Jonathan Baumbach’s 10th novel, B, is the book to read if you’re sick of other books, something to beat the worst case of reader’s block. In this fiction, the eponymous aging novelist tries to cure his writer’s block by writing his life story. Every sentence thus works against itself, resulting in stories torn beautifully at the seams. “This girl had come up to him after his reading, carrying three of his books, asking if. . . . The story doesn’t bear repeating,” Baumbach writes. “Asking if he wouldn’t mind—her shyness is exquisite—if it wasn’t too much trouble. . . . ” The ellipses are Baumbach’s, imparting something of the girl’s shyness to the description, and the reader hangs on his every word as B does the girl’s. Indeed, no sooner does Baumbach convince you that a certain story—a father and son go to a basketball game, a friend sleeps with a friend’s wife—is too old to be told again than he goes on to make it new. “[L]onely and horny in no notable order of priority,” B places a personal ad and, in trying to sort 77 responses into three categories (“Hopeless, Possible, Bull’s-eye”), finds himself with nine Hopeless and 68 Possible, two of whom arrive to meet B at the same time at a bar. “It is not that the woman is not attractive (he has anticipated his respondents overrating their attractiveness), but that she is too conventionally pretty, not the kind of person who would need to answer a Personals ad to find a man,” Baumbach describes the first. One is sorry only that he does not describe them all.
The surreal chapter “The Reading” should be the final word on what can go wrong and right for a writer traveling to an obscure liberal arts college in southern Pennsylvania: B arrives by train to find no one at the station, a poet who arrives next assumes B has been sent to meet her, the two fall in and out of love so quickly that it is believable, are taken to the wrong auditorium where B, mistaken for “a trial lawyer (and former basketball great) who has a predilection for representing only the blatantly guilty,” brings the audience to its feet with “I am not the man you think I am,” then puts it to sleep by reading his own work under the auspices of “poems by a poet who I sometimes think speaks for me.” Eventually B flees town on a train he doesn’t know is bound for Ohio—Baumbach’s tip of the cap, perhaps, to Pnin and Nabokov, that other writer good enough to make an academic setting and writing about writing sing.
“What could B do this time around that he hadn’t already done?” Baumbach writes. I., the narrator of Stephen Dixon’s 10th novel, I., might answer with one word: sacrifice. I. starts with the story of a young writer who lives above a restaurant in which he can’t afford to eat—a situation recalling an 18th-century Japanese folktale (“Ooka and the Stolen Smell”) about a poor student who lives above a tempura shop and makes the best of things by seasoning his rice with the aroma of its frying fish. Dixon differs in that his writer gets “hungry reading the things they served.” Here, in a line, is a taste of what’s in store for the reader and for I.: words instead of food; words instead of sex in the heartbreaking chapter “The Switch” in which I.’s wife’s chronic illness makes getting out of bed a chore and sex almost impossible; words instead of words as the bitter I. turns on himself and his writing in the break-every-rule “The Pickle.” “He writes and writes and writes and nothing comes out,” Dixon writes. “Oh, plenty does, but nothing of any worth. So he writes some more and some more and some more, and still the same thing . . . things like this: crap, bilge, blather, fakery, self-imitation, pushing it, meaningless words, lines, pages, but all in one paragraph.”
Given what I. says about assonance in his work (he “sits and writes this and some more in between soup sips, constructing the sentence that way so the sits and this and sips would hitch, though for what purpose, and particularly that inaccurate added-on hitch, isn’t clear”), what are we to make of the alliteration at the start of “City”? “There was a girl in college he once kissed on campus.” This reviewer has heard the author read that line aloud, and neither was it clear for what purpose Dixon described a kiss by gagging himself on the four hard stops of girl, college, kissed, campus. And yet while much of I. reads like the lament of a writer too tired, angry, and distracted to make his writing better (a lament which is itself clumsy compared to Baumbach’s simple “Where could such a story go”), the sections about I.’s wife are less tortured and self-conscious, as if her pain helps him to forget his own. “Again” tells different versions of a story in which I. first meets her, until in one she is sick and in a wheelchair. You read on in the hope he will interrupt this version so that she won’t be sick. You read on in the hope he won’t because this is the version in which she and I. fall in love.