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‘Who is Rich?’ a tough question to answer

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Novel tells a tale of art, adultery and the meaning of success

Creating a likable story while presenting an unlikeable protagonist is a tricky proposition. It’s a complex balancing act, finding ways to build empathy without leaning on sympathy. An honest portrayal of iffy morality doesn’t leave much room for error, but it’s a needle that Matthew Klam largely manages to thread.

Rich Fischer, the middle-aged acclaimed-cartoonist-turned-working-illustrator at the center of Klam’s novel “Who is Rich?” (Random House, $27), isn’t an easy guy to like. In fact, he’s kind of a jerk, one whose complaints about his life’s path are undermined by the questionable decisions that he consistently makes.

Rich is working as an instructor at a summer arts institute of sorts on the New England coast, picking up a paycheck while succumbing to his own midlife crises. A few years back, he was a bit of a cause celebre thanks to a largely autobiographical comic that he wrote receiving a great deal of critical acclaim and a decent amount of commercial success. That fame got him the gig at the institute, teaching cartooning to the bored and the directionless and picking up a steady paycheck.

This summer marks the first time he’ll see the woman with whom he embarked on an affair that only just concluded a few months prior. The wife of a hedge fund billionaire, she has become an object of confused desire for Rich; her return to the institute further complicates his disaffected connection to his life – the wife and kids, the steady dullness of his magazine job, the dearth of creative inspiration.

As the days pass, Rich lowly sinks into self-indulgent reverie, a naval-gazing spiral that leaves him constantly questioning the path he’s on and locking into a case of “grass is always greener” thinking that could serve to upend his entire world – and not in the exciting wholesale change way that he can occasionally convince himself is possible.

Ultimately, Rich is left with a choice that never really feels like a choice. He’s already adrift, but is he willing to also risk being alone? He has to settle on the kind of man he’s going to try to be. And in truth, no one knows who Rich really is – not even Rich.

There was a time when the high-end afflictions of the middle-aged white guy regularly served as a central component to a LOT of literary fiction. These days, however, the net being cast is a bit wider and the slings and arrows suffered by the man-as-frustrated-creative don’t have nearly the impact that they once did; if you’re going to that well, you’d best bring your A-game or else get overwhelmed by cliché and the ineffectiveness of ineffectiveness.

Matthew Klam brought his A-game for “Who is Rich?”

As a narrator, Rich is almost maddeningly internal, creating a suffocating sense of self-importance offset by an omnipresent fragility of ego. His feints at self-awareness are shallow ones, but he also emits an underlying awareness of that almost parodic shallowness. He’s an artist whose creative paralysis prevents him from making meaningful art; the closest he comes to true creativity is when he’s inventing justifications for his choices and behaviors.

For all that, “Who is Rich?” is still quite an engaging read. There’s a deliberation to the pace that might be damaging for another writer, but Klam commits so fully to the thoroughness of Rich’s psyche that it almost couldn’t work otherwise. And it is bitingly funny at points, with a steady flow of turns of phrase possessed of a tossed-off vibe that nevertheless prove sharply memorable. Thought by thought, we’re guided through the head of a guy whose toughest emotional obstacles are self-imposed. Again, there’s empathy, but very little sympathy; the sweet spot for making this character fit properly into this narrative.

The book’s titular question is never fully answered – and that’s kind of the point. Who is Rich? We don’t know. Nor does he. And it’s that well-wielded ambiguity that ultimately makes “Who is Rich?” the book that it is.

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