Here’s a quick rundown of what happens in the first 25 pages of Baumbach’s new novel. A writer with comical writer’s block (he’s crafting a first sentence that carries across several pages) gets distracted from his work at an Italian artists’ colony by the arrival of someone who might be his ex-wife. But when he goes out looking for her, he ends up canoodling with an avant-garde painter, and the pair get kicked out of the colony. They wander Italian towns performing a fraudulent strongman act to make cash and finally make it on a flight to the US, which ends up redirecting to Newfoundland. There, they’re held captive for a week behind a McDonald’s before they’re shipped back to Italy, which then ships them back to the US, where they’re tailed by TSA agents.
No one could ever accuse Jonathan Baumbach of being boring. The founder of the seminal experimental imprint Fiction Collective and father of filmmaker Noah Baumbach (in the latter’s semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach is portrayed by Jeff Daniels), Baumbach has carved out a long literary career full of this sort of highbrow high jinks.
And truth be told, it’s not clear whether all of the above events can be said to have ‘happened.’ They’re broken up into chapters of consecutive nights, and, given their batty logic, it’s clear they’re meant to be recaps of dreams. But there’s also a story lurking in the margins, one in which the writer’s wife may have been kidnapped, and the writer may or may not be on her trail. It’s a fun send-up of both experimental and genre fiction, more of a clashing than a melding of the two, which provides the sparks.