Fiction: Who, You?
Jonathan Baumbach, You: Or the Invention of Memory (Rager Media, 2008)
The flap of your book identifies you as a “post-modern legend,” which I’m not sure how to take, so it is with some apprehension that I flip to the beginning of You. As I read the first pages I’m overwhelmed by your words’ assaultive intimacy, which feels almost painful, like being touched too hard suddenly in a sensitive spot. You are writing to me. The novel is, as you say, essentially an act of love between the writer (you) and the reader (me). And I don’t even know you! However, for some mysterious reason you seem to know me….
Except, I realize with dismay, you don’t. You’d been addressing a shadowy female muse—your reader/lover—and while your familiarity with me was a little unnerving, I felt flattered and excited by the attention. But the second person here turns out not to be who I initially thought: suddenly you’re addressing “an exquisitely over-dressed fiftyish woman” who bankrolls liaisons at the Plaza—a “you” who very clearly is not me. I feel disappointed, even betrayed. I’m no longer your subject, not even your audience; now I’m a voyeur, reading about your love affair with a woman to whom I cannot relate, and even resent. Your book holds less interest now that I’ve been written out of it. I keep reading anyway, figuring now that I’m here I’ll get to know my rival, and find out where things go between the two of you.
But this does not happen. Your story isn’t straight, and the woman keeps shifting. I know she’s not me, but I begin to wonder, is she actually anyone? As the novel unfolds I grow less offended, and don’t feel so spurned. You’re not writing to a specific woman after all, at least, not in any recognizable or straightforward fashion. Instead, you seem to be describing a love affair—not necessarily one particular love affair, but the idea of a love affair—and creating an analogy to memory and imagination and the process of fiction.
The book spirals out into a series of stories that are and are not about a single affair. There are recurring patterns: ubiquitous elevators, trysts and reunions, and the “other man” Roger that all reappear in various more or less bizarre permutations. Events that seem imagined or speculative in one telling become literal in the next, as characters and their relationships keep shifting away from what you’ve established, until it’s as if the book itself is squirming and changing in my hands. For me, You is at its best when your narrative strains the limits of the realistic and crashes into absurd, where memoir becomes fantasy, and fevered imaginings are presented as literal truth. The course and effect of this protean novel should be recognizable to anyone who has ever been in love or tried to create a piece of fiction. You manages to convey something essential about the arbitrary and slippery nature of events, desire, memory, and narrative.
Unfortunately, I have a hard time relating to any one of the myriad versions of people in your novel. I feel the way I did as a child watching adults interact in Woody Allen movies. Who are these middle-aged New Yorkers? I don’t know them! They live in Manhattan, instead of Brooklyn; they don’t have cellphones, but they do go to Starbucks; they’ve got email, but place personal ads in the New York Review of Books instead of online dating services. They play tennis and go to couples therapy. I don’t understand how these people interact socially, the way they meet for dinner or sleep together or fall in love. Of course, this is a personal objection, and the generational and cultural gulf between your characters’ lives and my own wouldn’t be such a problem if the book weren’t in the second person. Its form and subject call for a level of empathy and engagement that I cannot attain, and my inability to inhabit your “you” feels frustrating.
But maybe this is part of your point. You write at the outset that your book’s “universality is in its particulars”; my exclusion from your story may just further illustrate the limits of fiction, and the challenge of intimacy.