You, or the Invention of Memory by Jonathan Baumbauch (A Review by Thomas Michael Duncan)

baumbachyou-face
Dzanc Books
167 pages | $15.95 

Through a narrative shaped by lies, fractured memories, and misunderstandings, Jonathan Baumbach explores just what makes a romantic relationship such a difficult, punishing venture.

The central concern of the story is the relationship between Jay, a middle-aged novelist who narrates the majority of the novel, and the unnamed woman for whom he develops an unusual, obsessive brand of love. What complicates the narrative to an almost endless degree is Jay’s unreliable memory and his propensity to bend the truth to his liking. “I am a liar,” he says at the beginning of the novel. “I freely confess—no knife at my throat—that I make things up and therefore… I’m asking for your trust.” Of course, a request for faith from a narrator is, if nothing else, a red flag for readers to not trust the narrator.

Practically nothing in this novel is concrete. Character names, for example, are often questioned or changed or forgotten altogether. Important plot points, such as the first meeting between Jay and the object of his affection, are occasionally revisited and revised, either by Jay himself or at the insistence of another character. Even the point of view is in flux; while the first and last sections of the novel are written in the first-person from Jay’s point of view and addressed to the unnamed woman, the middle section is divided between a first-person narrative from the woman’s point of view and a small segment of third-person prose. This middle section addresses and disputes Jay’s narration, yet it does not serve as a definitive, pure version of the story. Instead, Baumbach uses these alternate perspectives to show how two people can create, from the same set of experiences, completely different memories and—as a result—different understandings of their relationship. Which begs the question, how can two people communicate effectively and live harmoniously when they exist in two contrasting realities?

At several points in the story, the two main characters meet after some time apart and recognize each other, but only peripherally:

“My first impression is not overwhelmingly favorable. I find myself resenting your self-satisfied poise while I admire despite myself your sangfroid. Of course I know you. It’s just that I can’t, under duress of the moment, remember your name… So with overcompensating bravura and minimal conviction, I whisper for your attention the only name memory allows me.”

Again and again, Jay remembers the woman in a different context than she remembers him. In this manner, their relationship is deconstructed and rebuilt over and over. It is a maddening, tortuous cycle, yet Jay cannot stop pursuing her, and she cannot always spurn his advances.

Readers searching for vibrant characters, a fascinating plot, or an emotional climax will be disappointed by You. The value of Baumbach’s novel lies in its thoughtful, stately prose and rich language. While Baumbach’s diction will have many readers reaching for their pocket dictionaries, rarely does a word appear grossly out of place.

Consider this, the second line of the novel: “The opening sentence, with your unspoken consent, has edged its way into the barely remembered past.” This statement is a warning, a reminder of our limited capacities. Do you remember the first line of the last novel you read? What about the first line of this review? Reading Baumbach’s You just might change the way you think about memory.
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Thomas Michael Duncan lives in Syracuse, New York. He has reviewed books for PANK, Necessary Fiction, and Prick of the Spindle. Pick his brain @ThomasMDuncan.

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