March 9, 2009

Book review: "You: Or, The Invention of Memory," by Jonathan Baumbach

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You: Or, The Invention of Memory
By Jonathan Baumbach
Rager Media / ISBN: 978-0-97920-918-5

As regular readers know, one of the subjects I often tackle here is that of so-called "genre" literature versus "mainstream" (or "general," or "academic," or whatever term you'd like to use), and of the various similarities and differences between the two; for example, there's what I consider the most important difference of all, that genre novels tend to concentrate on the creation of an exciting plot, while academic fiction tends to place greater importance on the creation of rich, complex characters. (Of course, the holy grail of literature is a book that presents a perfect balance between plot and character; see my review of last year's All Shall Be Well... by Tod Wodicka for an excellent example of what I'm talking about.) But there are other differences too, ones that fans usually don't like admitting, namely that each of these types of literature are couched in a whole series of easy fetishistic stereotypes; for example, no matter how much most professors wish to deny it, one is simply bound within academic fiction to come across such tropes as self-loathing suburbanites and magical old black men just as often as one stumbles across brilliant yet twisted serial killers within the world of crime novels. And fans of these books love such fetishistic touches, and are specifically on the lookout for them whenever picking up a new title; while non-fans hate such touches, and ridicule those books precisely for them. And thus makes up the Grand Game of Literature, and why it is that we so passionately argue about the relative merits of this book versus that which continues to this day.

You: Or, The Invention of Memory, by Jonathan Baumbach

Take for example celebrated academe Jonathan Baumbach, a multiple-grant-winning professor who has racked up a whole string of award nominations over his long and respected career; if his name sounds familiar to you non-academes as well, it's because his son Noah is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, and I've actually done detailed write-ups here in the past of his movies Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale (which coincidentally enough is a semi-autobiographical dark comedy about his parents' messy mid-'80s divorce, painting a scarily dysfunctional yet ultimately loving portrait of today's author under review). I just got a chance in fact to read the senior Baumbach's latest novel, 2007's You: Or, The Invention of Memory, and found it to be an almost textbook example of what I'm talking about; because some people out there are going to adore this book and some are going to despise it, ironically for the same exact reason, because of it being one of the most sweatily stacked piles of academic-fiction stereotypes this side of a drunken orgy at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And some people are simply going to love this, and some are simply going to hate it, and today I'm going to try to present as fair a look as I can at why this is.

Because let me go ahead and make my personal biases clear right away, that I myself tend to not like most academic fiction, mostly because I can't f-cking stand to be around such whiny, passive-aggressive little academic sh-ts even in real life, so certainly don't usually care for sitting around reading stories about them. And make no mistake, You's entire cast of characters consists exclusively of whiny, passive-aggressive academes; in fact, much like the aforementioned Squid, this too is a semi-autobiographical tale, the story of a relationship between a man named "JB" who just happens to be a semi-autobiographical novelist who looks exactly like the book's real author, and a woman named "Lois Lane" who works in the '70s and '80s at a hipster New York publication called The Magazine (with Baumbach's real-life ex having the equally preposterous but actual name of Georgia Brown, and who worked in the '70s and '80s at hipster New York publication The Village Voice).

It's something that drives a lot of people crazy about such fiction, including myself, this uber-meta approach to storyline found in so many such books, of how many academic novels just happen to be semi-autobiographical tales about academic writers working on semi-autobiographical tales (ugh, I know), and the miserable neurotic lives they and all their friends lead; for non-fans it is ample proof of just what kind of tail-eating snake the world of academic fiction is, and how one simply needs to "escape the ivory tower" before one will ever be able to write work that doesn't smack of navel-gazing masturbation. But like I said, to fans of such work, the storyline itself ultimately doesn't matter that much; because to these people it is character and style that is all-important, and what kinds of conclusions about the world that author has to convey. But unfortunately it is here where Baumbach legitimately stumbles a bit, no matter what you think of academic fiction in general, because he simply doesn't have much of interest to say about the human condition; in fact, when all is said and done, his main message seems to be not much more than, "All of us humans are disgusting little pricks, destined to spend our entire lives causing an endless amount of pain to everyone around us for our own petty selfish gain." And, well, jeez, eight years of Bush already taught me that.

