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...
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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...
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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...
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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 …...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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Baumbach, Jonathan (Vol. 6)
Baumbach, Jonathan 1933–
Baumbach is an American literary and film critic, a playwright and novelist, and a professor of English. His Landscape of Nightmare is an important critical work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Jonathan Baumbach's "Reruns" … is non-narrative, inconsistent in point of view, and structurally askew, but with reason and frequently to good effect—it's intelligent and often funny.
The novel concerns a character, Jack (also called Bud, Kid, Ace, Honcho, Sweetheart) who is re-inventing his life, reliving past events, real and imagined. Often he reflects on what couldn't have happened to him, on what, in fact, hasn't happened in the long history of the linear novel. Baumbach seems to be striving for the kind of simultaneous vision a movie or painting can express. He wants to show us objects and characters from mutually exclusive perspectives, to stretch our understanding of time and expand our comprehension of emotions so that contrary feelings will spring from the same experience.
But reading remains a sequential act. The eye moves from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page. Confronted by the limitations of print and human perception, Baumbach chooses to rely on statements that contain their own contradictions: "It was the same day that my phone was disconnected, the same day or the day after." "I didn't wave—I waved—back." "We each enter and exit in our separate ways. Two entrances. Three exits."
One understands the author's intention, but after 50 or 60 such sentences, the reader loses a bit of his ability to respond or, worse yet, begins to suspect that Baumbach is spinning his wheels, not pursuing deeper meaning. Still, it can be funny—"The news had traveled so fast it had gotten to me before I had come to it." "The last time I lost her she was gone so long that when I found her again she was somebody else." Jonathan Baumbach is much too talented to ruin his book—his prose has energy and acuity and he clearly has the technical facility to write this sort of novel, but "Reruns" needs variety and more development of its characters, style and theme. (p. 27)
Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1974.
[In Reruns] Jonathan Baumbach deals with … the fight against institutions, the search for flexible identity and the significance of heritage—but he carries these [themes] toward the "landscape of nightmare" (to use the title of his critical study of contemporary American fiction). The surrealistic quality of his novel is evident on the very first page as the narrator, who often thinks of himself as "out there" or third person, proclaims that he is "vulnerable to the touch of air."
Baumbach asks important questions: does the individual gain self-knowledge by confronting his popular culture? What exactly is the value of dream (fantasy) in creating identity? Should identity be so flexible that it can adjust to different loves? Baumbach does not solemnly ask these questions; he implies them through his comic, grim treatment of his hero's adventures.
He structures his novel in a brilliant way. He gives us short chapters—32 "nights"—that run from one crazy thing to another. The pace is frenetic, "hyped-up," manic. And within each chapter the sentences (and paragraphs) rush past like flashes of light. Even the characters cannot sit still. They say a line and disappear (or reappear). The total effect is disturbing. Usual routines are destroyed; only explosive energy remains…. The confusion, violence, humor and madness are mixed so quickly that we, like the narrator (who becomes a Jack Kennedy?), are overwhelmed or, better yet, shot. And it is this sense of sudden attack that creates our identification with the disappearing, vulnerable hero. We are forced to rerun his life (as he had rerun the lives of movie stars). (pp. 25-6)
Irving Malin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 19, 1974.
Jonathan Baumbach's Reruns is an overly long conceit: autobiography recast into snippets of clichés from the movies. Most episodes end in horror or danger like the serials of our youth, but significantly without affect. Some of it is clever and darkly meaningful, but there is almost nothing cumulative here—just the same joke reworked too many times. Baumbach is a better writer than the vehicle he has chosen for this book: he has more to say than is made possible by the repetitious, narrowly confined form of his novel. (p. 602)
Beverly Gross, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 7, 1974.
Reruns is the memoir of a filmmaker who is "a hostage to the habits of rerunning the dead past in the cause of waking from the dream." But it is "the record of an imaginary life," thirty-three dream-exorcisms of the narrator's past. Like Friedman's Em [in Museum], Baumbach's narrator realizes that the past must die into the present. Hence, he attempts to fix it in time, metaphorically to "shoot" it with a camera. For a camera is a weapon, like the gun a hunter lends him to shoot seagulls. "When you kill something," the hunter explains, "it makes you feel inside and out more alive. Do you know why?… Because there is only so much air. The less there is of them, the more there is for us. It's a fact." So with the life of the past.
