Nicholson Baker grows up
Nov 17, 2010
20 Min read time
Tom Disch, the late poet and novelist, once gave me a piece of advice: if I wanted to write a best-selling novel, I should write a novel about a poet. All literate Americans, he said, love poets, even though they don’t much care for modern poetry, or read a lot of it. I followed his advice, and though the resulting book fell well short of the best-seller list, I saw the fictional advantages of such a character. A poet in a novel is in touch with a realm of words more potent than the prose fiction in which he or she is embedded, and thus gains a numinous intensity of feeling from the start. It is not even necessary to supply your poet with great poems: he merely has to ponder the possibility of them.
Some fictional poets, such as the two Victorian poets in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, arrive as if lifted on a wind from elsewhere, burning hotly, transforming the world around them. But, just as often, novelists gain an extra fillip of vividness by making their imagined poets feckless misfits, failures in the world’s and their ex-wives’ eyes, drunk and disorderly, like Anthony Burgess’s Enderby (Inside Mr Enderby, et seq.) or Samson Shillitoe in Elliott Baker’s 1964 novel A Fine Madness. Their intense adventures in the realm of poetry contrast with their crazy or hapless wanderings in a fictional realm to which they are unsuited. So lovable and exasperating!
Paul Chowder, the poet-hero of Nicholson Baker’s new novel, The Anthologist, is neither a vatic force nor a clownish misfit, and he is no huge success as a poet (we cannot really judge him on our own, as Baker gives no examples of his work). He is not a wanderer; he is living alone in a nice house in Maine, his beloved live-in girlfriend Roz having gone off, tired of his inability to produce anything—not one more of his flying-spoon sequence of poems, nor the required introduction to an anthology he has gathered called Only Rhyme. The intro, when finished, will net him a few thousand; without that he has nothing.
In fact, the book we are reading is that introduction, in a rambling give-with-one-hand-take-away-with-the-other form, interspersed with Paul’s recounting of his small daily adventures with his neighbors and with Roz (he cuts his fingers with remarkable regularity during the few days of the story, becoming, he notes, a “Three Band-Aid Man”). Essentially, The Anthologist is an essay-novel: the sort of book in which the central interest lies in an ongoing argument made by the main character, or by the author. The trick of this mode is to have us experience this essay or argument as itself the plot, as expression of character and as drama. It’s not easy. Virginia Woolf gave up the attempt she made in The Pargiters, which she rewrote without the essay chapters as The Years. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes to mind as a successful effort; the chapter-long disquisitions on quality gain a desperate urgency as the narrator goes madder.
Paul Chowder is not that kind of person, and his essay is not grippingly about life or meaning, but about poetry: specifically, the technical aspects of rhyme and meter. And yet the book works; it is charming, fluent, hard to stop reading. Small in scope as it is, it can be viewed as a tour de force, which can be defined as the work of an artist seeing how much can be made out of very little, and succeeding in making a lot. I once observed that, while many novelists can number a tour de force among their works, Nicholson Baker was the author of a number of tours de force who had yet to write a novel. If that was ever true, it no longer is.
Baker’s first two books—The Mezzanine (1986) and Room Temperature (1990)—seem to aspire to the condition of the essay; nearly nothing happens, and what is foregrounded are thoughts about stuff: minute examinations of sensory experience, disquisitions on why plastic soda straws float to the top of a soda can and paper ones don’t, or the history of the comma—disquisitions that in The Mezzanine are often contained in or expanded by footnotes. Mostly abjured since Walter Scott, lengthy footnotes in fiction have been revived by postmodern maximalists, and possibly Baker’s work fits under that rubric. But his footnotes seem less a trick (though of course they are a trick) than a natural expression of a fascination with minutiae, personal and historical and material. Baker does not want to risk leaving anything out. That fascination—compulsion—gives a unique and instantly recognizable quality to his books; in memory they can seem all of a piece, though rereading reveals a wide range of concerns, styles, voices. Baker would seem easy to parody, but that might be an illusion.
His oddest book is perhaps U and I (1991), his account and analysis of his longtime obsession with John Updike, both as a body of work and a human author (whom Baker had not met). It is described throughout as an essay, but the resemblances to Baker’s fiction are strong, and strongest in the cunning with which he turns a book about Updike into a book about a character, himself, and a different writing life, his own: a sort of autobiographical essay-novel. In the course of it, he remembers “some review or address” of Updike’s (it is key to the project of the book that Baker refuses to go back and actually reread Updike) wherein Updike calls the capacity to lie the most important trait of the novelist. “I felt myself disagreeing so violently with this that my whole imaginary friendship with Updike was momentarily disrupted,” Baker exclaims. It is a cliché of writing seminars and book reviews, he says,
and it went utterly against what I believed (which was that the urge not to lie about, not to be unfair to, not to belie what was there was the dominant propellant, and the desire to undo earlier lies of our own and of others was what drew us on to write further.) (Emphasis in original.)
