

By adding to and altering details within a single narrative framework, Kalich in fact strips away the façade of his story to expose the basic assumptions that make what is generally agreed to be a novel. What Kalich shows is that these assumptions, themselves, remain mostly unidentified. Charlie P himself is barely a character, and the oft-appearing Bulgarian Harpist even less: her very existence outside Charlie’s imagination is questionable. Yet we are told a great deal about them. There is little that resembles a plot, nor is there the kinds of tensions elicited by the more “conventional” novel. Yet there is still a world, consistent in its inconsistency, and in that world a life, however unlived. In effect, Charlie P simultaneously asks how little is too little, and how much is too much, to create a coherent, believable narrative.

Charlie P is a carefully wrought novel with a deft sense of humor and a strong awareness of its place in literary discourse. With each answer it prompts new questions; with each added detail, it destabilizes certainty. For all that, readers must have temerity, curiosity, and the ability to build on constantly shifting ground – or a willingness to subject themselves to the elements of the indeterminate and the multiple.
Though it is widely agreed that Emerson was right when claiming that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” the thoughtful and creative manipulation of a sustained consistency can be a challenge to the vastest and deepest of intellects. Richard Kalich is able to effect this type of consistency throughout the whole of Charlie P: an accomplishment to be admired.

RAIN TAXI
Spring 2006
Reviewed by Scott Bryan Wilson

Sex addict, star athlete, scholar, lecturer, hopeless romantic, world traveler, prolific novelist, dreamer, lazy bum: the eponymous hero of Richard Kalich's high-octane comic novel is an ageless perpetual optimist whose extreme indecisiveness is the key to his immortality. As a boy, saddened by his father's death, Charlie P decides that by refusing to live his life he can grant himself eternal life. Realistically, however, he does plenty of living. He's cartoonishly hyperbolic in the most extraordinary sense: his superman feats and a semi-lack of chapter-to-chapter continuity make him an everyman more Bugs Bunny than Mr. Pickwick, as he doggedly pursues the love of a Bulgarian harpist much younger than he, searches frantically for his lost penis, chops down forests with one blow of his axe, and concocts increasingly mammoth excuses to avoid the pain of rejection.

Kalich's fine prose is the perfect mirror for
CHARLIE P's varying mindsets: it swells with atmosphere and romance when Charlie goes on a first date; reduces to a clipped monotone when Charlie desperately searches his home for himself; and employs "big words" when the narrator attempts to explain Charlie's unreal actions and state of mind. Appropriately, many of Charlie P's thoughts, attitudes, and opinions can be reduced to bumper-sticker zingers or phrases seen on ironic t-shirts, as this often seems to be the depth of his thoughts. Hyperactive lists detail his accomplishments and actions, as when he woos the Bulgarian harpist in colossally wallet-busting form; or when Charlie decides to learn everything there is to know about women; or when he swears off women and tries to barricade his home so that "not the faintest scent of female flesh could seep in, nor, just as importantly, his own very masculine scent out."
Unlike those of the infamous doofus Svejk, Charlie's utterances of brilliance and astute insight are not the product of accident, but rather of acute self-awareness, as when he realizes that his only regret is that he "had to live his entire life not by himself, but with himself." At times like these, when the hyperactivity hits a trough, we realize that Charlie's cartoonish adventures have all been a prelude to his moments of shattering clarity. That many of us attain these same insights without having to undergo epic trials makes them all the more naked and cutting.

Like most good comic novelists, Kalich is adept at teetering on the precipice wherein he might decide to dilute the fun with the grim, creating that suspense where things might get really bad at any moment. In Charlie P he has crafted an extraordinary novel and a memorable hero--a leader and kin to those afflicted with loneliness and the inability to get anything done.


REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY FICTION
Spring Issue, March 2006
Charlie P by Richard Kalich
Los Angeles, Green Integer 250 pages #13


One critic recently condemned a novel for being familiar, as if somehow novels could be unfamiliar. No paragraphs, no language, Heck no paper or ink or binding. Duchamp's Urinal, now that's a novel. However, life is familiar. If only allowed to produce a work that was not familiar, we would have no literature at all. I would rather that the familiar be embraced and the novel resonate beyond itself and intone the spheres of Plato and Beckett.
CHARLIE P by Richard Kalich resonates with allusions to other works about losers, including D.H. Lawrences's "Rocking Horse Winner," Gogol's "The Nose," and Heinrich Mann's "Blue Angel." The anti-hero of the title is actually a non-hero, for he does absolutely nothing and is an Everyman who, like all of us, is afraid to take risks. Charlie P, by taking none, lives no life at all. He achieves nothing. He thinks himself a great lover, yet never makes loves. He fancies himself a great host, yet never invites a guest. He imagines himself to be a great novelist, yet claims the novel is dead, which explains why he is merely "a dabbler in writing fiction." Charlie P is the Everyman ... a modern day Gordon Comstock, Orwell's famous antihero from "Keeping Aspidistra Flying." A poet who never finds the time to write. Under the care of physicians, doctors he fervently believes in are as incompetent at medicine as he is at fiction: they attribute a case of lockjaw to ptomaine poisoning, for example. They are Everylosers, too. Richard Kalich succeeds in making the story of Everyloser. And when Charlie P smiles at the end, buried in his coffin face down, we smile with him because we're fellow losers.

Echard Gerdes, is the editor of The Journal of Experimental Fiction and the author of the novel, Cistern Tawdry

BOOKFORUM
February/March 2006 Volume 12, Issue 5
Reviewed by Brian Evenson

The title character of Richard Kalich’s third novel,
Charlie P, simultaneously has it all and has nothing: "Peckerhead and Prophet, Pariah and Prodigal son. Charlie P is all things to all people and nothing to himself." His personal and public identities sit on opposite ends of the same seesaw; when one's on the rise, the other's on its way down.
Kalich's hero seems like a particularly protean version of John Bunyan's Christian everyman (had he been an atheist). In the course of just 250 pages, Kalich offers dozens of picaresque moments: Charlie P plays baseball, decides to live forever, finds his life empty, feels his life is full, masters many professions but practices none, walks around the world in eighty days, strikes out with women, and throws a party that nobody (including himself) attends. He also passes away at the page of 218, loses his penis, dies again but continues living in his apartment as if nothing had happened, thinks of each fruit or vegetable he eats as a new woman to be seduced, sleeps in the morgue because he knows he won’t be disturbed there, and is mutilated and dismembered.

The story is, obviously, not realistic by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn't an exercise in absurdity simply for absurdity's sake. Kalich is engaged throughout the novel in the difficult task of balancing the realistic against the fantastic in such a way that the reader is able to pass back and forth between the two realms with each maintaining its particular charms. As a result,
CHARLIE P remains sympathetic and genuine despite the nonsensicality he swims in. The project meshes well with contemporary new wave fabulist fiction, such as the work of Shelley Jackson, Matthew Derby, and Salvador Plascencia (or even the not-so-new fabulist David Ohle). But while those writers use the creation of a fantastic milieu to slyly unveil the idiosyncrasies of our contemporary culture, Kalich goes for larger prey. He's after what it means to be profoundly out of step with one’s culture yet still unwilling to let go of the American dream. And this tension between dream and reality makes Charlie P a deliciously painful book.

For Kalich, it's the unimagined life rather than the unexamined one that isn't worth living. His novel explores the overlap between an impoverished real life and richly imagined experience.
Charlie P's experiences are nothing if not vividly and contradictorily concocted. Which is to say they're really nothing. But at the same time, what's imagination if not everything?

American Book Review / Stacey Levine
Reviewed by Stacey Levine

It has been said for millennia that our exterior lives are mere shadows of what is truly real. Novelist Richard Kalich explores this idea very originally in his second novel,
CHARLIE P, published this year by the highly productive Green Integer Press. Kalich documents the life of an indefatigable everyman who struggles blithely to find contentment and leave his mark on the world. Without giving particulars as to geography, age, relatives, childhood background, education, or the like, Kalich constructs Charlie P using chapters--or bursts--of exaggerations and absurd constructions in which Charlie P either proves himself a man quite hyperbolically, or experiences defeat in some drastic form.

The character is an iconographic blank, described as “all things to all people and nothing to himself.” (7) He is also described as a man who (perhaps toward some purported existential rebellion) is quite unable to complete a task, because that appears to him to be some kind of submission or defeat. In this way, Kalich conveys a painful sadness: Charlie P suffers from an inability to engage with life or complete his goals because, in the character’s perversion, he sees that act as “giving in.”

