Readers mostly unfamiliar with the work of Jonathan Baumbach (perhaps aware that he is vaguely identified as an “experimental” writer and that his son is a film director whose most famous film portrays a character loosely based on him) would find his latest selection of stories, The Pavilion of Former Wives, to be on the whole usefully representative of Baumbach’s work in its prevailing subject, but not so revealing of the more adventurous formal strategies Baumbach has employed in his best fiction. As with most of Baumbach’s work in the second half of his career—a career that overall has now spanned more than 50 years—the stories in The Pavilion of Former Wives track the erratic course of love and marriage (the latter often interfering with the former), usually from the perspective of a relationship-battered male protagonist. Two of the most frequent versions of this protagonist figure are the writers “B” and “Josh,” both of whom do indeed make appearances in Pavilion, along with other, similar characters named “Jay” or “Jacob,” whose often fumbling attempts to adequately comport themselves in the company of women are featured in the book.
Since the stories unfold from the protagonist’s point of view (although not always in the first person), we are usually influenced to, if not exactly wish him well in his efforts to cope with the consequences of his romantic follies, at least then to view him as somewhat less than completely clueless in his dealings with women. Still, most of Baumbach’s “heroes” (it is hard not to take them as partially stand-ins for the author) seem both deeply wounded by their failures in love and marriage and unable to really alter the attitudes and actions that clearly contribute to these failures. Collectively, these fictions depict a pattern of male behavior that ultimately exhausts the patience of wives and lovers, causing them to rebel in both implicit and explicit ways (most obviously, divorce), although the culpability of Baumbach’s male characters is most often a function of befuddlement and incomprehension rather than deliberate insensitivity—however little the difference ultimately matters.
B is featured in the book’s first story, the title story, a quasi-fantasy narrative in which B is able to revisit former relationships at a kind of carnival sideshow attraction, while the second story, “Acting Out,” features Jay, whose sessions in marriage counseling the story relates. “Seattle” concerns Josh Quartz and his wife, Genevieve, who have appeared in Baumbach’s books periodically since his 1979 novel, Chez Charlotte and Emily. These three stories immediately situate us in familiar Baumbach fictional space, inhabited by characters preoccupied with their domestic and romantic travails (the women as well as the men), sometimes choosing to relive them in their seeming inability to “move on.” This is dramatized most forcefully in “The Pavilion of Former Wives,” in which B literally cannot resist the invitation, discovered through a personal ad in an “intellectual journal,” to “revisit past relationships and, by rediscovering where they had hit the skids, possibly make right what had once gone terribly wrong.” B risks even more “going wrong” when he asks the woman portraying his wives in the pavilion’s reenactments out on a date, and at the story’s conclusion, already “filled with intimations of regret,” he clearly intends to pursue the relationship even farther.
This story actually gets the book off to an auspicious start, as its lightly surreal qualities introduce a compelling variation on Baumbach’s typical sort of domestic farce, while also evoking the dream-like atmosphere he sought to produce in much of his earlier work. “Seattle” enhances the portrayal of his dysfunctional relationships by providing a glimpse of such a relationship additionally navigating the onset of old age and the failures of memory that accompany it, as both Josh and Genevieve struggle to maintain their bearings in the present and their recall of the past—particularly their past grievances with one another. But most of the remaining stories are formally unadventurous, relating more of the same sort of tale of love and conflict on which Baumbach has almost obsessively focused since at least his novel Separate Hours (1990). “The Story” and “The Night Writer” are brief metafictional vignettes that remind us that Baumbach has since the 1970s been identified as a postmodernist interested in interrogating the representational and storytelling assumptions of fiction, and “The New York Review of Love” is related through the exchange of letters between a man and a woman that are prompted by the latter’s placement of a personal ad in, presumably, another “intellectual journal,” but each of these stories is rather slight and would hardly impress new readers as the work of an intrepid innovator of literary form or a keen observer of the interactions between the sexes.
