Price: U.S. $5.25
Series No.: 132
ISBN: 1-933382-05-8, Pages:
American Literature, Fiction
In Charlie P author Richard Kalich offers us a singularly
unique, comic and outlandish Everyman. A looney-tune
figure of the American manchild
the kind of eternally
adolescent men one sees on any American street corner
in his episodic adventures through life, loses his penis,
is completely dismembered, suffocated, starved and cut in
half, yet continues to come back for more. At age three,
when his father dies, he decides to overcome mortality by
becoming immortal. By not living his life he will live
forever. Whether he's pursuing the girl of his dreams or a
pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Charlie P ends up
with no more than a peck on the cheek or robbed blind.
Even when dead and called to Heaven for an accounting, he
remains the eternal optimist.
Now that he's dead and gone,
he finally has a real chance at achieving his ends. He can
start over. Having never lived his life, his life has not
yet hardly begun. Akin to other great American icons such
as Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, Ring Lardner's Al, and
Forrest Gump, Charlie P plumbs the relation between
fantasy and reality to offer us a character both asocial
and alienated and, at the same time, at the heart of the
BOOKFORUM, Feburary/March 2006
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?
THE ELECTRONIC BOOK REVIEW
by Christopher Leise"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 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 characteror, more accurately, caricaturesequesters 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
THE REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY FICTION (Spring 2006)
by Eckhard Gerdes
One critic recently condemned a novel for being "familiar," as if somehow novels could be unfamiliar. No paragraphs. No language. Heckno paper or ink or binding. Duchamp's urinalnow that's a novel. However, life is familiar. If only allowed to produce 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 or Beckett. Charlie P is familiar. The antihero of the title is actually a nonhero, 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 love. He fancies himself a great host, yet never invites guests. He imagines himself to be a great novelist, yet he relies heavily on pat phrases (one favorite, "needless to say," precedes the superfluous) and dozens of clichés (e.g. "a deer caught in the headlights" and "apple of his eye"). Even more egregious are incorrectly turned phrases ("suffice to say" rather than "suffice it to say") and misuses words ("his pecuniary nature" when he means "penurious"). Although "Charlie P has a novel in him," he also claims, "the novel is dead," which explains why he is merely "a dabbler in writing fiction." Charlie P is the Everyman who thinks he can write a novel but can'ta modern day Gordon Comstock, Orwell's famous antihero from Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a poet who never finds the time to write. Despite the dabblings of Charlie P, Richard Kalich succeeds in making the story of Everyloser interesting. The work resonates with allusions to other works about losers, including D. H. Lawrence's "Rocking-Horse Winner," Gogol's "The Nose," and Heinrich Mann's "Blue Angel." Under the care of physicians, Charlie dies a hundred deathsburning, drowning, dismemberment, disease. The doctors he fervently believes in are as incompetent in medicine as he is at fiction: they attribute a case of lockjaw to ptomaine poisoning, for example. They are Everylosers, too. And when Charlie P smiles at the end, buried in his coffin face down, we smile with him because we're fellow losers.
RAIN TAXI, Vol II, No. 1 (Spring 2005)
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 superhuman 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 his 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, man 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 may 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 little novel and a memorable heroa leader and kin to those afflicted with loneliness and the inability to get anything done.
AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW (July/August 2006, XXVII)
by Stacey Levine“A Dark and Windy City”
It has been said for millennia that our exterior lives are mere shadows of what is truly real. Novelist Richard Kalich explores this idea quite 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 Charles P using chapters—or bursts—of exaggerations and absurd constructions in which Charlie P either proves himself a man hyperbolically, or experiences defeat in some drastic form.
The character somehow conveys a quality of being an iconographic blank, described as “all things to all people and nothing to himself.” He is also described as a man who (perhaps toward a purported existential rebellion) is quite unable to complete a task because that appears to him to be some kind of defeat. In this way, Kalich begins to convey the painful sadness of the life at hand—Charlie P suffers from an inability to inability to engage with life or complete his goals because, in the character’s perversion, he sees action 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-ear swingin’ bachelor man: a misogynist due to his fear of women, yet equipped, perhaps, with a swank apartment and backlights, mirrors, and a wet bar to impress the babes. As the tale progresses, Charlie P’s thousandfold sexual conquests are, in action and trepidation notwithstanding, stacked up alongside his impossible 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 of these episodes Charlie P routinely returns to the narrative apparently unabashed, ready to move ahead to the next chapter of life, where is alternately “popular with the ladies” and alone and enfeeble. At one point, when Charlie P wants to know which woman really loves him, sex aside, and would break down the barriers to reach him,
[h]e 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 the
faintest scent of female flesh could not seep in, nor, just as importantly,