Jonathan Baumbach Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Irving Malin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Haskel Frankel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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 entire section is 256 words.)

James Harvey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 …...

(The entire section is 1019 words.)

C.D.B. Bryan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Henry S. Resnik

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 181 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Thalia Selz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Joseph Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Irving Malin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 285 words.)

Terence Winch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Don Skiles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

(The entire section is 676 words.)