Author Features / Features / Fiction

Nicholson Baker: On Love, Evil, and Old Things

by Sonya Chung

1.

Off the bat: I love a novel whose protagonist provides me with a good reading list.  In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker’s Paul Chowder—a minor poet who is struggling to write the introduction to an anthology—sent me to the work of Sara Teasdale, Rudyard Kipling, Louise Bogan, Swinburne, James Fenton’s “The Vapour Trail,” Léonie Adams, audio readings of Carl Sandburg; along with the poetry anthologies Staying Alive, The Rattle Bag, and The Poet’s Tongue.  And these were just a handful of Chowder’s mentions.

In Baker’s follow-up to The Anthologist—this year’s Traveling SprinklerChowder is a few years older, and a little sadder—the best years of his modest career are likely behind him.  He’s no longer sure he wants to write poems at all. At “Fifty Fucking Five,” Chowder, a former bassoonist, buys himself an electric guitar (among other equipment) at his local Best Buy.  He wants to veer in a new direction; he wants to pause, or stop, or whatever, and then restart; he wants to write songs.  And so this time around, Baker, via Chowder, provides us with an intriguingly varied musical playlist (David Gutowski, take note)—ranging from Debussy and Stravinsky, to Beth Orton, Fountains of Wayne, Jonatha Brooke, John Powell, Heitor Villa-Lobos, András Schiff, Anna Nalick, and the Weepies (again, among many others).  If you’re like me, you don’t take just anyone’s recommendations for books or music; it is to Baker’s great credit that Chowder’s passion and analysis come off as both thoughtful and trustworthy, and that we read his story wanting to know what he cares about, what he loves, what inspires him.

2.

Old things are valuable “because they are old,” Baker wrote in his essay “Reading the Paper.”

[T]heir oldness and their fragility is part of what they have to say.  They hold the record of the time in which they were printed, and the record of the years that have passed between that time and now.

Since the early ’90s, Baker has been an outspoken defender of the preservation of printed matter—books, newspapers, library card catalogs (rolodexes, diaries, and grocery lists, too, I would imagine).  He’s written researched essays, as well as a book, Double Fold, on the subject.  In 1999—initially using his own money, renting a storage warehouse near his home in Maine—he established the American Newspaper Repository, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to “save a unique collection of original newspapers that would otherwise have been destroyed or dispersed” and “to preserve and make available to the scholarly public, and to future generations, these magnificent landmarks of American publishing.”  (The collection has since been acquired by Duke University.)

Baker’s devotion to preservation of words-on-paper seems rooted in two underlying convictions: 1) these materials tell the story of who we’ve been, and thus who we are—they are our “accreted biography,” as he wrote in the 1994 essay “Discards,” which lamented the en masse disposal of library card catalogs as online catalogs were established; and 2) everything that matters to us as a human race—or, at least, a lot of what matters—lives in these obscure, ostensibly trivial nooks and corners, the realm of the little known or seen.  Again, from “Discards”:

This is above all the task we want libraries to perform: to hold on to books that we don’t want enough to own, books of very limited appeal, unshielded by racks of Cliffs Notes or ubiquitous citations or simple notoriety. . . . Libraries are repositories for the out of print and the less desired, and we value them inestimably for that.  The fact that most library books seldom circulate is part of the mystery and power of libraries.  The books are there, waiting from age to age until their moment comes.  And in the case of any given book, its moment may never come—but we have no way of predicting that, since we are unable to know now what a future time will find of interest.

In a recent, excellent profile of Baker in the New York Review of Books, Michael Dirda takes us through Baker’s career trajectory in a way that highlights the range and variety of his output over the last 20 years: the “mock-epic minutiae” of his first two novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, along with his return to this mode, in quieter versions, with The Everlasting Story of Nory and A Box of Matches; his three erotic novels—Vox, The Fermata, and House of Holeseach quite distinct from the other, and variously controversial, even within this Bakerian sub-genre; his politically-charged essays and long-form nonfiction (The Size of Thoughts, Double Fold, Human Smoke, The Way the World Works); and, most recently, his duo of novels narrated by Paul Chowder.  While it’s true that Baker shirked the prognostications of early critics who wondered if he wasn’t, in Dirda’s paraphrasing, “a one-trick pony . . . a prose dandy,” confined by “relentless syntactical contrivedness and an unswerving authorial self-regard”—and certainly he has ranged and risked in both subject matter and form—it seems to me that Baker’s fundamental commitments and hopes have persisted over the last 20-some years.  Biographical accretion, the value of the old and insignificant, and the as-yet unrealized/unpredictable/slow-to-bloom profoundness in the minutiae of everyday existence—these ideas sound off beautifully, for example, in both The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler.

