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Reading, Reading, Reading

Peter C. Baker, interviewed by Daniel Drake

Jonathan Michael Castillo

Peter Baker

Jonathan Michael Castillo

Peter Baker

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Two thirds of the way into Peter C. Baker’s review of a recent translation of The Wall, a 1963 postapocalyptic novel by Marlen Haushofer, he arrives at a series of questions that underlie mysteries, science fiction, and, implicitly, literature as a whole: “Why write? Why describe your life for others? Why do anything at all?” In The Wall, Baker observes, Haushofer comes at these questions “sideways”: the narrator, writing in her journal while trapped alone in the Austrian forest, discovers that “her worries over life’s purpose . . . ring louder and louder, too loud to possibly ignore.”

Baker is a critic and novelist; he has covered music, Silicon Valley, and books for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. For our pages, he has written about the rise in pedestrian fatalities in America, Nicholson Baker, and the Chicago Police Department’s history of torturing Black people. His first novel, Planes, was published in 2022. I e-mailed him this week to ask about genre fiction, Chicago, and how to get any reading done when you have small children.


Daniel Drake: When did you first encounter The Wall? What struck you about the book at the time, and what changed in your understanding of it upon rereading?

Peter C. Baker: I stumbled on The Wall fifteen years ago in a used bookstore in Rome. I was on vacation by myself and tore through it in a day, having one of those totally absorbing reading experiences that seem to get rarer as we get older. I wasn’t doing much analysis at all, just reading, reading, reading. Completely immersed. On subsequent readings, and especially after becoming a novelist myself, I made more of an attempt to look under the hood at the book’s machinery. As far as I can tell, Haushofer produced its disorienting (but completely absorbing) atmosphere by combining the mood of a parable with the moment-to-moment density of closely observed realism. And then it turns out not to be a parable at all. There’s no lesson, no moral. Over time, I’ve come to see this void—the space into which the novel lures us on a search for easy meaning—as the source of its gravity.

Do you otherwise have an attachment to sci-fi or last-man stories? It seemed in your review that some of what you liked about the book was how it bucked genre conventions, but are there literary genres that appeal to you?

I’ve read a lot of sci-fi, including my share of last-man stories, but my “genre” reading has been even more random than my “literary” reading. (I count myself among those who believe that “literary” fiction is just another genre, but I haven’t solved the problem of what to call it.) My knowledge of the genre landscape is much spottier, although I’ve never felt much insecurity about that.

Lately, to my surprise, I’ve been reading lots of detective novels. My interest in the crimes and their solutions is fairly minimal. It’s more about how the structure of a mystery—the constant awareness, as a reader, that at any moment you could be encountering a clue—makes everything sparkle a little, even if it’s just the detective deciding which diner to go to, or what kind of drink to have, what kind of music to put on. It’s amazing how much of the writing in some detective novels is about this kind of stuff. Quotidian life caught in prose: this is exactly the effect a lot of “literary” writing is after, and detective fiction has this basically built-in shortcut. In fact, I’ve been so taken with the genre that for my next novel I’ve decided to try my hand at it.

I know you also as a Chicago writer—you have written for our pages about the legacy of the Chicago Police Department’s torture policies. Do you identify with the city? What might distinguish a Chicago writer, if such could be said to exist?

I live in Evanston, a small suburban city just across Chicago’s northern border. I’ve lived here for just over a decade. Which I think, by local metrics, makes me a fairly recent arrival. What Chicago needs is the same thing every place in America needs: more storytellers who, instead of using the place as a readymade symbol of X or Y (especially of “The Midwest,” in Chicago’s case), help us shrug off these lazy shorthands and see how weird and varied our country is.

Of course, I hope that my eventual detective novel will make some kind of contribution. Much of the country is obsessed with ideas about “crime in Chicago.” How do you tell a Chicago crime story that doesn’t play into those simplistic narratives, that’s aware of but floats free of a shallow national discourse populated by the laziest tropes imaginable? And how do you do that without ending up with something that just reads like media criticism? A novel can’t be an exercise in correcting misconceptions: it needs more, it needs an energy and spirit and style of its own.

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As a novelist and critic, how do you find that either practice informs the other?

My gold standard for a novel is whether it’s doing something that only a novel can do, or that a novel can do best. The most obvious example is that novels shouldn’t read like movie treatments: they should behave, at least some of the time, in ways that are fundamentally unfilmable. Otherwise the writer isn’t really doing their job as a steward of their own tradition.

Writing literary criticism over the years—being forced to think hard about why something works or doesn’t, and by virtue of which textual properties—helped me articulate this standard. Which, as a fiction writer, I’m grateful for. I think it helps me stay on a path that leads to work I’m going to be able to live with.

Incidentally, I don’t apply anything like the same standard to my criticism. I’m not trying to tend to or advance the tradition of the book review, I’m just trying to be clear and engaging within a format that I take, for my purposes, to be relatively fixed. There are other critics— Patricia Lockwood is a good example—who do more pioneering stuff. I really admire those writers, and sometimes I envy them too. But it’s just not me! Sometimes I think maybe the particular pressure I put on my fiction is so intense that I don’t have any left for my criticism and magazine writing. I keep my goals much more modest, and I’m more content with the simple idea of giving readers some information or context or perspective about a book that they might not already have.

What have you been reading lately?

Part of my answer is that I’m reading short essays people have sent me for Tracks on Tracks, a new project of mine. It’s a magazine that comes out one piece at a time, via an e-mail newsletter; each piece sees a writer (often but not always me) describing their relationship to an individual song. I imagine it like a grown-up version of sitting up late in a dorm room listening to new friends play their favorite music.

Beyond that? I’m a parent to a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and I’m reading less than I have at any point since I was nine or ten. It’s been a big adjustment, a huge change in my daily mental inputs. And the question of what I’ll read next has become a mystery to me. I pick things up that look good—big stacks of books from the library—and I don’t read more than a few pages of most of them. Something has to feel just right in a way I can’t articulate. It’s often, as I said, detective fiction that does the trick. I recently got into Lawrence Block. His main character, the private eye Matthew Scudder, starts out as a heavy drinker, but then, a few books in, starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous. The mystery he’s working on is always running parallel to his sobriety journey. It’s great.

It’s occurring to me that freelance writers are a lot like private eyes. We work alone. We get paid by the job. Some assignments are better than others, and some end up being dreadful, and there’s no foolproof way of screening out the dreadful ones. What we learn from one job carries over to the next, or at least we hope it does.

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