Can fiction tell the truth about a life?
About a third of Joshua Ferris’ most autobiographical new novel “A call for Charlie Barnes“, The narrator addresses the reader regarding the eponymous subject of the book:” I hate to think that you might lose patience with him because he fails at his best, or makes a poor ideal for mankind, or is not worth everything. just not your time and attention. I was actually thinking of Charlie Barnes, but Ferris writes with an exuberant style that propels the reader no matter what the plot. The narrator is Charlie’s son Jake (his name is a nod to Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”), who claims he is writing an accurate account of his father’s life, “by saying so. sticking to the facts “. But in trying to do so, he finds that the facts often don’t reflect people’s version of reality.
When we first meet Charlie Barnes, it’s 2008, and the stock market is crashing. He is 68, believes he is dying of cancer, and lives with his fifth wife in Danville, Illinois, where Ferris is from; in an interview with Publishers Weekly, Ferris said he based Charlie Barnes’ biography on that of his own father, who died of cancer in 2014. Yet initially, the book seems mostly to be a mash-up. axes against the financial industry. Charlie once worked for Bear Stearns, which is now bankrupt, but left fifteen years earlier to start his own financial planning agency, one that charges annual fees to its retired clients rather than commissions. He has spent his life honestly seeking wealth, but now realizes “at the eleventh hour that it was nothing but a scam.” The books were cooked. He lost faith in finance, capitalism and the American dream. In the “wake of a massive and historic global scam,” Charlie casts a “clear and sober eye on the pretty fictions” he has pursued throughout his life, believing them to be “real, right and possible.” And he realizes he’s wasted his life. He had many jobs, but he never found his calling.
From financial system fraud Ferris subtly swings, and as he introduces us to Charlie’s children, we learn that they think their father is a fraud himself. Charlie was a half-ass dreamer, a failed serial entrepreneur, conceiving one business idea after another, giving up each when it was clear the idea was stupid or too difficult. He was an impostor for his wives, whom he cheated on and left when another arrived. And he fooled his kids, lying to them so often that they don’t even believe he has cancer. That is, he has followed his greed and lust, often to the detriment of his honor – and yet he considers himself an honorable man. And this is where things get interesting, as Ferris revolves around what the book is really about: that “every story we tell ourselves is a version of make-believe.”
The point is, people don’t like the truth, especially when it concerns themselves. Jake learns this when in 2016, a draft of his book on Charlie Barnes circulates within the family. No one likes the way they are portrayed during this difficult time of 2008. They accuse Jake of painting a “distorted” picture that is “riddled with errors”. Why? Partly because he did – he admits he lumped two girls into one for narrative simplicity, for example – but also because no one wants to be linked. And yet this is exactly what happens in literature and photography; a person is what he is described as being, forever. The facts pin us down, all the time. Yet not only do people change, they want to switch. In our minds, we are living fictitious versions of ourselves.
Ferris, whose previous books also flirted with the experimental, turns the tale upside down in the fourth and final part of the book. Did Barnes conquer his cancer, have a successful business idea, live a rich, humble and happy life as a changed man as we see in part three? Or did he die soon after his diagnosis? Have his children become the best of themselves themselves, or do they linger like self-satisfied jerks? Is Jake even Charlie’s son? “Who are you already?” ask his supposed parents. “Why are you here?” If we’re not confused at the end, we resent being manipulated – and maybe reading about someone who was not worth our time and attention. But I’m afraid Ferris cares less about his story and more about his idea, which admittedly is an incisive critique of contemporary culture.
At one point, Charlie insults Jake’s profession, claiming that writing novels is “a very silly occupation for a grown man.” Understandably, Jake takes offense and monologue at Charlie’s ignorance of fiction’s perception: “He might treat real life like fiction, this and go this into existence, manipulate the truth and play with people’s feelings, leave old drafts dead and start over with a new cast of characters every time the whim strikes. Fiction, in this sense, is simply a denial of reality. It’s a degraded form of the concept, but, as we see in contemporary society, it’s very popular. Affirming facts that do not exist, denying facts that do exist, creating an identity around promoting a lie – all of this is commonplace in our cultural market.
Yet it is a mistake to assert that people who lie or delude themselves into fiction. Because as “A Calling for Charlie Barnes” shows, fiction is an art form deliberately used to reach a truth deeper than reality. This is not a denial of reality, but a more serious journey into it.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is currently working on a book on anti-Semitism.
A call for Charlie Barnes
By Joshua Ferris
Small, brown, $ 352.28