About Richard Kalich: Kalich was born in New York and grew up on the Upper West Side. He’s the author of The Nihilesthete (1987), Charlie P (2005), and Penthouse F (2010), published in 2014 in a single volume as Central Park West Trilogy, which encapsulates Kalich’s uncompromising examination of the state of modern life, as well as his metafictional experimentations with form and language. His later works include The Assisted Living Facility Library (2019) and A Man Made Long Ago (2021). He has been nominated for the National Book Award and for a Pulitzer Prize. His website can be found here.
I interviewed the author here.
“That’s when God must have known he was God. Not when he made the world but when he destroyed it. Massacred it. When he told us we were going to die. When he made us conscious of that. That’s why he kills us in the end. He becomes immortal when we die. He lives forever only when we cease to be. If it were up to me, I’d exterminate all the artists in the world.”
In Robert Haberman, Richard Kalich has created a villain who is part of an anti-paragon pantheon that includes Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Gass’ William Kohler. Rather than a learned man of letters like the latter two antagonistic protagonists, Haberman is a shell of a man, a social worker bereft of the arts in terms of both creation and appreciation and thus bereft of a spirit too. His is a brain of empty bookshelves if any shelves at all. To fill such a vast void, he makes a plaything of Brodski, a dumb and limbless figure in a wheelchair:
“I had Brodski. We were as close as two lovers pawing each other through the night, sweat pouring profusely from our maddening embrace. For forty-eight hours I was with you, my sweet. I was as content as a scientist peering through his microscope. […] Brodski is on my slide. He is my cubic unit of measurement. Though I shall give him wings, he shall never fly. Poor thing, he shall never fly.”
Notice the overlapping shades of the serial killer Ed Gein (“I promise I won’t keep you long / I’ll keep you forever”) and the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (“Stripped of your life’s worth / Human mice, for the Angel of Death”).
I should mention that the prose in The Nihilesthete is sufficient but can’t be compared to, say, Lolita or The Tunnel. During a few rare moments, it’s outright clunky, including a double negative that makes for a mouthful moment. One could argue that a prose style similar to the latter two novels would belie the fact that Haberman is not an artistic person in any conventional sense. In that way, it actually fits, especially since the novel takes the form of Haberman’s journal.
It begins with how he first notices Brodski on the sidewalk, admiring an artist who is creating a figure of Christ. When Haberman accidentally blocks Brodski’s sightline, his expression changes from enraptured to pained, and he lets out “a mewing sound like a cat’s cry.” Haberman doesn’t quite make the connection between Brodski and his penchant for art but he’s still fascinated by him. One thing leads to another and he discovers that Brodski’s mother is not his mother as such but someone who raised him practically all his life, someone who mothers him to the point of smothering, afraid to let Brodski out of the house for even a moment. In fact, it hadn’t been her idea to let Brodski out the time he admired the Christian art and she only found out about it later, interpreting Brodski’s upset demeanor as a sign of needing to be even more protective of him. Taking advantage of his position as a social worker, Haberman manipulates the situation in various ways, including subtly threatening Brodski’s non-biological mother with the possibility of taking him away, seeing as she never filed the appropriate paperwork to become his legal guardian. Thus, as Humbert Humbert diabolically plans to do away with Dolores Haze’s mother, so does Haberman, but not before including her in his psychological warfare. In fact, the way he gets her out of the picture is by giving her a taste of freedom, of a fun-filled life in the absence of devotion to Brodski, including offering indirect bribery and encouraging her to go on a trip with her friend, thus chipping away at the deep love she has for Brodski until the zealous edifice is defaced and ultimately razed.
Brodski being a quadruple amputee makes the power Haberman has over him all the more haunting and, frankly, terrifying. It put me in mind of the quadruple amputee in the equally haunting Meal Ticket, a short film from the Cohen brothers’ anthological western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which the amputee named Harrison is towed from town to town as a one-man act who recites impassioned poems and other classics until no more profit is to be had, at which point Harrison’s owner tosses him in a river after buying his replacement, a gallinaceous math whiz. Of course, financial profit is the last thing on Haberman’s sick mind. What he wants to rob Brodski of is essentially his soul so that Haberman can feel better about himself, knowing that the artistic impulse is just that, an instinct and nothing more, an ember easily extinguished. In general, Haberman is a certifiable misanthrope: “People, in short, had nothing to offer me. I couldn’t go anywhere without being vexed by them. If they came too close to me, I would virtually break out in a rash, and rather than scratch myself (which did no good anyway), I simply avoided them at every turn.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is Travis Bickle as a social worker rather than a taxi driver.