Baker’s doubts about Updike rose higher when he read Updike saying that a passage of pure description is capable of “clogging” a narrative.
I fretted, and still fret, over these words. I object to his reviewery certainty here, and I particularly object to his use of the word ‘clog’ . . . . The only thing I like are the clogs—and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling . . . . I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers; the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked for seepage-points of passage. (Emphasis in original.)
Baker feels that Updike is rejecting much that is best in his, Updike’s, own writing—the part, Baker does not explicitly say, that is the progenitor of Baker’s work and the reason for his adulation.
There are authors, such as Baker, whose work would be diminished if we didn’t associate them with their narrators.
In an earlier passage, Baker rejects Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (which he has not read), believing it to be a disquisition on “parricide and one-upmanship,” younger writers throwing off the hated weight of older, grander writers—a concept that threatens the disinterested delight of his imaginary friendship with Updike. But this is not what Bloom means by his term, though maybe the “baby Bloomers” Baker imagines loitering in academe do. Bloom is referring to the creative energy granted a beginning writer by his agon with an earlier, admired, and powerful writer: how the new writer evolves a semi-deliberate misunderstanding (“misprision”) of the earlier one, actually believing he is profiting from the older writer’s example, or completing the older writer’s project, even as he has transformed it in making his own. But this is obviously what Baker the writer is doing with Updike the writer. Indeed it is so obvious that Baker’s dismissal (unread) of Bloom, in service of his creative misprision of Updike (whom he is unwilling to reread) seems to be part of the enterprise: the creation of what is in effect an unreliable narrator in a work of nonfiction. Remarkable.
The Mezzanine—all clogs, no narrative, the book that announced Baker’s distinctive manner and matter, the joyously thorough examination of almost nothing at all—was followed by Room Temperature, in which his allegiance to the clog remains evident:
I had pulled the windowshades halfway down: sunlight turned their stiff fabric the luminous deep-fat-fried color of a glazed doughnut. Still visible from a year earlier was the faint outline in adhesive of one of the lengths of masking tape that we had Xed excitedly over the windowpanes before a hurricane that hadn’t panned out; below it, a metal tube of antifungal ointment lay on the sill, its wrinkled tail spiraled back like a scorpion’s . . . .
“The whole outside, in fact, what I could see of it,” he continues, “looked unusually good and deserving of similes today,” which he does not spurn as they come to him. The “I” is called Michael Beale, and he is feeding his infant daughter while his wife, Patty, is out. That is the sum of the book’s action as such, along with some memory monologues, though a book that can deliver us masking tape and ointment tubes as above is clearly going to take lots more time with the baby and the bottle. Fatherhood was good for Baker, I mean Beale, and the rather Aspbergerish insularity of the Baker narrator in The Mezzanine warms up considerably in this version. Autobiographical novels can make a distinction between writer and character by putting the character through the oppositions and transformative struggles of a plot, but Baker’s microscopic observations of passing sensation, thoughts about odd aspects of technology or culture, and nearly total inaction make it difficult to untangle Baker the person from the personae he constructs.
I warn writing students at the beginning of each semester that the “I” of any story is not to be regarded as a pronoun indicative of the author; one may not respond to a student’s story by saying, “Wow, you obviously should not have hooked up with that guy.” And yet there are authors, such as Baker, whose work would be diminished for us if we followed that rule, and they know well how to encourage us to flout it in their case.
From Room Temperature Baker jogged sideways with a couple of books centrally about sex—sex of a certain disembodied in-the-head kind (but what other kind, in a book, can there be?). The first was Vox (1992), his famed book-length phone-sex encounter (yes, the one Monica Lewinsky gave to Bill; I wonder what he made of this highly wrought but totally idiosyncratic indulgence). Then The Fermata (1994), about a young man who can make time stop—the whole world, stock-still, except for himself—a talent that he uses to take off women’s clothes, examine their nakedness, masturbate, carefully re-dress them, and start the world up again, the women none the wiser. A comic novel, and more successful than would seem possible from a bare description of its contents, it is not autobiographical, I judge, though certain lasting concerns of Baker’s—paper towels, for instance—are in evidence.
The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998) is a novel about a writer—not another Baker in this instance but a fictional(ized) version of his nine-year-old daughter Alice, a brave (but not fearless) and talented (but not brilliant) girl whose language and worldview Baker raptly and exquisitely captures. “I must admit that I was looking for something different to write about—something not like The Fermata,” Baker told an interviewer. “I was sexed out after that book and felt that I couldn’t even write the word ‘sex’ again.”
