Jonathan Baumbach Baumbach, Jonathan (Vol. 6) - Essay

Baumbach, Jonathan (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.