When I first saw The Squid and the Whale, I—a child of the 1980s, a child of divorce, a city child—saw a lot I recognized. Noah Baumbach’s 2005 semi-autobiographical film chronicles the breakup of a marriage in Brooklyn in 1986, and how its two children grapple with a way of new understanding their parents. It wasn’t an identical map—what ever is?—but it hit a few notes I hadn’t really ever heard outside my own life. (My brothers and I spent so many collective hours in the backseat of our family Volvo, waiting for whatever parent was driving to find that long sought after parking spot.) I think of the movie fondly. And so when father-of-Noah Jonathan Baumbach’s slim, prickly book of short stories, The Pavilion of Former Wives, showed up in the mail, I was faced with the uncomfortable and, for me at least, difficult task of diving into a book whose author I had come to know (or thought I knew) through a fictional representation.
There’s a category of dads I like to call bad dads, and likewise a whole category of stories about or including them. See: The Shining, The Stepford Wives, Fences, The Wolfpack, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Angels in the Outfield, even Little House on the Prairie. Once you start to look, bad dads are everywhere. They are even in The Squid and the Whale. And so when I took The Pavilion of Former Wives into my hands, I thought: here’s a bad dad book, and this time written by the bad dad.
Jonathan Baumbach, pictured left, and Jeff Daniels in The Squid and The Whale, pictured right.
This is a part of my brain that I’d like to turn off sometimes, and especially when I’m working. Maybe it is a failure that I can’t. Maybe also it would be a failure if I could.
Even though I had put it on the editorial calendar, even though I had scheduled a phone interview, even though some other part of my brain decided that Baumbach was an honest-to-god Brooklyn writer from a time in which there weren’t very many (not even to mention his work as a pioneer of independently publishing experimental fiction)—and that in itself is worth the space and time of Brooklyn Magazine—I circled this book like a wary cat, putting off reading until I couldn’t put it off any longer. And though it was a fast and funny and cynical and in some ways very pleasing book, the alarm that said “bad dad” did not stop ringing in my head after I picked it up. I felt, very uncomfortably, like a lawyer reading a witness statement, rather than a reader immersed in a story, hungry for some stray piece of compromising evidence. It’s a rotten way to read a book, least of all for fun and most of all to write about it for other people to read. But I had put it on my editorial calendar, and run the clock.
The thread that runs through the jacket copy and blurbs and publicity materials and to a lesser extent my own conversation with the man himself is that Jonathan Baumbach is an underrated writer due for rediscovery. His career is satisfyingly full: an academic turned movie critic turned fiction writer, author of fourteen works of fiction, co-founder of the independent press Fiction Collective (now known as FC2), writer of short stories that have seemingly appeared in every magazine everywhere. It is indeed a life’s work, and an impressive one. But I cannot recommend this book, for reasons I cannot separate from the alarm in my head. I don’t really know whether the book is good or not. All I can tell you is that the alarm is loud.
In The Pavilion of Former Wives, men behave in ways that curl my lip, or my stomach. In the titular story, a man reenacts two pivotal moments from his relationship to his third, and now former, wife. In the first, they are married but living in a tense ceasefire. In the second, he is still married to wife number two but sleeping with three. She says she doesn’t want to see him if he isn’t available; he climbs into her bed. She then asks him not to leave right away; he climbs right out. In “Appetite,” an older, married professor whose wife is away for the weekend invites one of his female students up to his country house on false pretenses. She rejects his repeated advances, and he is incredulous. When she reports him to their school’s authorities, they do nothing.
When Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her came out, the criticism I read usually made one of two arguments: first, that the book is misogynist and nobody has time for that; or second, that the book is misogynist but also a ~subtle~ display of how misogyny fails its male main characters. I came down, in my little 250-word review for Library Journal (where I was a book review editor at the time), on the side of misogynist-but. It’s possible that The Pavilion of Former Wives could be misogynist—but a subtle critique of the whole messed up business—but I can’t really tell, and don’t trust myself to either. What I do know is that I now live in the country of nobody-has-time-for-that, and I am nowhere near the border.
Muddying things, I’ve also had the complicated experience of a very pleasant phone conversation with a very polite and interesting 82-year-old man. What a nice person, I think to myself, a grandfather. He deserves nice things. He’s worked so hard and for so long, why not? He is a good writer, isn’t he? I fish around, a little bit, in our conversation. I ask: how are these stories connected? What is it that they have all in common? I’d love him to answer, “They are about how the patriarchy eats men from the inside out and women from the outside in.” Or, “They are about how an inability to see women as equally complex human beings destroys the very premise of, and indeed makes impossible, true romantic love.” Or, “They are about the contours of straight white male self-involvement.” I don’t push the matter further, reluctant to hear the answer if it has to be extracted so explicitly. Instead, Baumbach responds in a way that convinced me of his genuineness, even an inner sweetness, but also of the profound differences in the way we see the world. “The most important thing is love, right?” he says, with conviction. “What do we have that’s better than it? All my work in some way touches on love.” I believe him.