A Case of Curiosities
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 …