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Secret Histories

Vox

by Nicholson Baker
Random House, 165 pp., $15.00

A Case of Curiosities

by Allen Kurzweil
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 358 pp., $19.95

Nicholson Baker is a fiction writer of great charm who may or may not be a novelist. Certainly narrative is the least of his concerns. In The Mezzanine (1988) the “action” begins with the narrator’s entrance into the office building where he works and concludes with his ascent of the escalator to the mezzanine floor. The interval between these two events occupies almost as many pages (135) as Laurence Sterne devoted to the digression-filled gap between the conception and the birth of Tristram Shandy. For Baker, like Sterne, the soul, and indeed the body, of the novel consists of digressions—digressions which in Baker’s case are augmented by footnotes that can run for as many as four pages at a time of dense type. In The Mezzanine and in his next book, Room Temperature (1990), in which the “plot” consists of the narrator’s giving a bottle to his six-month-old daughter, the digressions are largely devoted to an examination, under high magnification, of the trivia of ordinary life: the abrasion-rate of shoelaces; the switch from paper to plastic drinking straws and the disconcerting buoyancy of the latter; the superiority, economic and otherwise, of paper-towel dispensers over warm-air blowers in the office men’s room; the matching and mixing of paint colors; the shape, function, and history of the comma; the limits of marital intimacy as they apply to such matters as nose-picking and defecation.

To these examinations Baker brings an almost Proustian intensity of analysis, together with much lively and often erudite detail, an abundance of far-ranging literary and technological allusions, and an ingratiating mix of the narrator’s own memories, foibles, and emotions. One reads his very short books not as fiction but as meditations on a variety of odd topics—tiny personal essays linked by a whimsical association of ideas and warmed by the singularly appealing voice of the first-person narrator.

Still odder than Baker’s non-novels is his third book, U and I (1991), called a “true story,” which is nothing less than an account of the author’s infatuation with the writing and the character (as Baker imagines it) of “U,” John Updike. Once again, the book’s subject serves as a base for any number of autobiographical recollections and fantasies, together with disquisitions on writing and on favorite writers ranging from Sir Thomas Browne to James, Proust, Nabokov, and Murdoch. The adulation of Updike is—as one might expect—tempered by a self-mocking but nonetheless fervent competitiveness. Baker loves to blurt out startling things with disarming aplomb, as when he announces that “most good novelists have been women or homosexuals” and then, as a fellow male, heterosexual writer, expresses gratitude to Updike for serving as a model “of a man who has in his art successfully moved outside the limitations of his carnal circuitry.” Even more surprising is this parenthetical confession: “I myself have never successfully masturbated to Updike’s writing, though I have to certain remembered scenes in Iris Murdoch; but someone I know says that she achieved a number of quality orgasms from Couples when she first read it at age thirteen.”

Thus, circuitiously, we arrive at Nicholson Baker’s most recent work, Vox, in which he applies his inexhaustible attention to the subject of telephonic masturbation conducted over what is called an adult party line. Vox, I suppose, comes a bit closer than his earlier books to the conventional notion of a novel; it does, after all, contain two characters who speak to each other—there is indeed nothing but dialogue—and the “story” does move, albeit with numerous detours and diversions, toward a climax at the end. The speakers are two pleasant young people, female and male, whose names, we eventually learn, are Abby and Jim. They live in different cities, are single, have apartments equipped with stereos and VCRs, and she owns three different but incomplete patterns of inherited silver. What else do we know about these rather generically presented characters? They seem well-spoken, in a rather hip way, and reasonably well-educated, considerate of each other, and eager to please. Like the narrator of Baker’s previous books, they would appear to be upper-middle-class and probably WASP.

Abby and Jim are both readers of a catalog of sexy clothing called Deliques Intimates; and they read pornographic magazines and watch videos to stimulate their several fantasies. Both prefer masturbation (“dithering” in her private vocabulary, “strumming” in his) to sexual intercourse, though neither exactly scorns the latter if the proper occasion for it arises. One could, I suppose, read into this preference Baker’s oblique comment on the contemporary sexual scene, with its much-talked-about narcissism, AIDS-induced wariness, and reluctance to make or accept commitments. But perhaps not. As the young man puts it:

It’s not like I haven’t done normal stuff here and there. But I don’t know, you slip inside, and that first moment is paradise, incomparable, but then you’re working away…you’re distracted, your brain is moving your hips, moving your torso, holding her soft hips—hey, it sounds good! But you know? When I come inside it feels mystical but muffled…. I lose a sense of outer boundaries. You know?