Baumbach has never exactly been the most resolute exponent of formal experiment in fiction (although he has in reviews, essays, and interviews frequently enough spoken up on behalf of unconventional, “difficult” fiction, and he served as the founding editor of the Fiction Collective (now FC2), arguably the first important American independent literary press devoted exclusively to experimental fiction), but in the 1970s (and intermittently thereafter) he did produce some noteworthy, unconventional books that still hold up as inventive works of literary art. The first of these books, Reruns, was published in 1974, following on his first two novels of mostly conventional postwar realism. Reruns draws inspiration from Baumbach’s lifelong fascination with movies, as well as his interest in dreaming and dream states (the two perhaps in fact closely related), an interest clearly announced in the title of his first book, the 1965 critical study, The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the American Novel. In this book, Baumbach the critic discusses the ways in which selected American writers in the immediate postwar period metaphorically invoke an imagery of “nightmare,” creating a nightmarish atmosphere to capture the terrifying qualities of American life that confront the characters in their novels and stories. But where the narratives in this fiction otherwise remain within the recognizable boundaries of realism, Reruns literalizes the nightmare, depending not on cumulative imagery or atmosphere to work figuratively, but substituting for the discreet effects of language a narrative structure that mimics dreams.
Since all fiction is ultimately an illusion conjured by words, Baumbach’s dream narratives, like all narratives, are of course unavoidably metaphorical. But beginning with Reruns, Baumbach employs the device as a conceit in the same sense that a story is itself a conceit, an extended structural trope that lends to the work of fiction its manifestation of form. These books dispense both with “plot” as the source of narrative coherence, as well as with “coherence” itself understood as the expectation that image and episodic action will make immediate “sense” of the sort we assume will prevail in our normal waking moments. Thus Reruns depicts a man’s life as literally a series of dreamed reenactments. The “reruns” freely indulge in the kind of distortion and incongruous juxtapositions we associate with dreams, often incorporating the narrative devices and the iconography of movies (as well as actual movie stars: “One day (it was raining as I recall), Walter Brennan dropped in,” one dream chapter begins.) If the novel provides an intelligible account of its protagonist’s life after all, its failures and follies, it’s not because it sets out to present one but because the integrity of the dream vision (or series of visions) inevitably distills the essential moments, the indelible impressions, that continue to linger with the character’s putatively dreaming self.
While the degree of calamity the narrator of Reruns seems to have experienced is nightmarish enough, the overarching tone of the novel is broadly comic, a characteristic shared with Baumbach’s subsequent fiction as well and one that clearly indicates how he adapted the bleak outlook examined in his critical study, and to an extent embodied in his own first two novels, into a blackly comic view of men and women struggling to understand each other in a landscape of bitterness and recrimination. Such a shift does indeed align Baumbach’s work more closely with the predominant spirit of American postmodern fiction of the 1960s and 1970s (and shows him to be a naturally funny writer as well), although his next novel, Babble (1976), while obviously retaining the surrealism of its predecessor, is lighter in tone, its humor less discernibly an alternative expression of terror and dread of the kind postmodern comedy so often represents. The hero of Babble is a baby who has the power of articulate (at times very articulate) speech and is very thoughtful about the various dilemmas he faces as a human infant. Once we have accepted this fanciful premise, the book is essentially a collection of picaresque adventures, as the baby takes on the role of superhero, detective, and soldier, and in one episode he “is admitted with what his parents consider unseemly haste to a private California university”—where he is immediately asked, “Do you want to teach a section of composition?”
Chez Charlotte and Emily (1979) is the culmination of Baumbach’s efforts to situate his work as part of the efflorescence of experimental fiction in postwar American literature. It is his best book, and the one most likely to attract future readers and to possibly influence more adventurous writers. In it Baumbach applies the episodic dreamscape strategy employed in Reruns even more rigorously and more vigorously, opening up the “story” to a larger cast of characters from whose alternating perspective Baumbach evokes an array of hallucinatory scenes, ostensibly originating in a novel being written by Joshua Quartz, who relates these scenes to his wife Genevieve, although Joshua tells us at the beginning that the main characters are—Joshua Quartz and his wife Genevieve. Joshua and Genevieve, however, cohabit the novel (both Joshua’s novel and the novel we are reading) with Francis and his wife Nora. Francis initiates the novel’s enabling action when he is pulled away by the tide while swimming and washes up in an isolated cove, where he is discovered by two sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Francis chooses to leave his old life behind and stay with the sisters.
Francis’s rather ethereal experiences with Charlotte and Emily, and his eventual return, intermix with episodes focusing on Nora, who takes the opportunity of her husband’s disappearance and presumed death to assert her independence, and on Joshua and Genevieve, who have some pretty extreme experiences of their own. Ultimately, however, the various stories contribute to a kind of phantasmagoria, their more absurdly fanciful qualities (Genevieve’s affair with “Bobby Mitchum,” for example) presumably attributed to Joshua’s literary imagination, as is their ultimate refusal to consolidate into a recognizable, naturalistic depiction of the novel’s characters and their “true” circumstances. Finally the truest subject of Chez Charlotte and Emily is the marriage of Joshua and Genevieve, but unlike Baumbach’s other, later examinations of marital discord and romantic incompetence, this novel is able to realize the subject with the kind of formal ingenuity that fully confirms Baumbach’s reputation as an experimental writer whose efforts contributed to an enlargement of the conceptual possibilities available to adventurous writers.
Regrettably, Baumbach failed to really follow up on the achievement of Chez Charlotte and Emily, first of all in the most literal way possible: over the next decade he would publish only one novel, My Father More or Less (1982), and one thin volume of short fiction, The Life and Times of Major Fiction (1987). The former is perhaps Baumbach’s weakest novel (although potentially of interest to fans of Baumbach’s son, film director Noah Baumbach, presumably the model for the young son portrayed in the novel), and while the latter contains stories of interest (particularly the title story), it is altogether a rather modest volume. Since Separate Hours in 1990, Baumbach has published more or less regularly, although mostly with small, independent presses (including one that ceased operation shortly after publishing Baumbach’s novel You, forcing Baumbach to buy the remaining copies and attempt to have the book republished). Readers coming to Baumbach’s work for the first time through these books would certainly find them a departure from the practices of mainstream “literary fiction,” but at best they employ the strategies originating in Reruns and Chez Charlotte and Emily—Dreams of Molly (2011) is in fact a direct sequel to Reruns—without advancing beyond the attainments of those earlier novels.
Of the later books, perhaps B (2004) offers the greatest interest as an exemplar of Baumbach’s most persistent preoccupations. Again conflict between the sexes provides the thematic focus, manifested in diverse ways through a series of miscellaneous episodes involving the title figure, a writer who begins the book by telling us he had decided upon turning 50 “it was time to tell my own story unmediated by metaphorical disguise.” B is the Baumbach protagonist most transparently a stand-in for the author, so we should of course respect the metafictional distance B’s lowering of the “metaphorical disguise” paradoxically imposes, but B is finally such a familiar figure in Baumbach’s work, resembling so many of the other apparent surrogates in behavior and attitude, while the circumstances and events recounted in B so often echo the particulars found across Baumbach’s fiction, that the self-reflexive references to the protagonist’s vocation become more the essentially realistic details underpinning a work that itself never strays too far from its own kind of episodic realism.
Still, the book’s form, not quite a novel, certainly not a set of slickly polished stories, gives it an aesthetic edge and an agreeably ragged unity that make B a better introduction to Jonathan Baumbach’s work than The Pavilion of Lost Wives. Unfortunately, neither of them reveal Baumbach to be an important if unjustly neglected experimental writer but rather a minor participant in the “classic” phase of American postmodernism who never quite managed to validate his initial (although nevertheless very real) accomplishments challenging traditional practice.