Jonathan Baumbach,
You (or the Invention of Memory)
(Rager, 2007)

Last year, Jonathan Baumbach, one of America's most overlooked novelists, published You, his 11th novel and 20th book. As a postmodern novelist, Baumbach is probably used to his books not making the charts; he writes books that are read by a small, discerning audience one year, a few more people the next, and so on for a long duration. These are books that endure, spread by word of mouth and hand to hand, rather than books that make a lot of noise for six weeks and are then forgotten.

Still, the reception You got must have shocked him. Three weeks after publication, with one fine review in hand, the publisher folded, leaving Baumbach's book an orphan. Taking things in their own hands, the author and his publicist decided to try and get the book the readership it deserves.

If you've never heard of Baumbach, it is probably because he is a practitioner of what has come to be called surfiction, a method of writing that tries to erase the imaginary lines between author, book and reader. Surfiction admits that there is an author writing a novel and that the novel is a made-up thing, an artifact. It is a new form of fiction that does not necessarily attempt to be meaningful, truthful or realistic. In some hands, it can be self-conscious, overly cute and designed to draw attention to how clever the writer is. In the hands of a genuine talent like Baumbach, it makes for funny and fascinating reading.

You is a novel addressed to the fictional antagonist, the narrator's ex-wife. She is addressed as "you," and part one of the novel is written directly to her. In it, the unnamed narrator tells his version of their life together, telling how they met, how their affair developed and the story of the problems in their relationship -- as he remembers them. He has difficulties, he says, distinguishing reality from "the more compelling narrative of my fantasies."

And there we have the theme of the book: is it possible to actually remember or is all memory more connected to fantasy than actuality? Can there be a reality separate from the mind of the individual?

In part two, the viewpoint shifts to the woman as we get her version of the same story, which turns out to be just as unreliable as the narrator's. Needless to say, her memories do not jibe with his, although she admits she tends to forget a lot of things.

In part three, several years have passed and the man takes over the narration once again. In this closing section, the whole question of identity becomes central as the narrator encounters a woman he believes to be his ex-wife but who denies ever knowing him. Without giving away any of Baumbach's major scenes, let me just say that the quiet humor that has been building through the book pays off in the last section, with a couple of therapists involved.

As you read You, at times you find yourself asking what Baumbach is doing. You might still have questions at the end of the book, but you will know that Baumbach has accomplished what every novelist, traditional or postmodern, sets out to do. He has entertained, amused and enlightened you. After reading You, you'll never look at your relationships or your own mind in quite the same way.

Note: although the publisher crashed, You remains in print.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 February 2009

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