Unanswered Prayer

Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker; drawing by David Levine

Whatever serious subject the novelist Nicholson Baker explores, we must never forget that he is also being at least a little funny. Fond of the brisk, improvisatory miniature and heir to the cerebral comedy of Donald Barthelme, he still can seem a little misunderstood by those who would read any of his fiction as a grinding axe. Baker is not, as Leon Wieseltier suggested recently in a review of Baker’s new novel, Checkpoint, in The New York Times Book Review, an attention-seeker, participating in “the politics of the sewer.”* (Much of Baker’s work is quiet to the point of prayer: his last novel, A Box of Matches, about a middle-aged man getting up every day before sunrise, reads like a prose poem to fire and dawn.) And although Baker is often interested in talk, and even wild talk, as Wieseltier correctly notes (Baker’s most famous novel, Vox, is about phone sex), he has this in common with most of the writers who ever lived.

Baker’s novels are largely obsessions with action vs. paralysis, of both the political and personal sort, and in his unusual explorations of this psychological mezzanine and classical theme (in The Fermata the protagonist can in fact freeze others and stop time; in Room Temperature an entire novel occurs while the protagonist rocks his baby to sleep; in his first novel, actually titled The Mezzanine, a torrential esprit d’escalier engenders a roaming book-length tracking of one man’s mind), he is something of an original, though one might be tempted to place him alongside the English novelist Geoff Dyer: both are the same age, both have published amusing, inward-looking tributes to another admired writer (Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage on D.H. Lawrence, Baker’s U and I on John Updike), and both use restless, unpredictable narratives to register the neurasthenic perils and pleasures of their own isolating hyper-self-consciousness—and do so without any masculine vanity whatsoever. This, I daresay, makes them disarming and endearing literary mavericks in the heterosexual world. Perhaps one of their differences is that Baker seems seldom to leave the house (in A Box of Matches a character airing a rug on the front porch railing is performing a gregarious public act) while the peripatetic Dyer—observing all-night raves in France (Paris Trance) or his own tears in his smeared fried eggs in Detroit (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It)—seems never to stay home.

Baker’s wit and literary context must be borne in mind when considering his most recent novel, Checkpoint, a dialogue between two men discussing the plusses and minuses of assassinating the President. One of the men, Jay, ostensibly has a plan to do so, but his mutating renditions of it are so laughably harebrained—one includes a final greeting to Condoleezza Rice (“Stick to the piano, baby!”)—that most readers will come to realize that Jay is less villainous than he is a…

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