A review of Birnbaum by Michael Hoffman

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space
by Michael Hoffman
Printed Matter Press 
2008, ISBN 978-1-933606-13-4, $20.00, 321 pages

This is the third of Michael Hoffman’s books. His career has been in journalism and this crops up in a few slight infelicities of prose, but he is a great storyteller and a deft delineator of character.

Birnbaum himself is a problem. He is polymorphously cranky and insufficient to sustain interest. Hoffman overcomes this in the second half of his book but the reader must accept that his or her effort will be rewarded only after a trial of patience.

Birnbaum is an old man, the scene is Japan, and the focus is on him throughout part one. Because of a trivial accident in his apartment where he lives alone, he goes to live with his son William. Birnbaum has lived his adult life in Japan, his wife was Japanese and William’s wife is Natsuko, a born again Christian. It is around Birnbaum and his granddaughter Risa that the novel revolves. Birnbaum and Natsuko cannot stand each other and Birnbaum at last leaves their home. He vanishes for ten days and when he is found he has no memory of where he has been and what he has done. He at last successfully makes his escape.

The second part switches narrative focus and concerns William. He turns out, although deplored by his father in part one as an ignoramus, to be an interesting and complex person (who does a much better job of carrying the narrative than his father).

We skip about a dozen years and part three is again in a different narrative mode. The characters are new but it will become clear that they are not randomly assembled, that they all have a connection with the dysfunctional family that we have been reading about. Risa, now grown up, is the indifferent enamored of a disgraced architect and a juvenile delinquent who is something of a stalker. Risa lives an affectless life. She has distinguished herself as a writer, but her story reflects the multiple disappointments of her life and the cruelty of her mother. An old man appears in some scenes and although we assume he is Birnbaum, Hoffman withholds disclosure.

In part four Birnbaum is again center stage. In emulation of his hero the poet Santoka, he has been walking ever since he left his son’s home and now seeks to find Risa. He returns to the town where William and his family lived but it is changed and only his encounter with some school children sets him on the right track. The older brother of one of these students is Risa’s unrequited lover. The scene in which Birnbaum and this menacing young man sit together in a park at night is particularly chilling.

The twists of narrative are skillful and Hoffman sustains the interest of the reader right to the end. The conversations are real and Hoffman peoples his novel with convincing characters. He is an expert in what critics once described in the novels of Aldous Huxley as “cold agonies”. He is an original and the exotic background enhances this and adds piquancy.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places