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Funny, But Serious Too

Fred Field/The New York Times/Redux
Nicholson Baker, South Berwick, Maine, 2008

While Nicholson Baker may have started out as a somewhat lighthearted literary microscopist, genially teasing out the overlooked yet fetching particularities of the world around us, he’s come a long way since The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990). Over the years he’s increasingly assumed a far more iconoclastic and contentious presence on the cultural scene—producing tracts as well as novels, breaking taboos, celebrating both erotic and domestic forms of the Earthly Paradise, attacking orthodoxies and bureaucracies and governments, bucking the system. His latest novel, Traveling Sprinkler, isn’t just a further report from the sad sack poet Paul Chowder (narrator of 2009’s The Anthologist), it’s also a political jeremiad and a plea for what the book calls “lovingkindness.”

Back when Baker first began to publish, he seemed just a delightful, slightly show-offy aesthete. Setting down the thoughts of a young businessman on his lunch hour in The Mezzanine and the reveries of a stay-at-home dad while he feeds his six-month-old daughter a bottle in Room Temperature, Baker deliberately eschewed what he once called the “clanking boxcars” of plot. Lacking significant action, the two books instead offered lyricized info-dumps, gardens of forking paths appealingly littered with paper clips, gel pens, and shoelaces, digressive prose poems celebrating the delicate and remarkable beauty of the seemingly unremarkable. Baker’s mock-epic minutiae captivated readers:

Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped wood fiber. Yet do we have national holidays to celebrate its development? Are festschrift volumes published honoring the dead greats in the field?… Why isn’t the pioneer of perforation chiseled into the façades of libraries, along with Locke, Franklin, and the standard bunch of French Encyclopedists? They would have have loved him!

When Baker brought out his third book, U and I (1991), an apologia for dandyish bespoke prose in an age of sweatshop ready-to-wear, people began to say: this guy’s really an essayist. Maybe. Not that it mattered one way or the other. You didn’t read Baker for plot turns or the careful delineation of character, or even for ideas. You read him for sentences and similes that would take your breath away, for pages of description more exciting than any James Bond thriller. In an age of “transparent” journalistic prose, Baker’s every line shouted, like the Cat in the Hat, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW!” How else can one account for his description of his first novel as nothing less than

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?

Stylistic bravura, however, requires constant vigilance and can easily pall. As early as Room Temperature, some critics complained that Baker was repeating himself and might be a one-trick pony. Weren’t his exaltations of the inconsequential a little too precious and mannered? The touch was light, the tone was humorous, the frequent Baker-and-his-purple-crayon evocations of childhood beautifully exact—and yet were they sufficient to counter his relentless syntactical contrivedness and an unswerving authorial self-regard? Hothouse prose can stifle.

So Vox (1992)—Baker’s novel about telephone sex—showed that he was more than a palely wan prosateur of genius. This was hot stuff, even if it was all talk. Vox hit the best-seller list and Baker, for a while, shucked the image of a coterie author. Walter Pater had been transformed into a latter-day John Cleland. Then, two years later, The Fermata (1994) appeared: its protagonist, Arno Strine, possessed the power to freeze time and used his gift to undress attractive women for his voyeuristic delectation. Not only was The Fermata pornographic, it was also widely regarded as downright icky, not to say misogynistic. Baker, the prose dandy, now seemed to many little better than a raincoated subway frotteur.

But in between his soft-core pulp fictions, Baker had been establishing himself as a journalist. Articles appeared in the slickest slicks, and shone with wit, wide-ranging cultural references, and a certain brittle glitz. The Size of Thoughts (1996) collected many of these pieces, the best known being a tour-de-force meditation on the meaning and uses of the word “lumber.” Like the literary scholar Leo Spitzer tracing the evolution of the concept Stimmung or the essayist William Gass tracking the implications of the word “blue,” Baker both instructed and dazzled, strutting his stuff with impressive antiquarian gusto.

By this point, he had also made clear that he could thicken or thin his always delicious prose to suit his artistic, journalistic, or polemical purpose. Polemical? Yes, indeed. In “Discards”—the other well-known essay in The Size of Thoughts—Baker blasted the librarian-technocrats who, in the name of the digital, were casually chucking the traditional card catalog and all the history, information, and romance contained therein. That article was, however, merely the opening sally in a larger campaign. The verbal miniaturist/literary pornographer/occasional journalist/amateur scholar was soon climbing into heavy crusader’s armor and, like a one-man army, laying siege to a revered bastion of culture, our nation’s greatest libraries.