The protagonist gets up before the world’s day starts, because then the mind is unencumbered. I did the same thing when my kids were young.
By the time he published his next work of fiction, A Box of Matches (2003), the daughter (now Phoebe) is fourteen; there is a young son; wife Patty has become Claire; and Baker’s, or Emmett’s, beard is growing white. Emmett has begun a new routine—getting up each morning at four—and tells us about making coffee in the dark and feeding the family duck. He has the sort of masking Clark Kent job that novelists give to characters who are actually novelists inside. Emmett is an editor of medical textbooks, supposedly, but, though he never says so explicitly, what he does with his time in getting up at four in the morning is write the account we are reading of his getting up every day at four in the morning. In other words, he is a novelist. He has to get up before the kids wake up and before the world’s day starts, because then the mind is unencumbered, attention not yet seized. I did the same thing when my children were young. He lights a fire each morning in the fireplace, taking a match from a box that gradually empties. Each small chapter greets us: “Good morning, it’s 4:19 a.m., and I can’t get over how bright the moon is here.”
A Box of Matches is a continuation, then, of Baker’s general manner and mode; very little happens, but it is described at great length. Small, somewhat embarrassing personal and bodily matters are unfolded fully. Emmet describes his technique for picking up underwear from the floor with his toes; then, “having thus dealt with my underclothing, I had my shower, which was uneventful but for a moment near the middle,” an adventure with the soap and his toes that takes him a page and more to articulate. This is all amusing and engaging, as is nearly every page of Baker’s writing. But a wonderful thing begins to happen as the book comes to a close.
Emmett now is “down to a few matches skidding around in the little red box.” Having lit his fire, he notices a glow outdoors: the inside lights of the minivan left on. “They looked quite cozy.” Going out to turn them off, he “stood for a moment to sense the cold’s spaciousness and impersonality. It was remarkable to think that human beings felt that they could endure in this dark, inhospitable place.” He sees through the window his fire going, “orange as could be, looking warm. I half expected to see myself sitting there, in my bathrobe, but the chair was empty.” Seated again with his coffee: “Why are things so beautiful?”
I don’t know. That’s a good question. Isn’t it pleasing when you ask a question of a person, a teacher, or a speaker, and he or she says, That’s a good question? Don’t you feel good when that happens? Sometimes when the fire puffs out it gets so black it’s almost frightening. I don’t want to use the last match. Finally a crumple will catch and burn down to fireworms. Then darkness again, and cold.
Narcissistic and self-involved narrators in fiction can sometimes, by the final pages, win through to a kind of larger sense of the world, “get out of themselves”—it is common enough that we expect it. But Baker’s (or his eidolon’s) delight in his life, in objects and processes and the workings of the senses, his outside-himself-ness, makes this kind of metonymy a surprise: a small thing or moment, put into the character’s hand or before his eye, that is suffused with a shudder of larger meaning, a meaning unspoken, as the point of a metaphor is not spoken, cannot be spoken, but only grasped.
• • •
I trace the interesting new power of Baker’s fiction in A Box of Matches to his most recent, The Anthologist (I have not read the intervening books, Checkpoint and Human Smoke, the latter his large and much-disputed study of World War II). There are other advances in style and thought in The Anthologist as well: a richness of meaning, a feeling that fictional things are no longer being attempted solely for the difficulty of their accomplishment. Far fewer sentences are of the entangling, cumulative, syntactically complex kind that filled The Mezzanine and U and I, each one working toward a hard-won wind-up. The sometimes-wearying insistence of the early, nerdy Baker is gone. Instead the sentences are short, often tentative. “I want to tell you why poetry is worth thinking about—from time to time,” Paul Chowder tells us. “Not all the time. Sometimes it’s a much better idea to think about other things.” Chowder’s tone is often that of a lecturer, but just how this voice is issuing is unclear. We know that Emmett, in A Box of Matches, is typing what we are reading as he sits in the dark, and sometimes Paul seems to be typing, too, but just as often not. Is he thinking aloud? This looseness of what might be called narrative ascription is fine. Practiced writers learn they can get away with it; readers listen to the voice and don’t worry about how it comes to be.
Paul Chowder’s central argument about poetry, which would be set forth in his 40-page introduction if only he could write it, is in two parts: a part about meter, and a part about rhyme. (Poems can have distinct meter and no rhyme, of course, but—unless you’re Ogden Nash and trying to be funny—it’s hard to have end-rhymes and no fixed meter.) The thesis about meter is that, despite all the prosodic theory of the past about iambic pentameter being the “natural” line of verse in English, it is actually a four-beat line that is central and universal: the so-called “ballad meter” of four accented syllables in a line and a varying number of unaccented ones.
In The Anthologist, there is conflict and narrative, which Baker has largely and effectively elided in the past.