Not that this narrative isn’t crazily hilarious. At the book’s beginning, Kalich conjures Charlie P in the imagery of a 1970s-era swingin’ bachelor man: a misogynist due to his fear of women, yet equipped, perhaps, with a swank apartment and blacklights, mirrors, and a wet bar to impress the babes. As the tale progresses, Charlie P’s thousandfold sexual conquests are stacked up alongside his trepidation and inaction, his impossible professional accomplishments - among them solving all global economic problems and becoming a religious messiah. Added to these items are Charlie P’s numerous physical mutilations, such as being disemboweled or losing his penis or, one day, having every bone in his body shattered. From all these episodes Charlie P routinely returns to the narrative apparently unabashed, ready to move ahead in the next chapter of life, where he is alternately “popular with the ladies” and alone and enfeebled. At one point, when Charlie P wants to know which woman really loves him, sex aside, and would break down barriers to reach him, he “corked his bathroom walls. Insulated his entire apartment with three-inch fiberglass. Then he got serious, building towering turrets and spires, moats and drawbridges, ramparts and walls. He even laid down landmines, barbed wire fences, set up machine gun towers; a nuclear missile site. Having made his home into a fortress, if not a castle, he began working on himself. First, opening the windows to air the rooms out, then hermetically sealing them shut so that not the faintest scent of female flesh could seep in, or, just as importantly, his own very masculine scent out. Next, after plugging his nose and stuffing his ears with wads of cotton, he turned down the Venetian blinds and blindfolded himself. He even had a doctor friend anaesthetize him.” (79)

In addition to being funny, nutty, and playful, the book is a complex narrative about human self-esteem and the human sense of self in general. Kalich’s kooky, contradictory biographical map of Charlie P’s elaborate machinations in the world, his bizarre, colossal failures (which are described as inevitable), and his conviction he must never even begin his life are correlates to the natural narcissistic struggles that most of us feel at a low level nearly every day. Human life’s endless ups and downs of loneliness, sensations of threat, violations, and pleasures are described in Charlie P’s eyes in an incredibly jumbled way, almost suggesting a developmental point of view. Charlie P’s journey is like an index of adult experience encoded via a childlike/confused prelinguistic stance. He accomplishes everything; he accomplishes nothing; his sexual addiction causes him to bed hundreds of women daily; he consequently is intimate with no one. Like a clueless tuning fork attracting the world’s chaos, Charlie P’s experiences are too intense:

“Before calling it a day Charlie P goes out for his evening jog. In the midst of his run, he stops to intervene in what appears to be a friendly argument between two old friends. Instead of thank you’s, a night cap or coffee and cake, he gets mugged, robbed, pummeled and beaten; face bloody, reeling, comatose and in a stupor, he returns home for a quiet evening by himself watching TV... just went he’s comfortably snug under the covers, and picks up his TV Guide to see what’s on, his glasses have disappeared. By the time he finds them his movie has ended, and he’s on his way to the bathroom, this time taking especial care not to stub his toe or hit his head on the sink. But - and there’s always a but - he trips over his feet, slips on a bar of soap, and falling down in the bathtub, he breaks his left hip and right arm. ‘Should have known better,’ says Charlie P.” (170)

With his continuous comic exaggeration, Kalich is able to describe, highly uniquely, the overwhelming, vertiginous, risky sensation of being alive - the very thing we seek and fear.

The outcome of this primordial scenario is decidedly uncheery. Charlie P, in the end, is self-hating, regretful that he “has to live his entire life not by himself, but with himself.” He is, somehow, a horrendous nothing - despite being a world famous writer, a stunning politician, a collector of women, an English Channel swimmer, and a serious mountain climber. He is alone and the picture of self-hatred: ...“it is just those women who have scaled the heights who will never stoop low enough to be with him.” (71)

This is a really intriguing and familiar psychic landscape. Kalich successfully reproduces the sensation of existential indecision and doubt in all its intensity. He also creates a sweeping, near-mythic description of the self-dislike that many people, unfortunately, absorb during childhood. Most of all, he employs Charlie P to illustrate the exhausting and often cruel experience of consciousness that lies behind the façade of exterior, everyday life.



Other Books
The Nihilesthete
Penthouse F
The Zoo



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