3.

Baker was born in 1957 and published his first novel, The Mezzanine—a cult classic of experimental, footnote-heavy, plotless interiority, which takes place during the time span of a man’s lunch-hour trip up an escalator—at age 31.  (He is not, by our definition, a “bloomer.”  Paul Chowder, on the other hand, very much is, and he will be our main subject here in a moment.)  Baker studied bassoon briefly at the Eastman School of Music and later graduated from Haverford College.  For many years, he has lived and worked in the small town of South Berwick, Maine (pop. 7,000), where he lives with his wife of nearly 30 years, in an 18th-century oak-beamed house.  They have two children, now young adults.

I was interested to learn of Baker’s “unusual background,” as John O’Mahony put it in a 2003 profile for The Guardian:

 [Baker’s] genealogy was a perfect balance between the literary and the commercial.  His great-grandfather, Ray Stannard Baker, had been press secretary to president Woodrow Wilson and won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Wilson, while also writing bucolic bestsellers under a pseudonym.  Baker’s father studied at Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village (where he met Baker’s mother Ann), but ended up running an advertising company from the family home. . . . “Nicholson was interested in advertising, things like popular mechanics or how things worked [said his father].  He would read all the small ads about how you could build a helicopter or a working gyro.”

The fluidity between high culture and mass culture is one of the delights of Paul Chowder’s musings, about music and poetry and really anything under the sun.  Baker seems to exult in expounding on aesthetics in terms both erudite and super-ordinary.  Here is Chowder on Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral”:

I wanted to tell them that Debussy played enormous still chords and out of them you can see the smoky blue water and the decayed pillars of the ruined church and the long blue fishes steering themselves down the nave and poking their snouts at the lettucey seaweeds . . . That he wrote a friend that sometimes he wished he was a sponge at the bottom of the sea—éponge, a usefully squeezable word in French . . . he created a great shadowy still place underwater, this place of peacefulness where when you listen to the music you can go and watch the medieval fishes swim.

Debussy’s tenth piano prelude described as “lettucey,” Debussy as emotionally “squeezable”: for 300 pages, I am happy to love what Chowder loves, be moved by what moves him, whether it’s an early-20th century French composer or a remix of “Apes from Space” by Phatso Brown.

4.

Are these Paul Chowder’s tastes and passions, or Baker’s?  There is certainly evidence that Baker’s fiction leans toward autobiography.  “The books are so much about me anyway that it is so difficult to sit down and talk about my work,” he said to O’Mahoney.  Like Baker, Chowder played the bassoon and had visions of becoming a composer.  Baker and Chowder are the same age, live in rural New England, and both somewhat disapprove of the teaching of creative writing.

The similarities may end here, however.  Chowder has had a poem or two published in the New Yorker, and occasionally he is asked to speak or teach, but mostly—unlike Baker, who seems to be going strong with 15 critically lauded books under his belt and no sign of waning—Chowder is on the far fringe of the literary in-crowd.  Also, he is broke, and he is a poet, not a prose writer.  (Baker reportedly “grew out a beard to resemble his character, put on a floppy brown hat, set up a video camera on a tripod and videotaped himself giving poetry lectures. He transcribed about 40 hours worth of tape, and ended up with some 1,000 pages of notes and transcription.”)  Finally, along with his vocational and financial crises, Chowder is alone and lonely: his girlfriend of eight years, Roz, left him, and he is regretting that he has no children.

5.

Traveling Sprinkler is about a man’s second act, late in life; or, really, his third, or fourth: bassoonist, poet, anthologist, songwriter.  (There is, actually, a fifth to add here, but that would be too much of a spoiler.)  There are so many Bloomer-esque ideas and values—sharply, humorously, and touchingly rendered—throughout Chowder’s story, that I could not resist bending our Bloom criteria to write about him.

