A seventh-grader I know slipped a copy of Substitute from my bag and buried her nose in it through an entire restaurant dinner with her parents. When I retrieved the book, I asked what she thought. “The writer does a good job of communicating how despicable he thinks these children are,” she said darkly.
This is patently 180 degrees wrong. But kids say the darnedest things, as Nicholson Baker reminds us many times in Substitute, his tightly focused account of twenty-eight days of substitute teaching in Maine public schools in the spring semester of 2014:
“Smells like marshmallows in here.”
“If you say Yankees in this class, it’s a swear.”
“We have to go with him [to the restroom] because he makes bad choices in there.”
I don’t know how Baker managed to record so much speech—the book is more than seven hundred pages, most of it dialogue—while trying to control his classes and get some teaching done. A Moleskine notebook is mentioned, and yet Substitute reads like a lightly curated, benign surveillance tape, somehow capturing all the downtime, chaos, non sequiturs, and lost-in-the-infosphere weirdness of a modern American schoolroom.
Baker has a prodigious talent for illuminating minutiae, established brilliantly in his first novel, The Mezzanine (1986), which takes place entirely within the antic mind of an office worker named Howie during a single escalator ride in an office building lobby, and since deployed, often to hilarious effect, in book after book, both fiction and nonfiction. He likes to set extreme narrative challenges for himself: Vox (1992) is a novel about a single phone call, the ultimate he-said she-said, with scarcely a line of narration; Human Smoke (2008) is a pacifist reading of World War II built almost entirely on primary sources. For Substitute, Baker confines himself to the school day, making each one-day assignment a chapter, while renouncing virtually all of his enormous descriptive gifts.
The subject matter may have forced this renunciation. Baker feels obliged, understandably, to change the names of students, teachers, and schools, and to omit identifying physical traits. So we are left with an extremely large cast of featureless characters and aggressively bland settings. A chapter begins, “Buckland Elementary was another one-story eighties brick school in the middle of a nowhere of pine trees.” That’s it. A secretary hands him a clipboard. The presence in his class lists of French and Scots surnames that evoke the region’s history is noted, with no examples or elaboration. There are brief flashes of the old verbal flair, as when a hole puncher leaves “a flutterment of paper dots on the carpet” or a class becomes loud and “the noise was like orange marmalade.” When Baker allows himself a dip into his own memories of learning to read—he recalls “weeping over the unphonetic…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.