By Colin Herd.
Penthouse F, Richard Kalich, Green Integer 2011
Richard Kalich‘s third novel, Penthouse F, is a detective novel of sorts, presented in the form of a dossier made up of a series of conversations, police interviews, personal notes and off-cuts from an incomplete novel. It pushes all the buttons a good whodunit novel ought to push – it’s enthralling, intriguing and tense throughout. There’s a suspicious death, there’s a suspect, and the truth of the incident is surrounded in murkiness and uncertainty. But rather than “who done it?”, the question is “did he do it?” and “what exactly is he accused of doing?”.
The protagonist of the novel shares the author’s name, Richard Kalich. A semi-reclusive fiction-writer living in a New York penthouse, Kalich has invited a young man and woman (they’re always called ‘the boy and girl’) to live in his apartment as part of the research he is conducting into his latest novel, Transfiguration of the Commonplace. That title’s important. It’s borrowed from the 1981 book of art-theory by the celebrated critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto. Struck by the difficulty of distinguishing an art object from what he calls a “mere real thing,” specifically in relation to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, but also in different ways the work of Marcel Duchamp, Japser Johns and Claes Oldenburg, Danto’s book examines the relation of art to reality. Danto’s question is what goes on when an everyday object, like a chair, detaches itself from its previous function and transfigures into an art-object, thus no longer useable for their previous purpose. His proposed answer lies in interpretation and ‘aboutness,’ as well as the ability of an artwork to provoke reflections on its own form. Similar issues to the ones Danto investigates course through Penthouse F, a baffling, intricate and accomplished work of meta-fiction, exploring themes of cruelty, obsession, the cult of observation and the greasy, perforated, un-ironed linen skin between fiction and reality.
In Penthouse F, the suggestion is that Kalich the character has designated the young man and woman as art-objects, or as part of the art-object that is his novel in progress. They cease to be operational as what Danto might call “mere real humans.” Kalich watches the girl and boy from another room as they go about their everyday lives in his apartment, not unlike a reality T.V. show. And like those shows, Kalich manipulates their every action and reaction:
This afternoon I placed the television set in the boy’s room, necessitating the girl to join him if she wants to watch television this evening, or any other for that matter. And, of course, there is only one seat, a loveseat, which I had most judiciously chosen when designing the room. After thirty-seven minutes of dithering, of stretches and contortions, of maneuvering her body position, closer and closer, by gradations, inches, the girl sidled over like a wounded creature and seated herself next to the boy. Before the movie ended I noticed the boy’s hand, almost imperceptibly, grazing the girl’s.
With Kalich in the privileged and powerful position of watcher and manipulator, the man and woman lose their identities and become characters in his novel – “the boy and girl” – like clay figures in an animation. As with reality T.V., the girl and boy willingly allow themselves to be puppetted, entering into their new narrative with a sort of blind consent. So closely are the actions of the girl and boy intertwined with the plot of Kalich’s novel that Kalich becomes, as he says at one point in the novel, a “storymaker” not a mere “storyteller.” When the boy and girl go to watch Romeo and Juliet, for which Kalich has bought them tickets, it seems a natural plot development that they will replicate the tragedy in their own double suicide from Kalich’s apartment. There’s a sick harmony to it, and almost a dark and uncomfortable comic neatness and inevitability. The interrogators question Kalich’s nephew Knute about an outing his uncle took him on to see The Lion King during which he bought the tickets for Romeo and Juliet:
“–Before the Lion King started, didn’t your uncle also take you to another theater to purchase tickets for another play?
–Yes. He said he could kill two birds with one stone.”
This kind of dark humour is rife in the novel, usually coming from Kalich’s introverted emotional detachment from the boy and girl. At one point, when asked about why he thought they committed suicide he comments that it’s like the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and then offers to reign in his literary allusions. One of the most disconcerting and searing aspects of Penthouse F is its examination of the power of the visual culture, and of surveillance culture. In particular, Kalich’s novel chimes with the sorts of irreversible changes or “transfiguration” of attitudes toward individuals that occurs with such an abundance of ‘reality’ images streaming into our homes through reality T.V., webcams, etc. Lurking behind the book’s obsessive and erotic watching, there’s a skewed and stunted romanticism, the sort of romanticism that comes from rom-coms. Thrilling and confusing in equal measure, Penthouse F is an important book that dismantles the reader, leaving you in fragmented bits and pieces like the barbed clips that make up the novel’s structure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011.