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FW Required Reading: Jonathan Baumbach’s YOU or The Invention of Memory

Last weekend we received something extraordinary in the mail from literary publicist Lauren Cerand: a copy of Jonathan Baumbach’s 2007 novel YOU or The Invention of Memory. Why are we telling

you about it two years later? Cerand and Baumbach just launched a Web site called The New You Project to promote the novel; they’re offering up a free copy of the book to the first 365 people who request it and chronicling their progress online. What makes that so interesting? Most publicists only take on projects prior to a novel’s publication. Cerand herself prefers to begin a year prior. We knew there had to be a special reason she was making an exception.

Success is assumed fleeting if not immediate. Cerand said, “I told him that I had no interest in working on something that wouldn’t achieve at least some measure of success, and so, in order to transcend the stale and yet very commonly accepted perception that any newly published work over two weeks old is a lost cause, we’d have to take a big risk. And he’d have to be willing to give away a lot of books. And have some fun in the process. He admirably agreed.” After reading Cerand’s bold mission statement on the blog, we couldn’t wait to read the novel.

Hence why, when we received it in the mail, we immediately began reading. Cerand has become known for her stellar taste in books, only taking up projects that she truly loves, Anne Landsman’s The Rowing Lesson, and Ben Greenman’s Correspondences, both of which we’ve discussed here on Flavorwire, among them.

You begins self-reflectively, telling the reader what to expect of the forthcoming first sentence of the novel. What follows is a self-described love letter to a woman the narrator has an on-going obsession with. He addresses her as “You,” throughout the novel:

“For weeks my obsession with you deformed my life. I was late for appointments or forgot them altogether, got into a pointless argument with a supervisor at work, broke off with a woman I’d been dating on and off for almost a year. Nevertheless, when anyone asked, I confidently announced that my infatuation with you was a thing of the past.”

You’s narrator is so delusional yet so aware and suspicious of his neuroses that as he takes his reader through the history of his relationship with this woman, he questions his own reliability as a communicator of this history. The novel made us wonder if as we age we begin to confuse reality with what we wished could have happened.

“It is only then, when I have already imagined the end of whatever has gone on between us, that we begin to make love — we have been holding each other carefully, cautiously — and it seems like the first time, which I don’t actually remember, which I confuse with a number of other first times, but I allow myself to imagine that we are in my old Village apartment in my unmade bed and that it hurts me that you live with a man named Roger (though I know you don’t love him) and whatever is happening between us (sex no doubt, terrifying intimacy, the compelling illusion of love) will go on for as long as I can imagine it going on, for as long as consciousness and self-deception and the trick of memory survives.”

You is one of those books that goes unnoticed far too often, a novel that deserved a review in the New York Times from Michiko Kakutani, but sadly didn’t get far because its publisher wasn’t capable of promoting it in the manner it deserved; in fact, it was reviewed by Steven Moore in the Los Angeles Times only after the reviewer happened to pick it up in a bookstore. “I’d just like people to know that there are really amazing, worthy things in the world that don’t get advertised on buses,” Cerand says. “I’m as busy and inundated with information as everyone else and know how hard it can be for something to break through the static and reach me. I live for that moment of discovery, and I’m looking for it.”

To close, we’ll let Cerand tell us in her own words about the project. Was she excited? Scared? What if it doesn’t work? She replied:

“I am often freaked out by how daunting publicity is anyway, and I’ll be honest: it’s a tall order to reinvent perception when novelty and timeliness inform so much of our interest in cultural projects. That’s the nature of the news cycle. One of the things I like about the internet, though, and the vibrant and dynamic cultural conversation that’s really taken online, is that you can smash that antiquated system and rearrange the pieces in a way that’s vastly more entertaining. At least, that’s what I aim for when I get up everyday.”

If we’ve sparked your interest in Baumbach’s novel, feel free to inquire after one of the remaining 365, hit up Amazon, or if you’re in NYC, stop by Bluestockings on the Lower East Side and pick up a copy.

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