The young woman agrees:

That first moment is great, but then my whole area becomes, as you say, distracted…and I’m out of the loop…. Also, yeah, I do unfortunately tend to get yeast complications from real sex, inside sex, the friction seems to cause them.

There does not seem to be a mean streak in either of these young people and not the slightest tendency toward sadistic or masochistic excitation. Enthusiasts of The Story of O will be disappointed. Other readers may be pleased to learn that before they hang up (all passion spent), Jim gives Abby his own phone number and she agrees to call him soon. Meanwhile she has a load of towels to put in the laundry.

The originality of Vox lies not in the sexual passages, which are as explicit as any reader of pornography could wish, but in the elaborations of the fantasies which the speakers offer to each other—elaborations as fancifully and amusingly detailed as any of the digressions in Baker’s earlier work. The young man, taking his cue from the young woman’s mention of a silver fork that was damaged in a dishwasher, invents for her a whole career as a creator of silver jewelry. Her masterpiece, according to him, is a necklace:

a very simple necklace, but with three stones…a tiny chrysolite in the center, and then, on either side, two lovely lustrous pieces of unpolished strumulite, which are, as you know, fossilized drops of dinosaur ejaculate. Nothing could be more tasteful.

She in turn invents for him a scene involving the painting of her apartment. While supervising this operation, she receives the attentions of the painters, who stripe her nude body with tiny rollers laden with semi-gloss Paper Lantern and Opulent Opal—the names of actual Sherwin Williams paints, she assures the young man.

Though it was carefully announced for publication on St. Valentine’s day and self-consciously marketed in a brown paper wrapper as if it were pornography, Vox deserves to be read with full attention to what surrounds and lies between the sexually explicit moments. While it may not be Baker’s best book, as he is alleged to claim, it certainly reveals this young writer’s curious and idiosyncratic art—as well as providing an amuse-gueule for the good saint’s anniversary feast.

A Case of Curiosities is a remarkable historical novel (his first) by a young writer named Allen Kurzweil. On its jacket, which also carries enthusiastic endorsements by Simon Schama and Francis Steegmuller, we are told that Kurzweil spent five years compiling research for the book, a claim that one can well believe, given the precocious learning and recondite allusions that are flaunted on every page. But there is much more to the novel than anti-quarian display. Set in the final decade of the Old Regime in France, it attempts to recreate not only the daily experience but what the French call the mentalités of that era and to do so in a manner that recalls Robert Darnton’s historical explorations of Parisian and peasant life in such works as The Literary Underground of the Old Regime and The Great Cat Massacre.

The title derives from an antique glass-fronted box which the twentieth-century narrator (who appears in only the introductory pages and postscript of the novel) buys at an auction in Paris. Behind the glass are ten compartments, nine of which contain seemingly unrelated objects, among them a small wooden mannikin, a jar, a nautilus shell, and a button made of horn. The narrator learns that such a case is called a memento hominem and that “each object in the case indicates a decisive moment or relationship in the personal history of the compositor. The objects chosen are often common-place; the reasons for their selection never are.” The ensuing novel is structured upon an investigation of the meaning of these objects—compartment by compartment—in the biography of a young mechanical genius, Claude Page, whose spectacular creation, the Talking Turk, created a sensation in 1789—and its decapitation must have been the most bizarre use of the guillotine in the Terror that followed.

We first encounter Claude as a ten-year-old boy living with his family in a harsh valley not far from Geneva. The crude and brutalized life of the community is memorably evoked by Kurzweil, as is the terrible wind called the Vengeful Widow that periodically sweeps through the valley, stripping tiles from roofs, “cramping toes, deadening udders, waking dormant nipples.” Already a gifted draftsman, Claude attracts the attention of the eccentric local landowner, who is still known as the Abbé though he has long since repudiated the Jesuit order to which he once belonged. The Abbé installs Claude in the mansion house and undertakes his education in all manner of natural and mechanical phenomena. More specifically, the boy is trained as an enamelist and watch-maker, for the Abbé, who is financially pressed, carries on a profitable little business by supplying a Parisian bookseller with watches whose inner cases display handsomely enameled pornographic scenes. The quickness of Claude’s intelligence and the extent of his experiments all develop remarkably under the Abbé’s encouragement; he becomes, among other things, an expert in the phonic notation of sounds ranging from coughs, sneezes, and farts to the songs of birds.

What Kurzweil conveys so well in the first hundred pages of the novel is the explosion of scientific (and pseudo-scientific) curiosity that characterized the amateur naturalists, mechanicians, encyclopedists, taxonomists, anatomists, and experimenters of all sorts during the Enlightenment and just before both the French and the Industrial revolutions. The Abbé himself embodies this passion—he is a mad polymath, who, despite the growing threat of bankruptcy, recognizes no boundaries and spares no expense in his pursuit of universal knowledge. He is fascinated by pigments, the more exotic the better:

On a voyage to the East,…touring the district of Monghyr, the Abbé found a seller of Indian yellow in a marketplace in Mizapur. He wanted to learn how it was made, and so, after much inquiry, tracked the processing to a sect of milkmen known as gwalas. The Abbé was told that the pigment came from dried cow urine. The gwalas raised their sacred beasts on a diet exclusively of mango leaves to intensify the yellow pigment so cherished by Indian illuminators and Islamic miniaturists. A shipment of the foul-smelling substance, packed into balls, was sent to the delighted Paris stationer.

A born teacher, he is delighted to share his enthusiasm with young Claude:

They spent hours hunched over a costly but inadequate screw-barrel microscope bought from Culpeper’s in London, trying to find fault with Hooke’s study of the eye of the fly, the thorn of the nettle, and the stinger of the bee. They found none, though they did have some success in modifying, ever so slightly, the illustrations of Jan Swammerdam’s eviscerated mayfly larva.

This idyllic collaboration is rudely shattered when the boy, penetrating the forbidden inner sanctum of the mansion, witnesses through a screen what he takes to be the murder by the Abbé of a beautiful young woman. She is actually an “automat,” constructed by the Abbé, who strikes her head with a mallet in his frustration over her inadequate playing of the harpsichord. The horrified Claude, now fourteen, sets off for Paris, where the remainder of the novel largely takes place. There he finds lodgings in a garret on the Rue St.-Séverin (where the rebellious apprentices in Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre also lived) and apprentices himself—miserably—to the Abbé’s old contact, the bowel-obsessed bookseller, who does a brisk business in “philosophical” (i.e. pornographic) books concealed behind a curtain made from a nun’s habit. One of the bookseller’s clients, the middle-aged wife of a wigmaker, finds the youth attractive and eventually seduces him; the poor wigmaker himself is forced—in a scene that might well have been documented by Darnton—to stand trial on a charge of impotence. At last, after many tribulations, Claude is able once again to indulge his passion for “mechanicals.” Reunited with the Abbé and aided by a group of raffish friends, he embarks on his greatest enterprise: the life-sized, clock-work-animated Talking Turk, who by an ingenious device is able to utter the fatal words Vive le Roi! just as the revolutionary storm is about to break.

Such a summary only touches on the variety of incidents and characters in A Case of Curiosities. But one finishes the novel with the sense that Kurzweil is less concerned with (and less successful in) creating fictionally memorable characters or an exciting story than with presenting what might be called the “character” of the age. Even in the case of the Abbé, the reader, I think, will be more interested in what he does and what he stands for than in his personal history or psychology. The same is even more true with Claude, who, despite his “genius,” never says anything particularly arresting or vivid. Both call to mind the beautifully made machines described in the book; they are skillfully animated and serviceable enough for the purposes of the novel but lack the vital presence on the page of such fictional contemporaries as Valmont or Madame de Merteuil. There are times, too, when the novel’s action seems almost to stand still, laden as it is with anti-quarian lore and descriptive set pieces. But no matter: Kurzweil’s intention is not to write a historical romance in the mode of Ivanhoe or Gone with the Wind. What the reader retains from A Case of Curiosities is a series of extraordinarily vivid images, beautifully composed, and the pleasurable illusion of having been allowed to visit an authentic landscape of the past.

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