Poets & Writers

The Darkness Within

LAST summer I wrote a review of Who Is Rich? (Random House, 2017) by Matthew Klam. The novel is narrated by a man named Rich Fischer, a self-loathing husband and father who conducts an anguished and antic affair with an equally unhappy infidel.

Shortly after I turned in my review, I heard the book discussed on the radio. The segment opened on an odd note. “Rich is a hard man to like,” the host began. I sat back in astonishment—the notion hadn’t even occurred to me. But a quick survey of prepublication reviews revealed that this was, in fact, the consensus view: Rich was whiny, selfish, unsympathetic.

These complaints, it should be noted, weren’t generally directed at his adultery, about which he is so racked with guilt that he attempts to kill himself twice. No, his central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

And yet when I survey the books that inspired me to quit journalism and take up fiction two decades ago, every single one features protagonists who are “hard to like” in the by Lorrie Moore, by Marguerite Duras, by Barry Hannah, by Denis Johnson, the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

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