Walking Dream State All the Time: TFT Review of Dreams of Molly by Jonathan Baumbach
Jonathan Baumbach’s latest novel Dreams of Molly signifies a glorious statement on parody of parody in a modern world where a middle-aged white dude is having issues. Recently described as writing with “batshit logic” by Time Out Chicago, the work walks the line of surrealism from sentence one, and it is clear to us, the readers, as usual, that if nothing else, Baumbach is a master at the craft. Sentences woven gorgeously through an unreliable narrator, Baumbach is breaking some incredibly heady ground. By asking readers to look at the blur between living a life on the page and living a life in life, Baumbach is asking readers to identify with being a writer.
As a young writer, I was told a few things: 1. Never write about Kafka. Read Kafka, study Kafka, but actually writing about Kafka will make you look like a second-year graduate student, which is worse than being an undergraduate sophomore. You think you know everything, so you talk a lot, and you are obnoxious, because you know zilch. This old school philosophy held true, or so I thought, until I was sent out to cover a Lynne Tillman event on Kafka at the KGB over the summer of 2009 for Words Without Borders and learned that I was, bluntly put, wrong about the Kafka thing. Actually, I think my editor sent me over there specifically to change my mind about the issue. 2. I was told to never write dream sequences. Dream sequences are akin to having a drunk character, an unreliable character, an overdone easy give that doesn’t have to explain itself or earn a damn thing from anyone. Then I got even deeper into translated writers, and learned, oh man, that professor must have meant something else when they said don’t write dreams because Marquez, to me, was an example of a writer writing, this to me was glorious sentencing, painting, weaving, craft, and all I wanted was the David Lynch walking dream state all the time, all I wanted to write were dreams, and oddly-crafted, unreliable, artful, mind-melting dream sequences. The question I had to ask myself was: Was it an easy give? Was it easier to create a surrealist atmosphere under the guise of sleep? Was I just riffing around like a young writer does? There are, of course, other literary go-to’s for these deviant tricks such as inebriation/drug use, take Trainspotting, for example. There is amnesia, take the movie Memento, for example. On first read I kept thinking about these artworks as well as Atwood’s novel Lady Oracle in which a young woman fakes her own death, and begins sending post cards back from Italy. Then I was also thinking about Agualusa’s Book of Chameleons, in which a shape-shifting Gecko who lives on a wall can enter and change people’s dreams. It’s a little bit of a bait-and-switcheroo when you think about it. Less accountability. This going, “We’re writing, we’re reading, we’re going along. Oh hey, it was all a dream. Last page now, thanks for your time, bye.”
What we have here, in the Baumbach, instead, are levels on higher levels, but not without clues through dreams throughout. The clues begin from sentence one: “It was not the same. It was all the same.” We are told we are working with a writer who is writing, but we later learn, he may in fact also be dreaming. Our hint toward the dreaming theory actually comes from the—to my mind, glaringly obvious—clue, which is that each section is titled, “35th (or following number) Night.” Most people sleep at night, obviously. Each chapter heading tells us, we are at night, we come to feel as though we are reading from a dream diary. We are given better explanation as to why, for example, female visual artists appear out of nowhere, why a woman may be present, but may be gone. Or, another way of looking at it, is that Molly dumped the writer and what he’s trying to do is in his dreams, and while writing, perhaps both at the same time, is grasp out to her, and explaining the actual departure to himself by saying some sort of ill doing has been bestowed upon her, and rather, she needs to be brought back to herself physically and mentally, and in doing so, perhaps back to the pining author also physically and mentally. Our plot is murky. The writer’s wife may have been kidnapped, she may not have been kidnapped, she may—as in Atwood—have been running from her life, she may—as in Baumbach—be running from the author himself, but what he is also positing, I think, is that she “kidnapped herself” as it were, she is running from herself. Or, maybe she wasn’t, and the narrator himself just can’t admit that she just doesn’t want to be with him. This is a book about a man obsessed with a woman, and his objectification of her in that obsession is pronounced loud enough by Seighman’s objectifying cover art alone: A blurred woman’s face with the author’s name stamped in black right across it. She is there and not there, though at times actually there, and at times, decidedly not there. I think he may have been dumped by a woman he loved and this entire book is a dream dictionary he’s catalogued of plot his head has come up with in an effort to understand the heartbreak, but much more complicated.
A rather genius questioning of the self and what each of us mean to one another, and the perceptions and realities therein. A moving work, though also, incredibly heartbreaking. Like, 137 pages of a middle-aged man reaching for an old love sort of feels like watching an old friend repeat the same mistakes again and again while we shout, “Please stop doing that, why are you doing that?” We are comforted later, when we come to the eventual realization our narrator has known this part all along, and we in turn realize our author has been so very, very in control of the meta wheel, and just spent 137 pages saying, “I’m asking you to think about how much you think about others and what that does to you.”
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