Despite these abject characteristics and his lack of an artistic soul, he’s not without his own talent, albeit villainous as well. In case it wasn’t already clear, he’s a master manipulator, and we learn the depth of this early on from an anecdote he relays about posing as a producer working on a play. He does this to break the spirit of a waiter who wants to be an actor, giving him his phone number and telling the aspiring thespian to call at a specific time in order to move forward with a debut role:
“When I arrived Monday morning at the office the phone was already ringing. It was him. Not mincing words, I told him there must be a mistake, that he had dialed the wrong number….
He called back four times. Each time there was a little more disappointment in his voice…except on the last call. When I answered the last call, all I heard was a lingering silence, followed by a clicking.
I KNEW I HAD FOUND MY WAY!!!”
As if that wasn’t cruel enough, he runs into him a month later and gaslights him about not calling his number and saying how they just cast the part yesterday. Indeed, Haberman had found his way, had found what he is good at and what brings him some iota of joy, of schadenfreude. The waiter wasn’t the first because Haberman hints at many victims between him and Brodski, but the latter is extremely special. So why Brodski in particular? Aside from being helpless in more ways than one, he also seems to have more life in him than most, as Haberman discovers when he witnesses Brodski react to works of great art: “SO BRODSKI’S AN AESTHETE! A lover of beauty. […] My little ugly duckling is really a swan.” To further manipulate his mind, his feelings, he straps Brodski to his chest and at first walks around where he likes then later he goes where Brodski leads (eventually depriving him of his art and only showing him the vilest sights of the city): “Is not all art made of the same two opposing tensions? Absolute freedom and classical restraint? If I am an artist…my art is Brodski.”
At one point, Haberman bathes Brodski and fondles his genitals, arousing him. However, since he’s been so deprived in every conceivable way, it’s not sexual as such for Brodski, who has only been touched by Haberman and his mother. And nor is it sexual as such for Haberman: “I must admit when I stroke him, I, too, realize some pleasure. […] I get the same feeling, though not as intense, when holding a butterfly by the wing before letting it go, or crushing it between my fingers, depending on my whim.” And, of course, what kind of literary villain would he be without some degree of a god complex: “…I am fast becoming a God to Brodski. A god that doesn’t even ask for thanks.” No, not thanks, because Brodski will have to pay later on in other ways, for Haberman is as capricious and cruel as the Old Testament deity.
As his subtly Mengelian experiments continue to develop further, Haberman collects a wide range of tools and prosthetics for Brodski, providing him with everything he needs to create his own masterworks: “I witnessed such a gushing forth of creative energy I can only compare it to what I’ve heard tell and read of great masters. It was as if he were making up for a lifetime’s privation with each brushstroke. Everything he’s seen and sees turns into a painting. Every part of him seems to create.[…] Ambidextrous, he paints with both hands. Or more accurately, he paints with his soul.” This artistic torrent echoes Christopher Nolan, not the film director but the quadriplegic Irish author who was finally able to type for the first time when a unicorn device was strapped to his head, painstakingly producing several works, including Dam-Burst of Dreams and the Whitbread Award-winning autobiography, Under the Eye of the Clock, eventually choking to death on his food at the age of 43 and leaving behind an unfinished novel.
During his own dam-burst of dreams, Brodski produces a plethora of paintings, all of which are at the mercy of Haberman who can do whatever he likes, beneficent or, most often, malevolent. His frantic thoughts concerning this are telling: “WHEN I AM DOING MY WORK AND YOU ARE WATCHING ME, WHO IS IT WHO’S MOST ALIVE THEN!?!” Need to compensate for something much? But is it his creative talent that Haberman most hates? According to him, it’s not: “Who cares about art anyway? It’s his…it’s his…IT’S HIS UNBENDING BELIEF THAT HIS WORK IS AN ABSOLUTE END IN ITSELF THAT I FIND ABHORRENT!”
As he continues to contrive very specific ways to hinder if not outright sabotage Brodski’s output, he creates a graph of his Aryan-esque experiments: “My graph is even more telling than any of his paintings. Is this not incontrovertible proof that I am the greater artist/SCIENTIST than he? For I have orchestrated everything. He has merely reacted. My graph is a perfect poetico-scientific metaphor of the creative process in ruin.”
