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

As Chowder takes us through his rather pathetic life, he talks about his favorite poets, his conviction that English verse naturally falls into a four-stress line, and his trouble in trying to write the introduction to his long-planned anthology Only Rhyme. Viewed as a self-portrait of the artist as a likable schlemihl, The Anthologist can’t be beat. “A lifetime of fretting over pieces of paper and this is what you’ve got. And yet it’s worth it, isn’t it? That’s what you have to think.” No doubt Baker himself duly fretted over The Anthologist but he also arranged, like bonbons in a box, an assortment of bons mots and sharp aperçus: “Quite quickly after you’re born you begin to suck.” “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.” “A great whimpery happiness passed through me like clear urine.” In a particularly neat act of ventriloquism, Chowder even imagines how Paul Muldoon would react if he were to send him some poems for The New Yorker:

And Paul will send them back, and he’ll say, Great to have something from you, but these seemed a little…. And then he’ll have some apt adjective—“underweathered,” or “overfurnished.” “Elliptically trained.”

If The Anthologist seemed, in the midst of the twenty-first century’s horrors, a flight into gentleness and aesthetics, House of Holes offered quite another form of escape. In this return to full-frontal pornography, Baker creates a joyful, guilt-and-disease-free Land of Cockaigne. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, various characters tumble into an erotic realm overseen by a thoughtful, middle-aged clinician named Lila. Baker has a lot of fun just in naming his sexual puppets: Shandee, Rianne, Luna, Dave, Chuck, Pendle, Loxie, Ruzty, Daggett, Zilka, Cardell, Marcela, Koizumi, Lanasha, Krock, Rhumpa, Wade, Jessica, Henriette, Dennis, Mindy, Polly, Trix, Chilli, Ned, Reese, Kathy, Betsy, Jason.

With minimal plot as usual, the book offers instead a series of tongue-in-cheek (and tongue-in-elsewhere) descriptions of sexual encounters: “She was desperate to nibble on his pectoral manslabs; desperate to knead his suede-soft balls.” There are puns galore: “You pass the testes” or “Pump your lovely Lincoln Stiffins” (an allusion that only students of American muckraking are now likely to understand). The purely denotative chapter titles are little triumphs of dry humor: “Wade Presses the Sex Now Button and Koizumi Visits” and “Chilli Goes to the Porndecahedron with Dave.”

Throughout these Romper Room pages Baker treats sex as fun, as a series of games played with body parts, as the kindness of strangers. House of Holes exults throughout in a spring-like air of innocence and glad animal spirits. Lawrence’s dark gods, and war’s alarums, are far away, as Baker’s nymphs and satyrs cheerfully copulate in the foam.

But such retreats from reality are the stuff that daydreams, or wet dreams, are made of. In Traveling Sprinkler, his newest book, Paul Chowder returns, bringing with him a new obsession—song-writing—and a heightened political consciousness. No longer is Chowder preoccupied with aesthetics alone. While The Anthologist was winsome and winning, Traveling Sprinkler—despite its cutesy title—is troubled and accusatory.

Chowder’s life, it seems, hasn’t quite worked out as we thought it would. Yes, Only Rhyme was finally published and “the University of Somewhere Far Away With a Big Football Team” has adopted it for English classes. But Chowder and Roz haven’t reunited, and she’s dating a doctor. Can he still win her back? There’s also our hero’s little problem with Yukon Jack, which leads Chowder to chewing tobacco, pipes, and cigars as a way to forestall a nip or two. Lately, though, he feels a lot “like a traveling sprinkler that’s gotten off the hose. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m unprepared.” So at age fifty-five Chowder decides to start over as a singer-songwriter. He buys a guitar at Best Buy and begins to work out the words and melodies for protest songs. Most of the lyrics are quite simple: “Only evil can come of evil. Only evil can come of evil. Only evil can come of evil. Drown it with good.”

In the first part of the book, Baker provides instances of his trademark attentiveness to the minor joys of life. Chowder takes his Kia to a particular service station because

they play oldies music from tinny speakers at the gas pump. Another reason is that they leave the little clickers in the pump handle so that you can start filling your tank and then go inside to buy a bottle of Pellegrino water and a bag of Planter’s trail mix from a man at the register who looks like he’s nursing a massive hangover.

When he craves a really powerful stogie, Chowder stops by the tobacco shop and enters “the silent humidor room with its wall of dense brown cigars in boxes looking like old leather-bound books of unread sermons in a historic house in the Yorkshire moors.”

