Ferris’ sad protagonist seeks purpose in new novel
Joshua Ferris is best known for his debut novel, the biting comedy about the workplace Then we came to To finish, a representation almost too close for the comfort of office life.
With his latest book, A call for Charlie Barnes, Ferris again plunges his toe into ideas of work and value, but goes both wider, to tackle the rot at the heart of the American Dream, and narrower, to focus on the struggles of a man to give himself a goal, and more broadly still, assuming the role of fiction in our lives (in the literary sense as in the false sense).
Charlie Barnes, 68, is a fighter, a dreamer, a successful hunter with no patience for mediocre achievement.
He is also, as he confesses at the beginning of the novel, a fraud and a failure. He lists a list of his shortcomings in his grubby basement home office: Fail # 1, as far as he’s concerned: No college degree. Fail # 2: All the times he’s lied about having a college degree. Fail # 3: ah, fuck that. (Failure # 3 was his reluctance to look back too long.) ??
He’s also a chronic itinerant with the tongue-in-cheek moniker of Steady Boy, moving from job to job and woman to woman (five so far for the last, the first uncountable), moving forward without a look back as soon as either begins. to disappoint him. (It’s a theme with Ferris, whose grimly moving 2010 novel The Unnamed presents a protagonist with a mysterious illness that forces him to move away ?? literally, until his feet bleed ?? family and responsibilities.)
As we meet Charlie, we also learn that he has received terrible news: a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer (?? This is arguably the worst way to die, ??? hacked to death I guess ??) which seems likely to put a definitive end to his wanderings. Before he leaves, he has unfinished business, long-standing grudges to settle, family conflicts to settle.
Ferris likes to play with the narrative style ?? Then we came to the end was written in the first person plural ?? and here the perspective begins to slide, gradually shifting from a sort of arched and perplexed distance (the first chapter is titled “ A Strictly Factual Account of the Day of His Diagnosis ”) to something more emotional and involved. as we realize Charlie? ? s biographer, a Jake Barnes, has a personal relationship with him, and not little affection.
As he takes us back through the often less than admirable life of Charlie, conveyed with the paradoxical enthusiasm of a 1960s advertising man, questions begin to arise; We begin to doubt the veracity of Jake’s memories and even his portrayal of the here and now, as Charlie prepares for last-minute surgery and makes amends with his estranged children.
Is Jake an unreliable narrator? Maybe only in the way all storytelling is unreliable, like eyewitness testimony, skewed by the passing of time, by prejudice, by love.
Jake’s name is no accident, a nod to the protagonist The sun too Gets up. Just as Hemingway drew his first novel from the details of his own life, Jake seems devoted to the idea that, as Papa biographer Jeffery Meyer once said, “what he invented was truer than what he had imagined.
The other BarnÃ¨s certainly do not appreciate his efforts when it comes to biography: the narcissism, rightly deplored for having done so much damage, especially within the family unit, could also work wonders, as when a fundamentally apathetic collection of illiterate winds up appearing as characters from a book and transforming overnight into a group of rabbinical scholars, ?? Jake complains.
We readers, however, should not have such qualms. So skillfully as Ferris mixes artifice with autofiction, so many facts are tossed to the wind, he never gives up on the truth.
Jill Wilson is editor-in-chief of Free Press.
Jill Wilson writes on culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
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