Later, contemplating why Brodski persists despite the devilishly devised hurdles big and small, Haberman thinks that he might get “his strength from his desire to beat me. […] There’s great strength in having a cause. I’ve always held that religious fanatics and artists have that much in common. They both have absolute faith. That’s another reason why I detest artists so. One thing I do know. No normal person sees the world the way he does.”
As Brodski persists with his painting, Haberman persists with his experiments, with his war against someone who is seemingly unable to defend himself, but we ultimately learn that the paintbrush is mightier than the sword. After a perverse ‘game’ in which Brodski himself must ‘choose’ between two options each day, deciding what will be thrown out of the apartment, it gets to the point when Brodski is sacrificing his comfort to save his ability to create. And then, with both characters fatigued, malnourished, and on the brink of death, Brodski still perseveres in his need to produce art, painting “with piss, shit, dust, dirt, pus, food remains, blood,” and even when that is gone, he wiggles his arms stumps and smiles, painting within his own mind, much like the concentration camp victim who, nude and starving, can still play and listen to the beauty of classical music using the sole instrument of their brain.
“Brodski is eternal because he has lived…really lived in the moment.”
Although less ambitious and more narrow in scope than William Gaddis’s bloated debut novel, Kalich’s creation is lean and focused and much more effective for it, becoming both literally and metaphorically visceral in its demonstration of the persistence of art and the artistic spirit despite its impermanence. Yes, there’s a light at the end of this creepy and filthy intestinal tunnel, just ask Tim Robbins’ character from Shawshank Redemption. This reviewer was left feeling simultaneously awful and awe-inspired. What’s art if not a wingless dive into the deepest paradoxes of emotion and reality?
“- Do you have a question?
– Mr. Kalich, after cultivating and taking such great pains to build up the boy and girl’s relationship, provide them with home and shelter, warmth and succor, as you say—what possessed you, other than the compunction to follow your would-be novel’s inexorable plottings, to destroy what you built?
– You’ve answered your own question.”
Similar in structure to Robert Pinget’s The Inquisitory or Gilbert Sorrentino’s Gold Fools, Penthouse F is mostly in the form of an interrogation. Richard Kalich is the suspect but we also hear the testimonies of many people in Kalich’s life, including the most ancillary characters, from his former flames and his literary agent to the doorman and his fellow tenants, not to mention Kalich’s twin brother, Robert Kalich, and the street book vendor. Basically everyone except Kalich’s eyelash mites.
Penthouse F is Kalich’s most metafictional novel, seeing as it’s about his struggles as an artist to write a novel, leading him to concoct a Mengelian experiment in the vein of Haberman to help him overcome that writer’s block as if the reality in his fiction is more real than the fiction proper. And that’s the thing, one of the main themes of this novel is the porous boundaries of art and life. Roland Barthes’ concept of the death of the author in terms of literary criticism is not something enough people subscribe to, including the interrogator, who makes that mistake when interviewing Bob Kalich, Dick’s twin:
“- All that sadism, perversity, grotesqueness. I mean [The Nihilesthete] was brilliant, but as for the rest…I was totally unprepared.
– Do you think, and again I know this is difficult for you, Mr. Kalich, but do you think he could somehow transfer such venom and brutality from the written page to real people? Namely the boy and the girl?”
And later: “- Mr. [Robert] Kalich, if it was in you as a novelist, it was in you as a man. Even you have to admit that much.”
Speaking of the boy and girl, Kalich ‘recruits’ them from their unfortunate status as waifs in a halfway house, picking them when he discerned a spark of amorous interest between the two. After giving them separate lodgings in part of his capacious penthouse, he installs cameras to watch them on a screen like Big Brother. From then on, he acts like Haberman and performs various experiments to forge and develop and break and all-out test that initial spark of interest. We learn early on that, ostensibly inspired by Romeo and Juliet, Shakespearean propaganda that Kalich seemed to instill in them with subtly malicious intent, they jump from the balcony of the penthouse in an act of mutual self-slaughter. The interrogation, then, is a potential murder investigation.
Like Jared Leto going too far with his method acting, Kalich is method writing, as it were, by way of his experiment: “Like a Writer, like an Actor, I have become one with the boy and girl. When I observe them now on screen, there is hardly a difference between what I saw and who I am. All the girl’s smiles, gestures, touches, caresses, lovemaking with the boy, I feel are meant as much for me as for him. I am indeed a fortunate man. Like in all good writing, in all creation, a miracle has been wrought.”