In Double Fold (2001), an outraged Baker related the history of library microfilming, the well-intentioned folly that led to the destruction of thousands of scarce newspapers, journals, and books. Like parents sacrificing their children to Moloch, trusted administrators disbound, chopped up, and then sold or sent to landfills a significant portion of our American heritage. All in the name of “preservation.” Newspapers, in particular, were regularly tossed into dumpsters and hauled away as refuse.

Double Fold showed that Baker wasn’t just a romantic nostalgicist bemoaning the obsolescent; he was a man on a mission, an impassioned cultural activist. Initially using his own money, he established the American Newspaper Repository in order to buy otherwise doomed runs of the Chicago Tribune, New York Herald Tribune, and other early newspapers. Baker rented a warehouse near his home in Maine (at a cost of $26,000 a year) and showed that, given careful treatment, even fragile, highly acidic ephemera, such as Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper The World, were nowhere near as friable as was commonly thought. In 2004 this vast collection was acquired by Duke University where it will be maintained for the use of future generations.

Double Fold provoked an uproar even greater than that aroused by Vox and The Fermata. Libraries, argued the librarians, served the public; Baker countered that they should serve posterity by preserving the past. Since then, he has continued to criticize the technocratic mind-set, notably in the scathing “Truckin’ for the Future,” included in his 2012 essay collection The Way the World Works. In this case, Baker blasted the San Francisco Public Library for weeding out at least 200,000 books, most of them hauled away as trash, many of them the last remaining copy of that particular title in the entire system. Eventually, at least in part because of Baker’s reporting, the library’s policy was changed to allow deaccessioned books to be sold rather than dumped.

But as Baker stresses, cultural amnesia continues to be all too prevalent “when telecommunications enthusiasts take over big old research libraries and attempt to remake them, with corporate help, as high-traffic showplaces for information technology.” Instead, as he reminds us in “Reading the Paper,” another essay in The Way the World Works, we should value

old things because they are old—their 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.

Avoiding all this Sturm und Drang, Baker’s novels just before and after Double Fold quietly reprised his earliest manner. The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998) describes, through her own precise and polite consciousness, a nine-year-old American schoolgirl’s utterly ordinary adventures in England. Unsurprisingly, Nory likes to itemize as much as her creator does, adopting as her motto the Bakerian dictum: “Things That You Take for Granted others May Treasure.” Similarly, A Box of Matches (2003) transcribes the narrator’s rivulets of consciousness as each morning he kindles a fire in his living room fireplace and his sleepy mind wanders whither it will. It’s a charming and, even for Baker, a particularly autobiographical book. But these two rather shy novels were succeeded by Checkpoint (2004), told entirely in dialogue. Ben and Jay chat, sip white wine, discuss the invasion of Iraq, and argue over the latter’s decision to assassinate George W. Bush.

Was Baker actually advocating terrorist violence? Hardly. He is, for one thing, an avowed pacifist. However, the dialogue format—the traditional means to examine philosophical and political ideas since as far back as Plato—allowed him to voice his own frustration and anger over the ongoing violence in the Middle East. What should thinking citizens do who are sickened by their government’s actions? In his next work of nonfiction, Human Smoke (2008), Baker took considerable abuse for arguing—with evidence from documents and contemporary newspapers—that World War II wasn’t such a good war after all.

Looking back at the furor in a 2011 essay, “Why I’m a Pacifist” (reprinted in The Way the World Works), he still maintains that the Holocaust was almost certainly intensified and sped up because of the relentless firebombing of Germany: the two were “parallel, incommensurable, warborn leviathans of pointless malice that fed each other and could each have been stopped long before they were.” If the Allies had thought first about saving lives rather than about crushing Germany into the ground, they might, Baker argues, have negotiated an armistice that would have shut down the gas chambers and the furnaces. But that, of course, was pacifist thinking, not vengeful enough for Churchill or macho enough for the US.

Baker’s three novels since Human SmokeThe Anthologist, House of Holes (2011), and this fall’s Traveling Sprinkler—further explore differing responses to our era’s violence and bloodshed. In The Anthologist, a middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder relates, in an almost excessively faux-naif style, his disappointments in life: his girlfriend Roz has left him, his poetic talent seems to have dried up, and his income has plummeted since he quit his teaching job because he can no longer endure the de rigueur mendacity:

My job was to lie very gently to these trusting, sleepy, easily wounded students, over and over again, by saying in all sorts of different ways that their poems were interesting and powerful and sharply etched and nicely turned and worth giving collective thought to. Which they were unfortunately not.

Chowder adds that, after a while, all the poems started to sound the same, so much so that he could imagine a single creative-writing class megapoem: “And I knew what the very first word of the megapoem would be. The first word would be ‘I.’”

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