But beyond that, Chowder claims that the iambic pentameter line is often enough really a four-beat line at heart, counted as five by pedants but really heard and felt as four. Beyond that, the four-beat line is claimed to be actually a five-beat line—four heard beats and a final unheard “rest,” as in music, Baker’s area of training. The “hymn meter” of Emily Dickinson and others, which would commonly be described as stanzas of four lines alternating tetrameter and trimeter (“Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me”), Chowder interprets as all four-beat lines, with the unheard “rest” beat at the end of the shorter rhyming lines.
This theory leads Chowder to, among other things, reject free verse; despise Ezra Pound; look coldly on Chaucer (who is claimed to have dragged iambic pentameter into English verse from French); and, in particular, hate enjambment (i.e., when the sense of a line of verse does not end at the end but pushes on into the next line, right where in Chowder’s scheme that “rest” must be). He notes the tendency of free verse (“merely a heartfelt arrangement of plummy words requesting to be read slowly”) to “ultra-extreme enjambment,” breaking a line at “the” or “and,” just to keep “everyone on their toes and off balance.”
His theory of rhyme is even more radical, but also intriguing. He claims that our first babblings come in rhymes, the sound of rhyming imprinted on us by our mother’s voice, full of nonsense rhymes as well as repetitive speech, repetitions of our own utterances back to us. “Baby talk, which is rhyme, is really the way you figure out what’s like and what’s not like, and what is a discrete word, or an utterance, and what is just a transition between two words.” Since rhyme depends on altering a beginning and retaining an ending, it is how we learn to make and hear individual words. “Poems match sounds up the way you matched them up when you were a tiny kid. . . . You’re going to hear it, and you’re going to like it. It’s going to pull you back to the beginning of speech.”
This is all inarguable—that is, it would be pointless to challenge it, because Baker may not even be making this case, it may be only his unreliable Chowder who does so, and does so as an expression of character and character’s dilemma. Certainly Baker means us to take it seriously, in a way we do not have to take Chowder’s lunch, or his lawn-mowing, or his blueberry-picking. If we did not there would be no book. But still the theory belongs to a voice and a mind and a life that have been invented.
Paul Chowder is a new thing among the Baker narrators, with a real vocation (poetry) that fills the book, and a goal to achieve. He has a range of concerns, he frets about how to get on with his career, whether it is a career at all. He misses his old girlfriend terribly and worries that she might really have liked his old dog, Smacko, more than she liked him. He is a little absent-minded, occasionally repeating assertions or mots in a way Baker qua Baker would not. But the most touching thing about him is his central, unresolvable dilemma, the source (though he never exactly comes to understand this) of his hard time with the introduction: though he loves rhyme and meter and believes that they are central not only to poetry but to the human mind and heart, he loves free verse and the writers of it—Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin—above most “formalist” writers. “And there are many poems that enjamb all over themselves, that I love.”
And he himself, though he once wrote a few clever “bad-boy formalist” poems, finally confesses that he actually is no rhymer. Can’t do it, does not have it in his quiver. In an age of no-rhyme, that does not stop his career, but it is a hidden shame, and it faces him urgently, because he believes that rhyme and the four-beat meter (plus rests) may be coming back to poetry, drawn perhaps from the wider culture of song, whence poetry at first derived it. “All the dry rivulets will flow, and everyone will understand that new things were possible all along. And we’ll forget most of the unrhymers that have been so big a part of the last fifty years.”
One of whom, of course, would be Paul Chowder himself, who understands clearly that his place in the ongoing life of poetry is small, and who yet harbors a longing not only to be included, but even more to have written the poems that would earn him a place. Perhaps he yet will. We do not know.
So there is a conflict, which is when a character wants to have or to be something, and strives to get it or to be it, and is somehow transformed in the attempt, whether the attempt is successful or is not, or is neither. There is narrative, which Baker has largely and effectively elided in the past. The Fermata did have a little, and a fatuously happy ending too, but that was a fantasy; The Anthologist has a fairly happy ending, somewhat unearned but not gratuitous.
It is very strange to think that, if his latest novels are predictive, Nicholson Baker has, without losing a jot of his fierce originality, begun to put his unique methods and unique sense of the world, his infarcts of narrative cloggery, to work making ordinary narratives, with beginnings and endings, not so different from the kind that used to fill the books we would read in the course of an afternoon or a day, and return to the library to get more. “To write a series of good little tales I deem ample work for a lifetime,” Henry James wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in 1871, and John Updike apparently deemed that as well. Perhaps Baker has now reached the late point that Bloom marks in the progress of a strong poet, where the poet “holds his own poem so open again to the precursor’s work that at first we might believe the wheel has come full circle.” At first, for the life of writing is not a wheel but a spiral, and though it recalls and recasts, it never returns.
November 17, 2010
20 Min read time