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 that Nicholson Baker travels better than anybody. He has written one novel that takes place during a two-minute escalator ride (The Mezzanine) and another that takes place during one bottle-feeding of an infant (Room Temperature). Baker has seen the world, and it’s right here. In A Box of Matches this same world, so intimate, so tactile, so astonishingly functional, is discovered anew—this time in the dark. On the second morning, the narrator is awake at 3:57, chewing an apple. He informs us that his name is Emmett, that he edits medical textbooks for a living, that his wife is named Claire, and that he has two children. And then, in what becomes an almost hallucinatory journey toward a match, he pokes and taps and pinches through the dark in tranquil confusion and curiosity.
His fingers run along the raised design of his coffee mug, but he can’t make out the pattern. The serene disorientation of the darkness increases as Emmett opens an empty book of matches and feels “nothing but cardboard stumps, like a row of children’s teeth just coming in.” A bowl of dried flowers feels like a bowl of Special K. He makes out the shape of an old plate on the mantel, but cannot remember the pattern on it. “Claire loves china,” he says, “but I can only keep in mind the china we use every day.” The decorative pattern that Emmett does discern at last is one that bursts into view. “When I struck it in the profundity of the dark,” Emmett says when he finally locates a match, “I could see the dandelion head of little sparks shooting out from the match head and the eagerly waving arms of the new flame before it calmed down.”
On another morning Emmett listens to a mournful train whistle and wonders how the train-horn factory arrives at just that “chord of eternal mournfulness,” then goes on to tell us that there used to be two passenger train lines through his town, which leads him to observe that Rudyard Kipling once stayed in the town on his way to Vermont, where he wrote the Just So Stories. Emmett’s mother used to read “How the Leopard Got His Spots” to him,
and it changed the way I thought about shadows. There were several places in our yard that offered Kipling’s kind of jigsawed shade. The euonymus tree that grew near the edge of our property worked best. Euonymus bark has beautiful fins, and under this low tree I could sit and watch the sunlight break into pieces.
Patterns for Emmett are dynamic things.
“The apportioning of the stars into constellations is unnecessary,” Emmett says. “Their anonymity enhances the sense of infinitude.” Baker’s work exists in its own anonymity, in the sense of not being easily named and labeled. Are his books novels? Are they memoirs? Are they essays? His essays, scrupulously researched and bursting with metaphor, have the idiosyncratic and microscopic focus of a modern novel. His fiction has the exhaustive information and arcane explanations of a great New Yorker fact piece from the 1970s.
In U and I, Baker’s 1991 novel about his obsession with John Updike, he wrote that
one of the principal aims of the novel itself…is to capture pieces of mental life as truly as possible, as they unfold, with all the surrounding forces of circumstance that bear on a blastula of understanding allowed to intrude to the extent that they give a more accurate picture.
A Box of Matches is, like all Baker’s other novels, a novel of contemplation: Being Nicholson Baker. The imagination is a wilderness of infinite possibility for him, and all of his books are located there in the way that Updike’s are located in the suburbs. What’s new in this book, I think, and what makes it particularly poignant, is a sense that this vast territory of the imagination, this primeval forest of odd facts and observations, is ultimately as ephemeral as the flame of a match.
In The Mezzanine, the narrator, a young man named Howie, wonders if the time will ever come
when I am not so completely dependent on thoughts I first had in childhood to furnish the feedstock for my comparisons and analogies and sense of the parallel rhythms of microhistory….
The answer, of course, is yes. A Box of Matches is a book by an adult.
On morning number nineteen, Emmett reveals the two events that inspired him to get up before dawn each morning. The first was a decision by his wife to wake the family on New Year’s morning and bundle them off to the beach to watch the sun rise. The second was a moment on a train trip from Washington to Boston a few months earlier when Emmett woke up in his bunk
and pulled the curtain to look out the window and saw that we were in the station in New York City, and I realized that I was passing through a very important center of commerce without seeing a single street and that something similar was happening in my life.
Emmett likes the fact that there are fifty-two weeks in the year, the number seems right to him, but thinks there ought to be more than twelve months. “Passing me by, passing me by. Life is,” he says at one point. Emmett’s fourteen-year-old daughter is named Phoebe; his son, Henry, is eight. When Emmett shampoos Henry’s hair in the tub one night, he notices that Henry has grown and touches both ends of the tub. He remembers not only when Phoebe first did the same, but recalls, too, when he himself first reached from tub end to tub end. Emmett muses frequently on childhood, but childhood no longer refers only to his own early years. For Emmett, childhood means the present lives of his children as well. The feedstock has piled up and drifted into new shapes.
Emmett, sitting before his pre-dawn fire, contemplates his children, his time with them, with an awed sentimentality that is so earnest it breathes gravitas into the entire book. Even the daydreams of heroic rocketships and bicycles hurtling off the end of the earth into the sun, which threaten to become tiresome from time to time, are rescued by Emmett’s sincerity. Emmett recounts each day with the urgent, unfiltered loquacity of modern children and bores, yet he is neither, which lends to the rush of ideas and notions and observations a surprising poignancy. Emmett doesn’t need a rocket or a bicycle to reach the edge of the world. He is there already, bumbling around in the dark, watching a fire consume itself. In his bathrobe, cosily sipping his coffee, Emmett is a funny kind of an existential hero, but an existential hero nevertheless.
One morning, Henry comes in and and says, “Dad, in only two years I’m going to be ten.” A moment later, Emmett tells us, “And now I can hear the crows, the birds that announce the end of my secret morning.” Rising before dawn to add hours onto your life because you realize you will someday die is something the wise men of Chelm might have thought of. But if Emmett cannot cheat death, he does cheat the dawn, every morning for a month or so, capturing “pieces of mental life” like fireflies, creating consciousness while the rest of us sleep. In A Box of Matches, Emmett faces the inevitability of death by noticing life.
May 1, 2003