In The Anthologist, Chowder is on a kind of mission to convince the world—poets and anyone who cares about poetry—that iambic pentameter is a misnomer: the so-called five-beat line is in fact a six-beat line, because at its end there is, rhythmically, a crucial sixth beat—a rest.  Using Dryden as an example:

Try it as a run-on.  ‘All-human-things-are-subject-to-decay-and-when-fate-summons—’  What?  Who?  Where am I?  You see?  It’s just not right that way.  You cannot have five stresses in a line and then jog straight on to the next line.  If you do that, it sounds out of whack.  It sounds horrible. . . . You’ve got to have the rest!  There’s no question about it.

The proper rhythm for the line, according to Chowder, is: All man thíngs are súbject decáy (rést.)  “You need to have the rest,” he insists, again and again. “I’m telling you that this is true.”  And that rest becomes a metaphor for transition, contemplation, finding your way in good time.  The last line of the novel reads: “The summer’s over.  It’s fall.  Shadows on the windshield.  Rest.”

In Traveling Sprinkler, Chowder embraces the value of silence, of waiting (he regularly attends Quaker meetings); he struggles with the realities of violence and injustice in the world—drone strikes and CIA corruption are two of his main concerns—from a more considered, and wearier, post-youth perspective; and he comes at his romantic life, riddled with past failures now, from a distinctly unromanticized and yet more substantial place.  His girlfriend Roz has left him, but they are “still good friends and we talk on the phone and I sometimes send her postcards when I’m lonely in hotel rooms.  I still hold out hope.”  Chowder is learning about songwriting, and he’s thinking out loud throughout the novel about war and violence and the state of the world; but all along, he’s also thinking about Roz—what it means to be intimate with someone, what it means to love:

I want to really be with a woman.  By that I mean I want to be able to stay up late with her talking about everything.  I want to show her all the things that I’ve found out, which aren’t very interesting maybe, but they’re what I have.  And I want her to show me all the things that she’s found out. . . I want to confide—that’s what I want to do.  What confiding is is that you have a woman you like a great deal and you tell her things that you didn’t even know were secrets.  You look at her and feel a nervous warmth because she’s the only person who will understand.

What’s lovely about Traveling Sprinkler is the way in which its “mature” take on life is both underwhelming and yet also profoundly affecting; it’s a book about romantic love, and about the horrors of global injustice, and somehow it manages to leave us with a sense that these are of a piece.  “I don’t want to know about evil, only want to know about love,” sings Beth Orton while Chowder drives to Quaker meeting.  By the novel’s end, Chowder hasn’t so much evaded or denied knowledge of evil, but he shifts his focus to stake claim on authenticity—a small, internal truth-telling—as a first step towards transcending mere guilt or futile indignation. Reflecting on a news story that had upset and troubled him earlier in the novel, he says:

I remembered Roya, the girl in Afghanistan whose father gathered parts of his wife and his sons from trees by his house.  Roya lived through something inconceivable.  She survived, but barely.  And my job was to think about her, right then, because we were responsible.  We did this to Roya—with our missiles, our taxes, our Air Force, our targeters, our elected government.  We exported a war into her young life.  I thought, What can I possibly do to help Roya and her father?  And the answer was: Nothing.  There was nothing I could do. . .

I wrote a two-minute song with one word in it: Roya. . . . The song will not help her.  It’s not a comforting song.  It’s not a good song.  But it is a way of remembering.  It’s a way of paying attention to a single event by surrounding it with many notes.  The notes point like arrows to the wrong.

“All politics are local,” Chowder says, early on in the book.  Through his quiet, attentive journey, he discovers that they are even more local than he thought: politics will always be about activism, yes, but they are also about self-inventory, compassion, and truthfulness.  His ability to love (Roz, himself) and to make honest art are not unrelated to his ability to do right in the world.

6.

The small things matter.  For 30 years, Nicholson Baker has been reminding us of this.  There is a sense in which we are all “old things,” all of us “waiting from age to age until [our] moment comes.”  In the meantime, “since we are unable to know now what a future time will find of interest,” it is important to rest; to love; to wait and be silent; to read and to listen to everything under the sun that moves us; to seek and care about the truth.

Bloom Post End

Sonya Chung is founding editor of Bloom.  She is the author of the novel Long for This World, a staff writer for The Millions, and currently she teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.

Homepage photo credit: Toffee Maky via photopin cc

Sonya Chung’s previous features: Mary Costello’s Immaculate Sadness, Spencer Reece: The Poet’s Tale, From Pamela to Patty: Male Authors and Knowledge of the Female Heart, Experience Required: The Real F-Word, Back & Forth: Reflections on One Year of BLOOM

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