January 2012

Dustin Luke Nelson


Dreams of Molly by Jonathan Baumbach

Jonathan Baumbach's newest novel, Dreams of Molly, opens with the lines "It is not the same. It was all the same," pushing the reader directly into a narrative that will continue to contradict itself repeatedly. Jack, the narrator, contradicts himself, plot points won't align, the rules of reality are stretched to the breaking point, you can't always be sure whether the narrator is awake or dreaming, or maybe in some sort of in-between fugue state. As the three sections of the novel are further divided into "nights" -- we start at the thirty-fifth night -- we assume, from the title, that these are dreams. But nothing is simply and clearly delineated in Dreams of Molly, which is itself a sequel of sorts to another work by Baumbach. Dreams, or the nights rather, reflect the narrator's ongoing struggles with love, his need to be loved, his refusal to love, his great desire to love. Further complicating the novel seems to be a bit of play by Baumbach on the notion that any memoir is necessarily fiction as well, and that a fictionalization is sometimes even closer to the truth than a nonfiction account. Jack seems to be a thinly veiled characterization of the author, or at least Baumbach leads us to believe that. Here again we are faced with a contradictory reality as Baumbach says in the opening night of the book, "I was in Italy sitting at my desk in a luxuriant Villa writing the story of my invented life. I was in bed in Brooklyn dreaming I was in Italy at the Villa Mondare, which was a made-up place in any event, writing the first sentence of a fictional memoir." He invites us to read this as fictional truths, playing with the shades of fictional truth that lie between memoir and fiction.

Late in the novel, Jack is captured by a "shadowy" government agency after he accidentally joins two feminist vigilantes who live by an ethical code. Here Jack is questioned for weeks on end -- contradictorily taking place in a single "night" -- all the while making up stories that the government agents want to here. Stories which themselves contradict our prior knowledge of Jack. When the agents call Jack a liar he doesn't disagree, but says that his line of work requires it, he's a storyteller, yet he argues that the stories aren't necessarily lies. At every turn in the book Baumbach is ready to remind that sometimes fiction is the closest we can get to truth, to finding something hidden that a memoir of these same emotional events could never reveal.

Most of this fever dream sees Jack hunting for the title's Molly. His third wife, now remarried. She appears in flashes, morphs into other people, gets kidnapped (though even then she doesn't need Jack). Jack is searching for a path back into Molly's heart, but what this is, is a story of the man who needs love. He searches like an addict for something he's lost that he'll never want once he claims it. He can't handle being loved, no matter how much he wants it when it eludes him. And then there is always the shadow of the writer from the beginning of the book who was writing the story of his "invented life," asking the reader to further dissect the motives of Jack.

Dreams of Molly is sometimes scattered, feverish, hard to follow, but it turns inward on itself, opening in its own self-aware world. It's a surreal novel that captures an aging man searching for what he lost over the course of his life, but with the knowledge that he wouldn't change anything. He rejects, at one point, a hypothetical from Molly of what he would change if he could live his life over. He wouldn't change anything. He's not even sure he could learn from his mistakes. He wants to be where he is and where he was simultaneously. Jack embodies the contradiction of desire and nostalgia that we all fall prey to, eventually.

Dreams of Molly by Jonathan Baumbach
Dzanc Books
ISBN: 978-0982797532
154 pages