The dreams the narrator must shoot are those of the Jewish-American domestic nightmare. Readers of Philip Roth and his imitators will be familiar with the bellowing, ineffectual father, the suffocating mother, the agonizingly unsatisfactory relationships with women. But Baumbach escapes many of the clichés implicit in his theme by adhering only to dream logic. This lets him travesty his subject hilariously at the same time he distances himself from it. One weakness of this technique is that the dreams may become episodic and inessential. But Baumbach's invention seldom flags, and his exuberance translates into a surprisingly optimistic conclusion. Reruns ends with a death and a birth—"green leaves on a dead tree." (p. 130)
John Agar, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright Carolina Quarterly 1975), Winter, 1975.
Recent stories in Oyez, Partisan Review, and Fiction have placed [Jonathan Baumbach] in the company of our most serious experimentalists. The very fact that his progress to this style has been a studied, conservative, step-by-step process makes his works one of the best indices to fiction in our time. As he prefaces Landscape of Nightmare [his critical study of "a group of modern novelists who for the most part follow traditions"], novels must endure "as works of the imagination, as works that preserve the possibility of consciousness. As works of art." Studying the fiction of the Fifties and Sixties, writing the fiction of the Sixties and Seventies, Jonathan Baumbach keeps track, amid the changing conditions of our lives, just how that may be done. (p. 178)
A Man to Conjure With, Baumbach's first novel, is for the most part a conventional work. It is a synthesis of various trends in the modern novel, much as Landscape of Nightmare brought the criticism of this genre up to date with a summary of American developments through the mid-Sixties. There is experimentation, but within traditional bounds; there is nothing unrealistic in the book except the character's dreams, which are clearly identified as such. The book's structure bears a resemblance to Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, which Baumbach described in his own critical study as being "Ibsenic: he must move backward and forward in time simultaneously; he must delay revelation of the past so that each discovery further illuminates our understanding of the present, the final discovery, the lifting of the veil, illuminating all." Baumbach's variation is to delay revelations of the present until the past has come together in a collage which then makes the final chronological act understandable, and enlightening. (p. 179)
Baumbach's interest in the psychological, first stated in Landscape of Nightmare, is more properly a concern with a liberated working of the imagination, not with clinical abnormality. He is not interested in a character's curious behavior except for the way it reveals itself in language; and even then the way, the manner, the form, is the important thing. "Novels, like poems," he argues, "are made of words, and to deny the importance of language to the final achievement of a novel (as have some of Dreiser's defenders) is to under-value the weapons of prose." From his own novel: "Their devils made love, their angels in private terror." Or, "They danced on nerve endings to the music of silence. There was nothing to say." The roots of Baumbach's most extravagant inventions in fiction are no more complicated than this. (pp. 180-81)
As a film critic, contributing "Going to the Movies" as a regular feature in Partisan Review, Baumbach argues for the appreciation of visual image in a film: this is more important than the story line or thesis. Sight is the medium of film, expressed through visual forms. In fiction it's the words; the best way to keep attention on them is to frame experience in the non-realistic but reportable form of dreams. Or of movies, as we knew them when children. (p. 186)
Jonathan Baumbach's experience as a critic has well-suited him for his progress in advancing innovations in American fiction—but the position is not unique, nor does it disqualify him as a serious literary artist. Most serious fictionists today have academic credentials…. (pp. 187-88)
With The Fiction Collective, Baumbach has combined another rõle [that of publisher] with that of novelist. Just as a critical awareness of contemporary fiction moved his own work forward, so the rõle of publisher will enrich the possibilities for fiction. Only with complete control over its own creation can the novel develop in line with the other arts—no painter, for example, must submit his design to a commercial medium before seeing his work finished. Now fiction needn't either…. (p. 188)
Jerome Klinkowitz, "Jonathan Baumbach's Superfiction," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1975 by Chicago Review), Vol. 26, No. 4, 1975, pp. 178-88.