Dear Mr. Baumbach:
I’m writing to let you know how disappointed we are in you, how hurt and angry we all are about the way you let us down. I’m writing to let you know about our frustration and sadness, at the way you came so close and then ruined everything.
I saw “we” even though I’m writing only on my own behalf because there are many readers within each of us. There is the reader who craves pulp, who revels in the cheap-thrills of fat novels with newsprint pages and morally unambiguous heroes. There is the reader who delights in psychological insight, the intimacy that comes from being allowed to crawl around in the dark corners of someone else’s mind. There is the ascetic, intellectual reader who takes pleasure in theoretical tangles and metafictional challenges. There is the reader who wants nothing but love stories.
And when we sat down to read B, we were more than a little excited. In addition to the slick jacket design, the blurbs on the back cover of your novel promised great things: “He’s one of my favorite writers,” Robert Coover wrote about you, and Russell Banks described another of your works as “a wonderful book of stories.” And reading the preface of B we felt that our anticipation was justified. Framing the book as an autobiography, you wrote:
“When I reached 50, turned that mortal corner, I decided it was time to tell my own story unmediated by metaphorical disguise.”
We nodded and licked our lips:
things looked promising to say the least.
You clearly knew your stuff:
how to put a sentence together, simply and elegantly, how to pack complexity into the bare skeleton of words required and how to coax richness out of the mundane.
B, the protagonist of your novel, your “author’s imagined self” within the text, was likeable and fallible and convincing. All the elements were there.
But as we read the first few chapters of B, we found ourselves becoming increasingly dismayed and confused. And by the end of the book, the only question we could ask was: what, exactly, were you trying to do, Mr. Baumbach?
Composed of fourteen chapters, each of which functions as a stand-alone story, B is a book of blurred boundaries and self-negation. The protagonist of the book and your stand-in character who bears the name of the title, is a man for whom the distinction between fiction and reality hardly exists – his memory is fragmented and he re-shapes his recollections to the demands of whatever situation he finds himself in, and he is haunted by questions of fiction: “if this experience were a story, how would it be told?” he asks himself again and again.
Similarly, the line between yourself, Mr. Baumbach, and your fictional stand-in is hazy and indistinct:
at times you seem to speak for him, while at other times he speaks for you.
At the same time, the protagonist of B seems to be terrified by stories. He writes: “It’s a recurrent problem of mine, how to begin. I try to work my way into it, come to my subject from some undisclosed angle. What happens is, I never get to what I perceive as the real story.” And later:
“I write novels… that frankly confess themselves to be pieces of fabrication and that don’t try to deceive an unwary reader into believing otherwise.”
Of course, Mr. Baumbach, both you and I realize that few readers are dumb enough to take the contents of a novel for literal truth – this is a point so obvious that it doesn’t even seem worth mentioning. Clearly the only person your narrator is quarantining from the dangers of fiction is himself.
Which, in and of itself, is not a problem. Okay, so we have a character – B – who cannot distinguish between life and fiction and is therefore phobic of fiction. So far so good. But after guiding us this far, we expected you to do something with the crisis you have created; we expected you to make this paradox productive, somehow. To arrive at some kind of insight into the opposing forces – or barring this, at least to give us a taste of the powerful fictions which torment and beguile your character.
But none of these things ever happens. Over the course of the book B learns nothing, nothing changes. And the stories that he imagines or wanders through – often the distinction is unclear – seem to be a kind of atrophied realism:
revolving around the narrator’s self-centered blundering through a string of failed romances they dissolve into unreconciled alternatives, stop mid-sentence, and do not even imagine that resolution is possible. They give us nothing that we want from fictions, none of the things that make fictions seductive and dangerous.
This is not to say, Mr. Baumbach, that there is nothing enjoyable in B. Out of the novel’s fourteen chapters, at least five are lovely pieces of work. (For the record, they are: “Lost in Eros,” “Intimacy,” “The History of Elegance,” “An Annotated History of the Past,” “Outtakes,” and “His View of Her View of Him.”) In these stories, you come very close to telling something genuinely true and moving about the human condition. Your narrator has the charming, irritating egocentrism of Philip Roth’s protagonists, and your use of textual self-reference is executed with an elegance reminiscent of Italo Calvino. And if this book were billed as a collection of short stories bound together by a common narrator, we might have come away satisfied – after all, a .357 batting average is nothing to scoff at.
But the problem is, B is supposed to be a novel – and the label of “novel” implies certain things, foremost among them the integration of the work’s heterogeneous parts. It is from the synthesis of their parts that the meaning of novels – at least, novels that explicitly take note of themselves as a text, like B – emerges. Yet this is precisely what never happens in B:
instead, things fall apart, the disparate stories of B’s life do not cohere. Again and again, at the novel’s best moments, we felt close to some realization (some unnamed thing lurking just below the horizon of the text) and again and again it never appeared, leaving us with a feeling like sexual frustration.
Because of this, B winds up seeming at best like a collection of odds and ends pasted together into something of publishable length, at worst like a novel with no message other than utter nihilism: integration is impossible, things never change. The fact that some of these pieces are quite beautiful does not excuse the book’s overall failure. In fact, it only emphasizes the failure – because you are such a good writer, Mr. Baumbach, because you are clearly capable of much more.
Which leads us to ask once again:
what the hell were you trying to do? Are you really such a cynic that you are willing to devote years of work to a text that has nothing to offer other than despair?
We hope not. We hope, instead, that we just missed something – that you were trying to use your considerable powers as a writer to do something more than tantalize and frustrate. Please, Mr. Baumbach, say it ain’t so.
We await your response.
Mr. Baumbach’s book is available for purchase at
About the author:
Matthew Flaming is affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic in most applications, and comes in a variety of convenient flavors and packages including new Literary Purple. More information can be found at www.matthewflaming.com.