Baumbach, Jonathan (Vol. 23)
Jonathan Baumbach 1933–
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and film and literary critic.
Baumbach is an important figure in postmodern experimental writing. In order to reflect the chaos of life, especially within the urban scene, he uses nonlinear, episodic plots, inconsistent points-of-view, dreams, role reversals, collages, and various cinematic techniques.
The Landscape of Nightmare established him as an important critic of contemporary fiction. His influence is also felt from his connection with the Fiction Collective, a group of writers who publish their own work.
(See also CLC, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
For [Jonathan Baumbach] the modern world is a nightmare, and the best contemporary novelists know it, and tell us what it is like to realize the fact. But they do it, not as did an earlier generation, in terms of social defeats and victories, but in terms of the Self, a private world of "adamic falls and quixotic redemptions" made public. The American Romance has turned Dostoievskian, its hero, or anti-hero, contemplates his own secret spiritual history, his "exemplary passage from innocence to guilt to redemption."
But Baumbach, fortunately, is less interested in the large generalizing comment than in coming to terms with "the texture and impact of the individual novel's experience." Most of [The Landscape of Nightmare] consists of detailed analysis of individual novels by Bellow, Ellison, Malamud, Wright Morris, Flannery O'Connor, Salinger, Styron, Wallant, and (rather surprisingly) Robert Penn Warren.
He is most at home, naturally enough, with those writers who best fit his thesis: Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, the Malamud of The Assistant and, notably, Edward Wallant. Baumbach gives an excellently terse account of The Pawnbroker, the most nightmarish of all these nightmare landscapes. Throughout this study an intelligent and supple sympathy helps Baumbach to decipher and articulate the intentions and patterns of these novels, though he is not always so successful in providing the close local...
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In his introduction [to The Landscape of Nightmare] Mr. Baumbach writes: "the post-Second-World-War American novel is not so much concerned with social defeats and victories as with adamic falls and quixotic redemptions." He believes that it explores "the underside of consciousness." These statements are not very startling … and they make us feel that Mr. Baumbach will offer many routine comments.
But he surprises us. He chooses to discuss, in separate chapters, nine novels which deal with "guilt and redemption." His selection is admirably fresh: he includes essays on Wise Blood, Ceremony in Lone Tree, The Pawnbroker, and The Victim—along with essays on such "standards" as Lie Down in Darkness and The Assistant. Mr. Baumbach, in other words, rebels against the apparent clichés of his introduction in the rest of his book—or collection of individual essays?—and he contributes many exciting, brave, and helpful readings.
Despite his refusal to give us footnotes, conclusion, or index—he seems to abhor "safe" design—Mr. Baumbach makes many significant generalizations. He illuminates the "double vision" of all his novels—that ambiguity of motives captured by the use of "doubles." (The Victim, Wise Blood, and All the King's Men have a claustral quality because of the fragmentations and reflections of their heroes.) He demonstrates the way "undersides of...
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"You are what you are," he philosophized, "and if you're not, then you're nothing. He was the exception: he was who he was, and he was nothing for all the pains of being himself." This is Peter Becker on Peter Becker, the sometimes funny, sometimes touching, often pathetic man to conjure with of Jonathan Baumbach's first novel ["A Man to Conjure With"]. (p. 76)
If Peter Becker is an exasperating man as he stumbles through his own life and the lives of others, Mr. Baumbach's novel about him is even more so. There is no question as to the author's talent, sensitivity, control and intelligence. Peter is alive—with all the quirks and confusions that produce life out of paper. The same can be said of the many well-drawn lesser characters—a brother who supposedly knows the angles, an imperious nymphet to whom Peter is drawn, to mention but two—but it all adds up to nothing.
We are introduced to a man by someone we respect, asked to study the man carefully—and then are never told the point of our studies. Because of the qualities of the author that come through on every page, one is forced to reread his novel in the belief that there must be some important point or purpose that was missed. A second reading, unfortunately, merely reaffirms the talent—without lifting the surrounding fog. (p. 77)
Haskel Frankel, "Flunking Was a Habit," in The New York Times Book Review...
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[In The Landscape of Nightmare] Mr. Baumbach mostly denies himself large sociological speculations, in favor of sticking to the text. Otherwise, however, this book's modishness is extreme—and relentless.
It's all here: madness and nightmare, "adamic falls," "quixotic redemptions," the "ritual search for a true father," the "primordial self," the "Puritan vanity" that induces us to hoard "our innocence longer than any other culture," and so on. In this curious (and familiar) mental world, all possibilities are "existential," all passages are "ritual," and all falls are "falls (Falls)." There is the usual coyness about "belief" in the real world ("our novelists, unlike our journalists who … believe in the world they see"), as well as persistent reference to things in which the critic does not believe; heaven, hell, resurrection, grace. And there is much talk of madness throughout…. [The] explicit attitude which pervades the book … is in [its] language of hysteria and despair. But what is odd is how really self-effacing it all is. There is no sense of a distinguishable person or intelligence behind any of it. How could there be? We have heard it all before, too often—and so has Mr. Baumbach.