This is always my biggest complaint about academic fiction, that the characters being presented are most often these loathsome little trolls, just these whiny little g-dd-mned cowards and moral hypocrites possessing all the emotional maturity of a horny 14-year-old boy; and every time I come across another book full of such characters, the only thing I can seem to ask myself is, "Why did this author think I wanted to sit down and spend a couple of days in the company of such horrid little monsters to begin with?" I mean, even the couple at the heart of You flat-out state the very first time they meet that they can't really stand each other; so why do they end up sleeping together anyway, over and over and over again? And when the sex finally stops being interesting, why do they think that moving in together will somehow magically solve the problem? And when that starts going sour, why do they then think that getting married will somehow magically solve that problem? WHY, YOU MANIPULATIVE LITTLE ASSH-LES? WHY? WHY?! WHY???!!!!! These are the kinds of people I expressly try to avoid even in real life, specifically because there seems to be no rational explanation for their constant and unending dysfunctional behavior; so why would I possibly care about such fates when they're only fictional characters? And if I don't care about the fates of a novel's characters, why again am I reading that novel in the first place?

But of course I'm not being fair to fans of such books, which is always the problem of a critic bringing his personal biases into a review; they'll tell you that the entire point precisely is to wallow in the misery of it all, that such a novel shines a light on a whole section of society that deserves to have a light shined on it. And this too is another big difference between academic and genre fiction, and why fans of each tend to poo-poo the other; because for academic fans, a novel can often succeed merely by being a "snapshot" of a specific group of people within a specific time and place in history, that nothing needs to necessarily "happen" within such a novel for it to ultimately be worth our time, as long as by the end we understand a little more about what makes such people tick. And in this you can make yet another legitimate criticism about You in particular, whether or not you're a fan of academic literature in general; because the fact is that Baumbach simply does not present as intriguing or complex of characters or milieu as the best of academic literature does, people like John Irving or Philip Roth or Michael Chabon or TC Boyle who are all just absolute masters of such a thing.

And then finally there's also this big difference between academic and genre tales; that among those who study language for a living (i.e. the academes), how you tell a story is as important as what you have to say, which is why so much academic fiction tends to be chock-full of ten-dollar words that go right over so many people's heads, and why so many of them embrace experimental stylistic structures that by the end threaten to become incomprehensible. And yes, once again You is guilty of this as well, and what you ultimately think of the book will depend greatly on what you think of such structural experiments in general; for as the title suggests, the entire first half of this book is written in the rarely-used second-person voice, the male narrator actually telling the story as if it were a giant hundred-page letter to the jilted/jilting lover in question. (And indeed, the main character even admits that he's writing the entire book while picturing the mental image of the jilted ex actually sitting and reading it in the future, yet another example of this navel-gazing uber-meta masturbation by egomaniacal little pricks that I mentioned earlier.)

Now, this alone wouldn't have been so bad in my opinion (I have a high tolerance for well-done experimentation, as regular readers know), and in fact I believe would've made for a nice solid project by the end if this had been the only experiment tried, and if Baumbach had carried it through to the very last page; but this is yet another legitimate problem with You in particular versus academic fiction in general, that this book tends to throw in a whole hodgepodge of such experiments, willy-nilly throughout the manuscript until becoming a baffling mess by the end. For example, Baumbach switches over to a traditional third-person voice for the second half of this slim novel, and with the woman suddenly now narrating the story, thus diluting the entire point of titling it You in the first place; and even while maintaining this second-person voice in the first half, he also randomly throws in such other experiments as dueling alternate realities (with the first half of the book actually consisting of two different storylines woven in and out of each other, a sort of Sliding Doors look at two possible ways this relationship could've actually gone down), while in the second half he tosses in such undergrad-style classroom exercises as entire chapters written as therapy-session transcripts. And this is not to even mention the little flashes of our old friend the unreliable narrator found throughout, rearing its confused little head for a few pages before the narrator suddenly becoming sane again; just to cite one good example, I don't know what the f-ck Baumbach meant by the little one-page suggestion in the first half that his girlfriend tried to poison him during a trip to France, and also don't know what he means by then never referring to the incident ever again, nor to the persistent rumor in the first half among mutual friends that she had poisoned boyfriends before.

It's for all of these reasons that I am not giving You a very high score today; but it's also for these reasons that you might want to check it out anyway, especially if you're already a fan of such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Owen Butler, or such annual events as the National Book Critics Circle Award. For all of you, this book will most definitely be worth your time; for all of you not into such things, though, my recommendation today is to skip this novel altogether.

Out of 10: 7.6

Read even more about You: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:43 PM, March 9, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |