Funny, But Serious Too

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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 …

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