Certainly most of the novels he considers (Invisible Man, Ceremony in Lone Tree, All the King's Men, et al) invite the categories of response and interpretation he applies to them. He is after all...
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The protagonist of Jonathan Baumbach's novel, "What Comes Next," is Christopher Steiner, a New York City college student. But Baumbach's book is [not] a "college novel."… Baumbach's writing … is finely chiseled, keen and tough; his images are violent and garish; his hero … is obsessed by nightmares…. And "What Comes Next" is not a question; it is an answer….
It is within [a] framework of menace and misunderstanding that Steiner moves. His world is a blur of paranoia and alienation. Every cruising police car is searching for him. The Army is alerted to capture him. Pedestrians are tailing him. Every encounter is a confrontation, every conversation an ambush. "A woman in the park accused me of following her," he notes in his journal, "said she was going to call a cop. I knocked her down, ran." An elderly man accidentally bumps him in the subway; he automatically strikes back and shatters the old man's glasses….
"What Comes Next" is a kaleidoscope of violence, ugliness and desolation. But that, in itself, does not seem a criterion of value. Its chief value lies in its portrayal of the madness, the disturbing, menacing atmosphere that is now so much a part of our cities.
Unable to cope with or ignore the destructiveness of urban reality, Steiner is absorbed by it and eventually becomes it. He is the middle-class prototype and the clock-tower sniper, the slayer of nurses, the irrational...
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Henry S. Resnik
Granted that we are living in violent and frequently ugly times, what can a novelist do about it other than tell us so? In his first novel, A Man to Conjure With, Jonathan Baumbach suggested an answer with an ingenious portrait of a schlemiel-Everyman cracking up. The book was pretty squirmy going, but it may have been a spiritual purgative for some. To anyone who read it and asked himself, with justifiable alarm, "What comes next?," Baumback now offers a small group of relatively normal people who turn out to be mass murderers. (p. 41)
What Comes Next is a moral sledgehammer. It may take the prize for containing the decade's most self-conscious symbolism. Whatever the author's intention, the novel reeks of gloomy righteousness, and the only possible reason for reading it is that one is sure to find the world a better place when one is finished—at least for a few hours. (p. 46)
Henry S. Resnik, "The World and the Now Generation," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LI, No. 43, October 26, 1968, pp. 41, 46.
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[The nightmare landscape of What Comes Next] is today's New York. Two protagonists, Christopher Steiner, draft-bound student, and Curtis Parks, his pacifist professor, meet, clash and reach a strange crisis in this violent city.
Baumbach's short-jabbing prose, skirting the necessary edge of hysteria, thrusts the violent city at us…. All this freshly and fiercely done, out-Nathanael Westing Nathanael West, or more to the point, out-Godarding Godard.
Curtis Parks, academic liberal, carries the "burden and ambivalence of personal responsibility" in his public and private life. He is crippled by it. A petition-signer, a protest-marcher, he is a guilt-bearer, an inadequacy-man with a failing marriage and a large-breasted student girl-friend into the bargain. Lacking and wanting a son he uncomfortably battens upon the sullen and dangerous Christopher—stilted dialogues, maneuverings, snipings back and forth, beautifully done.
Christopher lives violence in fact and fantasy. Crippled by hated parents and by the life that the city has trapped him in, he wanders disjointedly through New York, lost in fantasies of guilty violence and fearful pursuit. That burden is too much for him. Responsibility has gone, and automaton-like, half-impotent voyeur, he haunts Curtis and his girl Rosemary, participating in their guilty life at a distance. When his fantasies begin to turn real, Rosemary is the first...
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In Babble, Jonathan Baumbach gets through to the other side [of Alice's mirror]. The hero—Baby—narrates his adventures with a woodcutter, a grandma, a robot, a Cleaning Lady, superheroes and heroines, an army, etc. He takes part in these experiences as though he were adult…. This role-reversal and the accompanying—often brilliant—stylistic parody account for much of the book's humor, but it would be little more than a highly literate and inventive whimsy if it weren't for the character of both the incidents and Baby.
Baby is a gentleman. He is as modest and innocent as Woody Allen but not nearly so clumsy, as literal as Alice but far more sensitive in his responses to equally unpredictable situations. He is also clever at survival: "It was a mistake, he discovered, to tell strangers who you were. If you gave them your identity, you might not get it back." He's the first universal hero since Dostoevsky issued a moratorium on heroes, for Baby is the grownup in all our stunted selves.
