It’s easy to feel distant at first in Jonathan Baumbach’s new collection of fictions, The Pavilion of Former Wives, due to what appears to be an initial bland affectation. The author suppresses the excess of detail and sensory noise that marks the contemporary condition for many, shaving away to the skeletal essentials of conflict in a set of fourteen stories. Though sharp, this writer’s briskness produces the moments of ecstatic discomfort for which we sometimes read fiction.
The first two stories set the tone for the collection: protagonists either seek or are subjected to mediation of the intimate. For instance, in the first and title story, a protagonist named only as B discovers a service (think escort-meets-Holodeck) in which he can revisit, in real time and with a convincing interpreter of former lovers, crucial rifts in relationships. In the second, a couple can only achieve productive discussion through the mediation of a therapist, and the therapist helps them discover, in fewer than four sessions, that they should not be together. On the whole, not fantastical stuff, nor political, nor escapist in the way some might wish their fiction to be. So what makes it interesting?
Baumbach is not a trafficker in the mis-en-scene. He can be as minimal—though not as obsessive—as Beckett. One piece is, after a few lines, an easily predictable one-sentence story bit of trickery that, when coupled with minimalism, feels like something twice as long as necessary to do the job. Thematic resonance accumulates across the stories, though, and the novelty of situations paired with the severity of style lead to a satisfying dislocation for readers comfortable with literary fiction.
B shows up in another story, “The Reading,” this time as a poet, heading to the hinterlands of Pennsylvania to give a poetry reading. His wife has left him for a criminal lawyer (the wordplay left there for us to pick up) and the plot veers into a series of mistaken identities as B spends time on a train platform with a woman he thinks is a former lover. He never bothers to confirm. She as well assumes something incorrect of his identity. By the end of the story, after they have slept together, they each realize they have no idea who the other actually is, and further misunderstandings ensue. It all happens in the dark and cold, lending the affairs a grainy unfocused quality enhanced by Baumbach’s minimalism.
In “Shapeshifting,” a narrator confronts the reality of a friend slipping into delusional illness, as evidenced by the person’s devotion to conspiracy theories and insistent questioning of reality. As the narrator deals with seeing his friend become a stranger, he also discovers a wrinkle in the identity of his own wife:
“Joel’s always been full of shit,” she said. “You take him too seriously. You guys always have.”
And that’s when I got in trouble with Helena. Not so much for defending Joel as for defending the way I wanted to perceive him. And while we argued, bad feelings turning to worse, I had the bizarre sense that this was not the Helena I had been living with in affectionate company for fourteen years—our fifteenth anniversary was just three months away—but a barely convincing impostor.
In another story, “Office Hours,” Baumbach creates an almost Barthe-ian Mobius strip of plot, meta-plot, and identity devices to present conflicts around a professor being erotically pursued by a graduate student. Or perhaps it is the professor unwittingly pursuing. Or perhaps the pursuit by the graduate student is a feint in her pursuit of his (mostly unseen) office mate. Or perhaps it is all part of a story being written in which he recognizes himself. Perhaps it is best for individual readers to confront the evidence. As such things go, it is absorbing due largely to Baumbach’s pacing of revelations. He constructs passages such that when a structure feels revealed, a new detail sends it off again, and one rushes forward to find the next clue—perhaps not unlike the narrator of the situation.
Most of Baumbach’s narrators are matter-of-fact about their trying situations. Their credibly muted reactions show more than just what we know about pervasive banality. They are so accustomed to caprice that even overreactions are couched as pragmatic, as in this passage, where a man considers relinquishing his car when he cannot recall where he parked it after a show:
By this time, I have chased after my parked car on four different streets, each with its own persuasive claim in fickle memory and, need I even say it, without success. In the past, when I’ve been unable to find my car after giving more than sufficient time to the search, I saw no point in beating myself up over it. So I conceded the loss and got home by other means. Perhaps the car had been stolen—what other explanation could there be, I had pretty much covered the area looking for it—and so, as I depended on a car, I considered buying a new one, or perhaps a previously-owned one in near-new condition, though a native caution restrained me from rushing into something I might later regret. At the same time, I saw no point in sacrificing my life to a seemingly endless search for an unrecoverable object, no matter my affection for it. I’ve been in this situation, I admit with some reluctance, more than once, and I have avoided excessive despair in each case. Sanity, as I see it, is knowing when to throw away false hope. In my weaker moments, I concede that the world is haunted.
Displacement energizes these stories. Whether people reveal previously guarded identities through letters in an imaginary intellectual journal for matchmaking or through befuddled partner swapping, each story traffics in ambiguity around suspected relationships—whether known or unknown by the protagonists. Whether the identities are mistaken literally, as in “The Reading,” or figuratively, as when the man in “Shapeshifting” discovers his partner is of a different personality than he thought, each narrator’s struggle and, often, unwillingness to sacrifice personal identity or habit in order to resolve conflict, forestalls any change. That said, change of circumstance or understanding happens regardless of the resistance. Many of the narrators feel selfish—not in a penurious way but as self-preserving and guarded. Because these characters are not open, or because they feel vulnerable outside the well-worn paths of their habits and preferences in a world that generally does not challenge them, they feel stunted in ways that can feel uncomfortably familiar and very contemporary. Even in what may objectively be minor moments of crisis, the paths are dark, the stakes menacing, the last risk difficult, the future suddenly murky and menacing.
In the final story, “Walking the Walk,” a widower takes an interest in a woman who walks her dog in his neighborhood. Through a series of misunderstandings too byzantine to recount here, he ends up sleeping with the woman’s daughter. For more reasons too byzantine to recount here, the target of his affection is willing to give him another chance. The concluding paragraph of the story, as he risks rejection by reaching to her, could be a summary of virtually every story in this collection:
“I’m warning you,” she says, “if you try to kiss me, you’re looking for trouble.”
He lets her threat hang about on the periphery of consciousness before digesting it. Time passes. She makes a point of taking back her hand and returning it to the sanctuary behind her back. They turn the corner. This street is darker than the one they abandoned. After a few more idle steps, sensing his moment, he risks everything.
I came to this book with a bias; this is not shocking, as every reader has one. The Pavilion of Former Wives aggravated how well I understood the depth of that bias. I like a messy scene, a tangential snarl of plot, big voices. Think Chabon, Patchett, Whitehead. Maybe sniff at how conventional are my tastes. I knew going in about Baumbach’s avowed interest in challenging readers, respecting mystery, how he understood personal preoccupation with one’s own circumstances, and how slippery they can be. I’m glad I had to review this book, as it made me more patient than I might have been doing the usual read. I say all this to advise would-be readers to stick with this one and let it live with you. The rewards are still difficult, the stories still elusive, the conflicts uncomfortable at times and challenging to our views. But why not, when reading, sense your moment, and risk everything?
The Pavilion of Former Wives, by Jonathan Baumbach. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, December 2016. 184 pages. $16.95, paper.
Gabriel Welsch writes fiction and poetry, as well as book reviews and the occasional essay. He is the author of The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocaylpse (Steel Toe Books, 2013), The Death of Flying Things (Word Tech Editions, 2012), Dirt and All Its Dense Labor (Word Tech Editions, 2006). His work has earned a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist grant for Fiction, inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2012 as one of the “Other Distinguished Stories of 2011,” a poet-in-residence position at the Toledo Botanical Gardens from Mid-American Review, and numerous Pushcart nominations. He earned my MFA at Penn State and now lives in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, with his family, and works as vice president of advancement and marketing at Juniata College. He occasionally teaches writing at the Chautauqua Institution.