Joshua Ferris is what you might call a playful novelist. His debut, Then We Came to the End, was a sort of polyphonic office novel in which the comings and goings of the people were narrated by the office itself. Since then, he seems to have tried different hats on for size (The Unnamed felt to us more like a Paul Auster novel, his Booker nominated To Rise at a Decent Hour, more like an early, playful Phillip Roth). His latest, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, is more Arthur Miller by way of Jonathan Coe – so Death of a Salesman by way of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.
By which, we mean to say: A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a tricky beast. “Half fact, half flying toupee” to use a description it uses of itself. We first meet Charlie Barnes as he sits in anticipation of a diagnosis. This is it for him. Pancreatic cancer. One of the worst ways to die. He’s sure this is it. So sure he starts to dial people he knows – his sons, his daughter, people he once worked with, people he liked and people he didn’t, to let them know old Charlie is on his way out. Oh yes. This is it for old Charlie and he’s going out with a bang not a whimper, sticking those people who need sticking right in the eye.
Except, of course – ahh, didn’t you know it? – old Charlie doesn’t have pancreatic cancer. And so the fact his daughter has quit her job and bought a plane ticket a bit of a problem. And – oh, I see – we’ve been here before. Charlie is something of a hypochondriac and also – shall we say? – a spinner of tall tales. He’s been married several times, he’s fancied himself as something of an inventor (see the above mentioned flying toupee among other things) and he has, along the way, generated a fair amount of bad feeling on the part of others who regard Charlie as something of a major league asshole.
Ahh, but that’s not all. That’s not all, you say? That’s not all. Charlie has three children, two sons and a daughter. One of the sons is adopted and likes Charlie a lot. The other two, not so much. His adopted son is something of a writer and – ah, the penny drops! – he is the one who is in fact writing this story of his dad as if it’s his dad writing it (at least at first). And is the son an out and out truth-teller? Is the son committed to telling things just like they in fact were? Well, we’ll hand over to the son at this point to bring you up to speed:
“…when we consider the necessarily curated nature of any narrated life, its omissions as well as its trending hashtags, if you will, we are forced to conclude that every history, including our own first-person accounts, is a fiction of sorts.”
What’s more, this is a novel written at a time when “all the rest of America… was stocked full of, crowded up with, overrun by… fakes, frauds, impostors”. This is, in other words, a Great American Novel, ladies and gentlemen, seeking to tell a story the way Elmer Gantry might have told his story from the back of a cart selling snake-oil but honest enough, at least, to admit it’s selling snake oil and so it everyone else.
“How to carry on. The dream is dead, the life is over. And what was the point again? So that I might scam rather than be scammed? But that was not how I hoped to live my life.”
And, honesty being what it is, the novel wobbles, questioning itself (the way Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness questions itself, funnily enough) to check the reader remains on board:
“I hate to think you might be losing patience with him because he is failing his best self, or makes a poor ideal for mankind, or simply isn’t worth your time and attention. I owe this man my life. I owe him everything. But I owe you the truth…”
Is Charlie Barnes (and by implication A Calling for Charlie Barnes) worth your time and attention? Yes. Just about. Again, like the Ozeki, it tests your patience. Ferris is doing what Coe did in the aforementioned Terrible Privacy and meta-textually playing around a bit. Ah, that thing I told you – that isn’t true. This other thing – never happened. All of which gives rise to a slight question of: why? Why are you telling this story and why are you playing around with it? Is it for your own amusement? (Which, in turn, for me, gives rise to a slight sense of: have you seen what is going on in the world? Is this your response?)
But then not all art has to grapple with the world eh? And in some respects A Calling for Charlie Barnes is grappling with the world (it certainly grapples with ideas of truthfulness and, thereby, fake news, you could say). But it does also feel like a New Yorker novel, the kind of a book that will be chuckled over in salons (if there are such things as salons any more – there probably are, right? We’ll say there are), whilst leaving other readers, readers who possibly want a touch more seriousness even in their comic novels, cold.
Any Cop?: We enjoyed it more than we enjoyed To Rise at Decent Hour, but less than we enjoyed Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed.