A Box of Matches
by Nicholson Baker
Random House, 178 pp., $19.95
A Box of Matches begins with the narrator’s friendly but unapologetically idiosyncratic announcement: “Good morning, it’s January and it’s 4:17 a.m., and I’m going to sit here in the dark.” That is the basic plot of Nicholson Baker’s new novel. Each morning, the narrator, a forty-four-year-old man, gets up before dawn and lights the fire, greeting his readers with a cheery “Good morning,” telling us the time, then easing into what seems, at first glance, to be what my grandmother used to call “a nice little visit,” but turns out to be the story of a middle-aged man undergoing the opposite of a mid-life crisis. He faces the passage of time by observing his own contentment with gratitude and obsessive detail. Baker describes a mid-life that is ordinary, days that follow other similar days and precede more of the same, days that come and go; and it is that miracle of constant change and continuity, of the fullness of the ephemeral, that this extraordinary little book celebrates with such inspired tenderness.
On the first January morning, at 4:17 AM, we do not yet know his name, but he sits comfortably with us in his blue bathrobe, his armchair pulled up to the fire. “When it’s very dark like this you lose your sense of scale,” he says, and we are off, gently nudged out into Nicholson Baker’s world. Baker leads us past the fantastical, the grandiose, the daily, and the microscopic as if they were all pleasantly surprising wildflowers on the side of a winding road, all equally astonishing and beautiful. The fire hasn’t really caught yet, and as the narrator stares at the embers of the paper-towel tube he’s used as kindling, it seems to him that he is looking into a monster’s mouth, or a “fissure in a dark and remote planet.” Lava is oozing out and he must fly a rocket in and rescue trapped colonists. Then, with his breathtakingly tranquil confidence, Baker abandons this puerile daydream for a simple statement: “Last night my sleep was threatened by a toe-hole in my sock.” After climbing into bed the night before, the narrator discovered “a monstrous rear-tear through which the entire heel projects like a dinner roll.” The hole is just as monstrous as the fiery monster’s mouth, creating all manner of adjustments until, at last, at peace, he curls up beside his wife.
Then she turned and shifted her warmly pajamaed bottom towards me and I steered through the night with my hand on her hip, and the next thing I knew it was four a.m. and time to get up and make a fire.
Baker writes with a deceptively casual looping motion: his narrator steers his fantasy spaceship past monsters and paper-towel tubes to monstrous tube socks until he reaches the warm uxorious hip that he steers into sleep.
A Box of Matches is about going nowhere via everywhere, a route …