In Mulligan Stew (1979), Gilbert Sorrentino shows us what happens when characters inside a novel become aware of their desperate situations over which they have no control because they are effectively being puppeted by the author. What ensues is a rhetorical reversal not unlike George Orwell's revolt among the pigs in Animal Farm (1945), wherein the authority traditionally vested in authorship is subverted; the characters refuse to accept their stations and begin writing themselves a new world while the author sleeps.
In his fifth novel, Penthouse F, Richard Kalich takes on complex rhetorical gymnastics that immutably blend fact and fiction, forcing the reader to become an active participant in the search for meaning in the novel's central mystery. In Penthouse F, Richard Kalich is an author writing a new novel that he will never finish, featuring a young boy and girl who have apparently succeeded in a quasi-Shakespearean dual suicide before very much of their story can be told by Kalich. Penthouse F structures itself not as the Freytagian rise and fall of a traditional plot, but as a criminal investigation that takes the shape of a series of interviews. The interviews are conducted by an unnamed reader referred to as "The Interrogator," who feels compelled to discover what happened to the boy and girl in an effort to piece together the story of these characters that Kalich either cannot or will not tell. The result is a snaking narrative wherein the reader attempts to paste together the author's connection to his subject and characters, routinely uncovering far more questions than answers.
All of the above mark Penthouse F as a work of metafiction in the most obvious of senses, but it would be a mistake to write off Kalich's novel as obvious in any way: where the hallmark works of metafiction are historically maximalist and tend to channel James Joyce in both their language play and difficulty, Penthouse F is trim and akin to the best work of Paul Auster in terms of its readability without sacrificing its intelligence of experiment. While it is tempting to juxtapose Kalich with Sorrentino, or even Flann O'Brien, the best fit would likely be Auster -- particularly City of Glass (1985). Kalich and Auster share not only a similar, sincere trust in the detective story to carry their complex meditations, but also a kinship in their concerns about the ability of language and narrative to shape both past and present. Both authors' trust in their respective readers' abilities to not just passively follow along with the narrative but to assist in its very making is immediate, sustained, and earnest.
Like Auster, Kalich uses a first-person perspective that is confessional without sounding corny, and self-referential without coming across as smarmy. "After all, a writer can only write his book," Penthouse F's narrator explains to Kalich-as-character. "It takes others to interpret it."
Where meditations on the writing life were largely peripheral in a previous generation, and used in most circumstances to problematize the relationships between author and the craft of storytelling (remember: Sorrentino's oft-repeated "Plots are absurd"), in Penthouse F, Kalich puts the writing life front and center. As the investigation continues to recycle its questions about the whereabouts of the fictional boy and girl characters of a novel-never-written, the novel that is written here features voices from the novelist's life -- former girlfriends, doormen, literary agents, editors -- which derail the investigation at every turn, frequently to strong comic effect. "How many times are you going to persist in asking the same question?" Kalich-as-character asks The Interrogator, who quickly and flatly returns fire: "How many times are you going to persist in giving the same answer?"
The faith and trust instilled in the reader of Penthouse F to effectively assist its author in the ultimate making and meaning of the novel is, yes, a familiar act in metafiction, but one that frequently enough has been conducted as an act perceived of being cutesy or even barbaric. Mulligan Stew is still ingenious and delightful in the age of the Internet meme culture where an all-too-narrow focus on extracting "the LOLz" is often just cause for strange juxtapositions (of, say, cats and cheeseburgers). There are still sections of Sorrentino's brilliantly funny novel that are oppressive, and deliberately so. In contrast, what Kalich seems to have achieved with Penthouse F is to deliver a fresh, relevant, and enticingly readable work of metafiction in a literary age that buried its dead in the publishing and critical turf wars so long ago.