Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Calling for Charlie Barnes, by Joshua Ferris: Who Gets To Tell My Story?

"All this happened, more or less." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

If you've read Joshua Ferris before (Then We Came To The End, etc.), you know he loves toying with perspective and narration. And his novel, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, might be his greatest trick yet.

What we think we're reading is a "Man Called Ove"-esque story about an old guy named Charlie Barnes, who is just a little bit off. Charlie has had five wives, several kids, and even more failed attempts at getting rich quick. These schemes have included a toupee frisbee, a clown college, and his own investment firm. Now, at 68 years old, and apparently having just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he still hasn't found his calling. 

But after the initial shock of Charlie's diagnosis wears off, and we start to learn more about Charlie and his past and his family, we the reader begin to wonder about who is telling us this story. Is this narrator unreliable, or just lying to us, or both? Does it even matter, because as this narrator tells us "Like reliability exists anywhere anymore, like that's still a thing"?

So through the story of Charlie Barnes and his wives and kids and failures, Ferris gives us a comment on the nature of fiction, non-fiction, family history, legend, myth, and storytelling generally. "Facts are full of dreary compromises and dead ends. Stare at them long enough and you'll go insane."

This novel is infinitely quotable, and often laugh-out-loud funny. "What self-deceptions we require to get out of bed in the morning," as one of many examples. And the fact that it's a lot of fun to read is a good thing, because for a large part of this novel, you're pretty sure Ferris is playing a trick on you. You're just not quite sure what it is.

One of the important aspects of reading any novel, I think, is being able to trust the writer. Here, we don't trust the narrator one bit. Which is part of the point. However, if you trust Ferris to bring you home, and he absolutely does here, then you're in for a hugely rewarding, really eye-opening, really fun reading experience.

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