“Who Is Rich?” and the Literature of Infidelity – The New Yorker

No human behavior presents a literary problem quite as obviously as an
extramarital affair. Sex, love, and illicit instincts are horrendously
cliché in the abstract, but they feel—and this is the problem—utterly
unique in the particular. And so, in a way, affairs and fiction often
circle the same question: how we might frame something that is entirely
quotidian as a delirious, enveloping, existential thrill.

Matthew Klam, the author of the short-story collection “Sam the
Cat
,” has a new novel—his first—called “Who Is
Rich?

that, among other things, is a gem within the canon of infidelity
literature. The narrator is a lightly washed-up cartoonist named Rich
Fischer who teaches at a motley arts conference in New England. Because
he is as waffly and narcissistic as anyone you might expect to find at
that sort of venue—and because his best material has always been
autobiographical—Fischer is constantly thinking about how he might
impose an artistic narrative on the affair that he has come to the
weeklong conference to carry out.

The idyllic Matticook College Summer Arts Conference is a combination of
group therapy and dick-measuring contest, with a note of isolated
romance—a last-day-at-summer-camp feeling—wafting in on the ocean
breeze. “Everybody knows a spot like this, a fishing village turned
tourist trap, with pornographic sunsets and the Sea Breeze Motel,” Klam
writes. It’s a tempting setting for an affair, an even more tempting
setting for a novel, and a perfect setting for a novel about how one
shapes the story of one’s own affair. The milieu gets dryly funnier as
Klam piles up the details: there’s “Barney Angerman, who’d won the
Pulitzer the year I was born, and Tabitha Portenlee, who’d written an
acclaimed incest memoir.” There’s Heather Hinman, who “taught poetry and
had a coiled energy that included her hair.” Everyone is emotional,
avoidant, talented, insecure, and cocky in various proportions; they’re
a bunch of “unknown nobodies and one-hit has-beens, midlist somebodies
and legitimate stars.”

Fischer, who is a wonderful narrator, lacerating and gentle, needs a new
book so that he can avoid identifying as the one-hit has-been that he
fears he has become. He’s aware that his career peaked early, with a
book that required him to sell out the most delicate moments he shared
with his prickly and vulnerable video-journalist wife, Robin. He mostly
gets by on magazine-illustration work; the juxtaposition of Fischer’s
soft foibles and the brutal magazine story he’s illustrating, about
factory suicides in China, provides a jarring background throughout the
book. The conference is Fischer’s only remaining connection to his
professional peak, and yet every year it becomes more apparent that his
star is fading: no one’s particularly excited to see him; he’s expected
to play softball; he’s never gotten a raise. But he’s there less for the
paycheck or the sunsets and more for a certain wannabe painter, a
Catholic one-per-center named Amy, who has two kids and a pathologically
icy financier husband, and who cried after she and Fischer had sex at
the conference the previous year.

One of the nicest and saddest things about “Who Is Rich?” is the way
that Klam goes all in on the pathos of feeling completely unwanted—a
state that has become native to Fischer both professionally and in bed.
He is ashamed of his “cartoonist’s body: shoulders hiked up, head hung
forward, face drooping, fuzzy gray hairs coming in on the side, yellow
toenails, my potbelly blousing my shirt, forcing me to suck in my gut,
to fight the constant hunger of a tired middle-aged man.” A young couple
nuzzling at breakfast makes Fischer want to apologize for himself: “You
don’t have to get old. This was my mistake.” He feels, at every moment,
shabby and vaguely rattled, “improperly adorned.”

Thanks to this hyper-self-consciousness, Fischer doesn’t resent his
wife—or doesn’t resent her very much, at least—for finding him
unattractive. He understands: “First a guy sticks something in you. Then
a thing grows in your body. Eventually it tears its way out, leaving a
trail of destruction.” He pictures Robin “rolling her eyes when I forgot
to put ice in her water, not wanting it when I came back with the ice
tray.” During sex, he “lost focus and cringed as Robin’s patience ran
out . . . Fuckless weeks, excused by parenting, turned weirdly okay.”
They have two kids, named Kaya and Beanie, whom Fischer loves haplessly,
spending nights “in a daffy haze of singing, clapping, lifting, swinging
. . . touching and examining every inch of them, like a violinist
inspecting his instrument, kissing their sticky, doughnut-smelling
feet.” His sex life with Robin, Fischer thinks, “hadn’t been mauled by
depression, routine and conflict as much as it had been mauled by
distraction, diffusion, a surfeit of beauty. Was that it? Our children’s
vitality and strangeness, their softness, shocked me every day.”

Throughout the book, Fischer tells and retells and alters these stories,
trying to find a satisfactory emotional thread with which he can tie
together his career, his marriage, and his affair. “I needed love; short
of love, I needed something,” he thinks. But stories of dissatisfaction
are slippery. Thinking about Robin, Fischer goes from animosity to
passivity to helpless gratitude within a few lines. His affair with Amy
is unforgivable; a foregone conclusion; “an alliance in this war against
morbidity and death.” Infidelity is the only thing keeping Fischer
going, and it’s also “as corny as that piña colada song, and as
irrational as a noxious fear in the night.” About Amy, he thinks, “I
didn’t really love her, I wasn’t even sure I liked her, although maybe I
liked her. But did I like her because I was lonely and she was hot and
rich? Or was it because I didn’t get any sleep and had brain damage from
speaking baby language? Or because Robin’s booty had snapped back into
shape but touching it was still a no-no?”

In the world of “Who Is Rich?” everything is embarrassing and beautiful.
A chain of unexpected events at the conference leads to Fischer and Amy
consummating their queasy first anniversary while on an excess of
OxyContin. “Light came in waves, sound came in waves. Cicadas out the
window sounded like distant machinery,” Klam writes, at the beginning of
that chapter, adding, “My whole helmet was gone.” The subsequent scene
is wonderful: pathetic, comic, wondrous, and sad. “A trail of saliva ran
down the side of her face. I wasn’t about to cut diamonds with this
thing, but with some angling and shoving I found a way to squish it
inside her.” It’s such a turgid, sunlit, immensely particular encounter
that it quietly proves the project shared by Klam and his
protagonist—this affair is unique, it is special, it is one for
the books. It’s also one of the only moments when Fischer is able to
really accept and take pleasure in his diminished ambitions. “She was
smiling,” Klam writes. “I was like, Thank you, God.”

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