Throughout there are mini-essays on musical subjects—Debussy’s dream-like piano piece “The Sunken Cathedral,” the bassoon (which Chowder, and Baker, learned to play in their younger days), Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the voice of Victoria de los Angeles. There is an occasional skewed allusion: “My jaw aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense.” And as in The Anthologist, Chowder again offers literary advice:

Really, if you want to know about kindness and poetry in the twentieth century you should immediately read John Hall Wheelock’s memoir. It was published a while ago by the University of South Carolina Press.

Nonetheless, as the book advances, Chowder can’t shake his horror at how the United States has grown coldly murderous:

I have just reread parts of the article in The New York Times that upset me so much. It’s about President Obama’s kill list. Why is a kill list a bad thing?

It’s a bad thing because—oh gosh, where to begin.

Reading Medea Benjamin’s book about drone missile attacks, Chowder breaks down over a little girl named Roya whose mother and two brothers were killed while she was out fetching a bucket of water. Afterward,

Roya’s father had carefully gathered pieces of his wife and his sons from the tree near their house and buried them. Oh, Jesus. Roya. That poor girl. Her poor father. Their lives completely demolished. I was traumatized and angry—angry at General Atomics, the company that makes drones, angry at George W. Bush, angry at Barack Obama for increasing the drone attacks fivefold after he was elected. I paced the kitchen for a while feeling powerless and ineffectual.

Besides drones, Chowder especially loathes the CIA—an organization largely established, he tells us, by the power-hungry poet Archibald Macleish. Devoted to propping up hateful regimes by providing weapons and covert advisers, the agency essentially sows death. Things could be different:

People believe that the CIA is forever—that it’s an immovable fixture of American government, like Congress or the Supreme Court—but it was begun with an executive order by a president and it could be ended just as easily. It exists by presidential whim. Obama could shut it down tomorrow, but he doesn’t want to. People believe that wars are inevitable, that human nature can’t change, but think of capital punishment…. Or think of dueling…. Centuries of patrician tradition, absurd rituals, faces slapped, gauntlets stiffly thrown, times appointed, companions holding out pistols in velvet cases in the park at dawn, the iron laws of honor—we know now it’s all hokum. Progress is possible. Drones on autopilot are not inevitable.

To channel his rage, Chowder makes up possible protest songs and comments on their lyrics:

I sang, “Why can’t you close—Guantanamo?” Then: “Make no mistake—you betrayed our faith.” I’m so tired of hearing Obama say “Make no mistake.” “Make no mistake,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, “evil does exist in the world.” Which is why he has to ship arms to Libyan rebels and fly drones around everywhere and spread violence and kill people. It’s sickening. Make no mistake? His whole foreign policy is one long string of mistakes. And we’re supposed to get excited about health care. More tests, more drugs, more colonoscopies, more needless invasive procedures. Fuck it!

At one point, Chowder cries out—or is it Baker?—“Please just ignore this tiresome politicizing.”

But what is to be done? Neither Chowder nor Baker believes that polemics or poems are likely to change anything. “You need more than words. You need shouting. You need crowds of people sitting down in the road. You need audible outrage.” At the same time, “You have to object to the wrong right now, even though you’re at a distance from the action, and even though your elders are in power.” That’s why Chowder wants to write protest songs, that’s why Baker is willing to turn his latest book into an anthem of savage indignation: so people will say, Let us march.

And yet. Eventually there comes a time when “you want to take off the misery hat and think only about the good things.” Sometimes, to paraphrase Chowder’s favorite Stephen Fearing song, you don’t want to know about evil, you just want to know about love. So Traveling Sprinkler delivers a happy ending, of sorts.

Never a very good novelist by the usual standards, Baker—even at his most polemical and tendentious—remains a stunning writer. In Traveling Sprinkler he still often seems to dawdle along, singing nonsense ditties and smelling the flowers, meandering hither and yon. But there is iron in his sentences as well as gold and filigree, there are shouts of warning, cries of dissent. As always, Baker wants you to pay heed.

While making notes for this piece I took to referring to its subject as NB, which—with the addition of periods—is the abbreviation of the Latin phrase “nota bene,” meaning note well, observe carefully, pay close attention. Some people try to live up to their family name. Nicholson Baker has, in multiple ways, lived up to his initials.