Kalich continues with his experiments until they get more complex and cruel: “During last month’s blizzard…I placed the girl in the farthest reaches of the city, a god-forsaken wasteland not even possessing a name. The boy can have three minutes with the girl if…I repeat…if he can find her. […] Before starting off he had to remove the outer layers of his clothes.” Kalich is surprised by the passionate tenacity of both the boy and girl. After the former navigates through a labyrinth as cold as the Hel with one L, he finds her almost a full day later, and Kalich asks himself, “What must their three minutes be like? […] One thing is certain: I have never known three minutes like that in my life.” If The Nihilesthete demonstrates the persistence of art despite its impermanence, Penthouse F demonstrates the persistence of love, which might explain in part how the interrogator is able to ask the boy and girl questions posthumously, but these ghosts are mum aside from some relatively inscrutable facial expressions and shared glances. And yet, they’re also Kalich’s puppets, literally and metaphorically, and he could have put words in their mouths if he had wanted to. However, this is only true if we assume creation works one way.
While not as potent and condensed as The Nihilesthete, this third volume in the thematic trilogy (placed second in the Betimes Books edition) is more layered and overall more structurally creative. I should say that I read the trilogy in three days, one day for each novel, despite the fact that the trilogy took over two decades to be written and published (The Nihilesthete in 1989, Charlie P in 2005, and Penthouse F in 2010). I don’t consider myself a fast reader but the deceptive simplicity of these novels made for reading that was compelling if not outright compulsive. When I told Dick during a phone call that I would get to his trilogy after finishing Moby Dick, he said that, compared to novels like that, his works were like “comic books” and that I’d read them in no time. He was half right because, although ‘digestible’ as the bibliophagic lingo goes, these are certainly not the morally underdeveloped tales of caped crusaders.
Similar to Oskar Matzerath deciding he’ll never grow up after his father says he’ll become a grocer, Charlie P decides after his father dies “to live forever rather than suffer the indignity of mortality. Under no circumstances would he allow death to interfere with his daily regimen from this time on.” This time being the age of three, the same age as Oskar in Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. (Speaking of Grass, Dick told me over the phone that when his first novel came out, young German readers would make pilgrimages to his NY apartment and whisper to him, “You’re bettaw than Goontaw Grrahws.” But, because their styles are so different, that’s like comparing apfels to oranges.) Charlie P’s formula for immortality is simply to not live his life, thus it will never end. Adding to the themes explored in the earlier volumes, this novel demonstrates the persistence of life despite its impermanence.
How can someone live their life without living it? As Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park says in a different context, “Life, uh, finds a way.” Through his imagination, he’s able to live a life equivalent to a forest of Forrest Gumps. But of course when one person lives every life, in their mind no less, they actually live no life at all. This exploration of the boundary between imagination and ‘reality’ complements the exploration of the boundary between art and ‘reality’ in Penthouse F. And it’s a concept that is probably informed by Dick’s own regret at having lived a life in books rather than one spent in meaningful relationships with real characters outside pages upon pages. As it happens, Charlie P
owns a vast collection of books. Sufficient in number to rival New York’s 42nd Street Public Library, Paris’s Bibliotheque and Greece’s Parnassus; in fact, all the great libraries of the world. Small bookstores and large, bibliophiles, private collectors, scholars, institutions of higher learning, the present day book chains […]; from papyrus scrolls boxed at Alexandria to the […] Library of Congress; in terms of sheer size and number, magnitude and compass, cannot begin to compare to the quantity of books Charlie P owns. […] What is important is that Charlie P has not read a single book in his library.
Even the most voracious reader can relate to how quantity outweighs longevity. Of course, there’s no Sisyphean task if one refuses to roll the boulder at all. Rather than Sisyphus, Charlie P is a Don Quixote of the highest order, in which every atom is a giant, for there are hyperboles galore throughout the novel.
Speaking of Don, he’s also something of an anti-Don Juan, tormented by windmill women he can only get within the theater of his mind, including the twenty-year-old Bulgarian harpist who is Dick’s actual unrequited love and is written about in three of the books currently under review. I should mention that the focus of these imaginary love affairs, as multitudinous as they are, is thoroughly masculine, which some readers may find solipsistic even though the novel itself is a creative form of solipsism taken to its farthest reaches.
