Jonathan Baumbach is a founding member of the Fiction Collective, a publishing venture that has introduced novels by such avant-garde writers as Clarence Major, Ronald Sukenick, Harold Jaffe, and others. While his own earlier work, like most of the Collective's list, is decidedly experimental, My Father More or Less has a suprisingly conventional narrative line, its techniques borrowed from such establishment father figures as Kafka, Beckett, and Nabokov, though without the wit of these sit-down comedians.
The plot, such as it is, draws on one of the great themes of literature, the enmity between fathers and sons. Tom, an American teenager, flies to London to visit his father, a novelist and screenwriter named Lukas Terman. During his brief soujourn the boy encounters a number of shadowy figures, including his father's mistress, a film director and his cigar-smoking wife, and a mysterious white- haired man who shows up at odd moments. Terman's script in progress, about a detective who is eventually "terminated," weaves in and out of the text to provide a kind of counterpoint, the two narratives commenting on each other. At the end of the novel Tom returns to the States.
I'm afraid I've made things sound a good deal more amiable than they are. The book, to paraphrase Hobbes on the life of man, is nasty, British, and short. Since, however, the characters and events, although nebulous, carry heavy symbolic freight, the novel requires deliberate reading and thus seems much longer than its 161 pages. Moreover, the text is allusive, with references to Oedipus, the Grail legend, the prodigal son, Melville's Bartleby, Beckett's Malone Dies, and a number of films, most notably The Maltese Falcon and Obsession.
Baumbach, who has written a study of the novel called The Landscape of Nightmare and who writes about film for Partisan Review, is clearly attracted to the imagery of dreams and of the cinema; this interest helps account for the flickering insubstantiality of his imagined people and events. He has, let it be said, a taste for concrete wordplay, which provides some relief from the generally dreamlike prose. Having a character, however, describe a moment of intimacy as "getting to the bottom of Isabelle" is not likely to make anyone forget Joyce.
A number of questions occurred to me in the course of a first, open-minded reading of this curious book. Is the plot something Tom dreams during his flight to see his father? Is the business about the son allegedly stalking his father with a stolen gun intended to suggest paranoia? Is Terman's life meant to resemble a montage of clips from old movies? Why are the characters obsessed with invisible pursuers? Why are they so frequently embarrassed? Why don't they stop complaining?
And more: What is the significance of the limps, sprained ankles, and canes? Homage to Beckett? Or something to do with Oedipus? And the generally undifferentiated women: are they meant to be variations on a mother/lover figure? Why is so much attention given to urinating? How does the brilliant set piece in which Terman is threatened by some boys relate to the scene in which his son escapes three punks? Who is that white- haired man?
During subsequent browsings in the book some less friendly questions surface. What motivated Baumbach to compose a novel in which not a single character has a single redeeming quality? Is this his view of things? Too bad! Why does he give us no sense of what anyone looks like? Why are the characters so pedestrian, so wanting in appetite? Why are all the women presented in such unappealing ways? What is the point of the numbingly banal conversations?
How can we account for elegant sentences (Baumbach can write like an angel) alternating with language that is clumsy and even unidiomatic: "I can see that it might be pall after a while . . ." Why are so many words misspelled? And finally, the harshest of questions, does it matter? Is there, after all, an audience for fiction so stupefyingly dull, whether spelled correctly or not?