In his adventures, image and incident repeat and are reflected in an ingenious series of themes-with-variations. As in dreams and mirrors, events constantly reverse themselves to show us how absurd they are. (pp. 167-68)
Baumbach's protagonists in two earlier novels—A Man to Conjure With and Reruns—are clowning victims, full of angst and running the gauntlet of modern public and private...
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Fiction is a house of many mansions, no less a practitioner than Henry James has told us, but there are moments when it can take on the look of a quite sleazy housing development.
Consider, for starters, Babble by Jonathan Baumbach, a book that appears under the imprint of the Fiction Collective, a publishing concern set up for printing books that, ostensibly, have no commercial audience (though three segments of Babble appeared in Esquire). The Fiction Collective! At the mere mention of the name one takes off one's hat and places it over one's heart, for it would seem to stand for all that is truth and beauty and cultural courage: art difficult, demanding, undebauched. Not certainly for a commercial audience, the works of the Fiction Collective, but for whom then are they intended? (p. 594)
The hero of Babble is an infant who is put through a number of adventures that need not be retold here. The spirit of the book is best conveyed by its own advertising, which, on its jacket, runs: "Babble, a babybook for our time, is a fiction about (1) loss of innocence, (2) rites of passage, (3) family life, (4) babies, (5) baby-sitters, (6) war and peace, (7) robots, (8) raw youth, (9) crime and punishment, (10) stories, (11) sex and death, (12) language, (13) advanced education, (14) love, (15) the invention of culture, (16) mystery, (17) play, (18) fathers and sons, (19) superheroes, (20) the...
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Jonathan Baumbach uses an epigraph from Jean-Luc Godard for his brilliant novel [Chez Charlotte and Emily]: "Everything remains to be done." The sentence suggests that reality, like film, is never complete or perfect—it is, on the contrary, continually tentative.
The novel substantiates Godard's comment. We are given stories within stories, boxes within boxes. The narrator writes about a couple; the couple write or fantasize about another couple; the third couple in turn have novelistic tendencies. It is impossible to impose any linear, connecting pattern upon all these couplings; there is no urgent pattern which rules the crazy turns of plot.
Baumbach uses such names as "Francis Sinatra" and "Judith Garland." These names alert us to cinematic qualities: character is a series of flashing lights (often blinding), elaborate masquerades, "unreal" rhythms. Human experience seems, therefore, arbitrary, improvisionational, and theatrical. (We are back to Godard's cryptic message.) When Baumbach deliberately contrasts the legendary qualities of a Sinatra and Garland and Mitchum with their new identities in this novel, we are forced to blink; even the apparently fixed public (or movie) stars move erratically—they elude our conventional responses.
The novel is filled with references to quick changes, reflections, and coincidences. (pp. 16-17)
I hasten to add that...
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Jonathan Baumbach's The Return of Service [is] a collection that is entirely tongue-in-cheek.
Baumbach's stories show the influence of nonsense literature, literary satire and experimental fiction. There is a story about a story, a parody of a detective novel, an essay on a nonexistent, ridiculous novel, a retelling of Hollywood's King Kong myth and an overall impression that Baumbach, like one of his characters, will do anything "if it seems like fun."
The stories are filled with comments that seem to be disguised clues, coy tip-offs that illuminate his work's intentions…. When the wife in one story says, "I prefer substance to style, except in films and literature," one has the distinct sense that Baumbach agrees with her.
Bookstores are stocked with an abundance of mediocre, conventional fiction and Baumbach's work seems motivated by a justified hostility to this situation, a desire to do violence to our expectations. Sometimes he is successful. (pp. 14-15)
Terence Winch, "Short Stops on the Reading Railroad," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), March 30, 1980, pp. 14-15.∗
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[The] writing of Jonathan Baumbach … for some readers will be exciting, involving; for others, this work will baffle, madden, and disappoint…. But even in the disappointment will be … a potential—for that is precisely Mr. Baumbach's subject; the potential situation, the next curve in the road, the way another party might view the same events …; the alternative ways in which a scene may be shot, or the title of one of Baumbach's own works, What Comes Next, that one character in a story in The Return of Service sees his wife reading in the baseball stands. We are given alternatives here that we must re-arrange; as directors we can re-stage and re-shoot the various scenarios over and over, as do the very characters themselves in the conclusion of Chez Charlotte And Emily. There are no budgetary limitations, except our own imaginative ones….
[Baumbach's] stories reflect the post-modern era, as they try for a form that synchs with a post-television age, an Age of Information, of mini home computers on which we communicate, write, view each other; an age fueled by a revolution based on silicon chips. His writing—his art—has to mirror this, interpret it, understand it, be better than it. Chez Charlotte And Emily, his novel, might be a post-literate book, one in which the events, the language, exert an effect like a black hole in space, an intense gravitational field pulling us constantly to...
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