Christopher Leise reviews Kenneth Bernard’s The Man in the Stretcher and Richard Kalich’s Charlie P, a work that is as much interested in the idea of the novel as it is a novel of ideas.
Of the Cliché and the Everyday
Of the Cliché and the Everyday
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 misrepresented. 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. That Kenneth Bernard is able to maintain, over the course of an almost forty-year career, a similar continuity of style and purpose while never ceasing to surprise, puzzle, and excite is simply astonishing. His four-decade mastery over the form of the very short story is exhibited in the previously uncollected works in The Man in the Stretcher.
Like his “flash-fiction” contemporaries Lydia Davis and Diane Williams, Bernard is able to prove beyond any uncertainty that:
the ordinary itself is like a sea, beneath which lives a multiplicity of fabulous life, some of which we occasionally see. One never knows, for example, when a broken button will burst the surface of things and astonish us, absolutely astonish us. (159)
In events as ordinary as trimming a hedge, Bernard notes a complex economy of social obligation and the power of vanity in community building. Or, in the simple collision with a stranger on a crowded street, he reveals the potential for a private megalomania latent in everyone. (280-81)
In the afterword, Harold Jaffe notes that “Bernard’s manner of discourse” generally takes the form of “an exposition or treatise, often with learned references and mock-footnotes, endnotes or commentaries.” Where this exposition is most successful (indeed quite often) is when he is able to quash the narrators’ emotional potential in favor of a spirit of true and complete inquiry. Socially formed inhibitions are suspended; even concerns of self-preservation are subverted in favor of free and complete inquiry. The result is a unique philosophical tone which avoids the easy temptation of didacticism in favor of what feels like genuine disclosure. In the span of a few short pages, Bernard creates a sincere intimacy with his characters, an eerie closeness marked by the simultaneous fascination and revulsion that follows from sharing the province where social morals hold sway.
To say that The Man in the Stretcher is meditative would be misleading: though his revelations reach deeper than the distractions caused by normal social intercourse, the space we reach is far from serene. His contemplations are brooding and chaotic, and as Jaffe points out, rank with the sickly-sweet stench of death, decay and fermentation - yet Bernard has examined the detritus of existence to find its mineral richness and to reminds us that death is merely a part of future propagation. Death is not his greatest fear, it is his omnipresent inspiration for complete disclosure, however impossible the task, however little anyone wants to listen. In “Vines,” the scent of his own aging reminds the narrator of his own mortality. He relates:
for reasons totally beyond me, I felt like a heart-to-heart talk with my wife […]. “Listen,” I began auspiciously, “I realize we’re both going to die.” She stared at me. “And I want you to know it’s all right.” Her mouth opened, but she didn’t speak. “I mean the children, the twenty-five, or thirty, or … years, I mean let me say something ridiculous … I just want you to know that I love you.” Having spoken with my usual clarity, I was about to speak again. But she forestalled me. “Will you please shut up!” I did. (137)
Bernard makes fascination of frustration, and finds in the moments of failed articulation the opportunity for startling and sparkling expression.
Like Kathy Acker’s best work, The Man in the Stretcher seeks to push past the layering of taboo and repression to the wild within - but unlike Acker’s writing, this new work by Bernanrd is private, discrete: secret. The Man in the Stretcher suggests that we need to move away from the years of conditioning that have made experience and accounts thereof too familiar, too conventional to be unique - to be our own. In this way, there is an optimism throughout, a sense that with the right response to quotidian “collision,” a new vision might reveal itself. Despite the dark secrecy of stories like “Fish Eye,” Bernard’s narrators refuse to relent.
My body’s accumulated history is large. Indeed, sometimes, just lately, my lips have been formulating what I think are the right words for them, the words that will explain, conclude, perhaps even thrill. I look forward to them. My mouth is juicy for them. But what, just yesterday, I was wondering, will their words be to me […]. Perhaps their language will have to be interpreted. Perhaps it is a new language, which I shall have to learn, a post-collision language in keeping with my new estate. And then, of course, seeing the light, I shall follow willingly. (146)
Bernard may have found some of these words lying right out in the open - taking up everyday words and, while he may still be waiting for some new vision, finding in them extraordinary revelations. So while Kalich is stylistically Sisyphean, and all the more delightful with each shove of the stone, Bernard is instead strangely optimistic: more of a linguistic animist, the possibility for the new teeming in the most familiar. His is a prose that senses immanence in the immediate and we would all do well to follow him willingly.
Lapham, Lewis H. “On Message,” Harper’s Magazine October 2005.