A kooky, metafictional page-turner that doesn't entirely pay off
Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Fri., March 4, 2011
Penthouse Fby Richard Kalich
Green Integer, 227 pp., $15.95 (paper)
It happens to the best of us: We flip idly through TV channels, sampling the peccadilloes of unrealistic housewives and reality show villains, but the real draw, the show we watch to the end, is the humble procedural Law & Order. Particularly in its spin-off Law & Order: SVU (which could instead be called Law & Order: Pathos), the lure of watching bad people do bad things sucks us in, and before we know it, the final credits are rolling. I like to hope it isn't simply spineless voyeurism that draws us to melodrama but rather the promise of finding the source of its depicted cruelty. The show's underlying logic insists that nobody can be so bad without a reason, an initial bruise that bloomed into something darker.
In Penthouse F, ordinary writer's block is the bruise. It's the story of a frustrated novelist whose inability to write his masterpiece drives him to live out its plot by painstakingly re-creating scenarios from his notes on the novel-to-be. Unfortunately, the plot of said novel involves taking in a dim-witted boy and girl from a group home, scripting their love story through creepy manipulations, and watching their intimate moments on closed-circuit television. After enough Machiavellian proddings, the boy and girl leap to their deaths from Penthouse F, where they live with their benefactor, Richard Kalich.
Yes, the novelist and the protagonist share a name, a bit of metafictional brinkmanship meant to heighten our anxiety that this story isn't a story at all. The character Richard Kalich's preoccupation with surveillance dovetails with the writer's frustrated attempt at producing a novel about the same, throwing zeitgeisty questions about Facebook culture, dehumanizing technology, and the erotics of watching to the fore, resulting in a novel that sometimes reads more like a grad student's wet dream than a thriller.
Still, Penthouse F is a page-turner because it dares its reader to understand Kalich's motives, both as a character in a story and as its maker. Recounted in interview transcripts between Kalich and an unnamed investigator as well as in facsimiles of Kalich's notes for his unwritten novel, we see how a failure to control words – paired with abject romantic failures – might lead a man to play with others' lives.