As it happens, I was reminded of fellow New Yorker Marvin Cohen and his novel The Self-Devoted Friend, another exercise in extended and inspired solipsism, although it was published almost 40 years earlier, in 1967. They even share a penchant for koans: “When Charlie P retires for the night he opens his eyes and puts the light on. Why not? It’s only when fast asleep that he’s able to see.” And an example of Cohen’s kind of koan: “Closing the mind down on his eyes, my friend puts power into his sight, and thoughts do all his seeing. Being blind, they produce ignorance. My friend ignores this, and concentrates on his handicap.”
In terms of structure, there’s very little continuity between chapters, which makes the novel feel more like an accumulation of vignettes that are written in a prose style that is much more energetic than the other volumes, a style that’s also marked by repetition and pleonasm (“…the more Charlie P excoriates about the day’s frustrations, the more he rants and raves, makes plaints and grievances, the better he feels. […] At the end of the day when he’s finished his peroration, got everything off his chest, has nothing else to complain about, Charlie P races back to his apartment.”), which makes it a delight to read but with no style other than this, Charlie P eventually overstays his welcome, making this the least potent of the bunch.
The Assisted Living Facility Library
“Nothing is more empty than a bookshelf without books, he thinks.”
Published in 2019 by Betimes Books and in hardcover in 2020 by Green Integer (the original publisher of the novels reviewed above), The Assisted Living Facility Library is a somber and even at times sadistic novel that manages to be a constantly intriguing and even comfortable read. While technically not part of the Central Park West Trilogy, it acts as a coda. There’s an element of autofiction here, not to mention metafiction (one of the most unexpected bits in terms of the former categorization is Kalich’s friendship with David Markson near the end of his life when he was dying of cancer and nearly blind). I would have loved to read more about Kalich’s takes on his most beloved books and writers as he whittles down his collection of 10,000 books to 100 in preparation for a move into an assisted living facility (unfortunately, we never get the full list of books, but we do get titles like Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts). Additionally, there are many relatable and intriguing observations about the reading and writing life in general and also specifically as they pertain to the life that this octogenarian has lived. We even get a handful of rejection letter scans that hearken back to those found at the beginning of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew.
Although Haberman is missing in Charlie P, he makes an appearance in this volume. Even more so than elsewhere, the boundaries between Haberman and Kalich dissolve as the book within the book, Mother Love, is written (manifested?). This final Mengelian experiment involves the testing and torturing of the love between a mother and son that Kalich/Haberman have brought off the street in a kind of fusion between the experiment in The Nihilesthete and the one in Penthouse F.
Why even continue writing at all? Kalich’s twin brother tells him he’s lived “half-a-life” because of his dedication to his art. His twin is also a writer but has spent more time making money and has a huge flat in NY where he entertains the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Michael Jordan, and other celebrities (as I discovered in an article about his latest novel, David Lazar). What is the worth of a lifetime of reading, let alone writing? Where does life begin and art end or vice versa? These are the questions Kalich struggles with. In more ways than one, this “is a novel about the Terror of Life.”
We even get a list of the books Dick’s twin brother Bob prefers and the ones Dick prefers. For instance, Dick chooses The Old Man and the Sea over Moby Dick, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man over Ulysses, A Mercy over Beloved. I couldn’t help but think of the pharmacist in 2666 who is judged by the fact that he prefers minor works over major ones. The irony is that Dick is more of a literary writer while Bob is more of a commercial one.
Like in The Nihilesthete and Penthouse F, the prose is sufficient but there were some clichés that this reader found hard to forgive, particularly in the last quarter. Tossing and turning in one’s sleep. Tears streaming down a boy’s face. Rubbery legs. Kalich is certainly capable of doing better in this respect but the content and themes of the novel make up for this lack in style. Since this is something of a coda, I’d recommend reading Kalich’s trilogy of novels before coming to this one. Betimes Books published them in a single volume that’s nearly 600 pages long. The Assisted Living Facility Library is the capstone to that splendid accomplishment. Taken as a whole, this unofficial tetralogy turned out to be some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve had in quite a while.
By the end of the last novel, Kalich writes himself the happy ending he may or may not have found within ‘reality,’ in which he’s found more of a balance between art and life: “And so, whether Kalich has another day left or ten years at the Facility, he knows, like all his other days, it will start by his reading ten or more pages and then continue by working on his novel-in-progress. The only difference from earlier days is that now when Kalich hears a songbird chirping on his window’s ledge, he stops to listen.”
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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.
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