Consciousness on the Page: A Primer on the Novels of Nicholson Baker

November 19, 2010 | 9 books mentioned 2 10 min read

1. Telepathy on a budget
If you don’t know Nicholson Baker as an intensive describer of everyday minutiae, surely you know him as an intensive describer of goofy sexual fantasy. At the very least, you might hold the broad notion that he’s very, very detail-oriented. None of those images capture the novelist in full, but if you twist them into a feedback loop by their common roots, you’ll get closer to the reality. Whatever the themes at hand, Baker adheres with utter faith to his narrators’ internal monologues, carefully following every turn, loop, and kink (as it were) in their trains of thought. He understands how often people think about sex, but he also understands that, often times, they just think about shoelaces — and he understands those thoughts of sex and shoelaces aren’t as far apart, in form or in content, as they might at first seem.

This is why some find Baker’s novels uniquely dull, irritating, or repulsive, and why others place them in the small league of books that make sense. Not “sense” in that they comprise understandable sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; the existential kind of sense. So many novels exude indifference to their medium, as though they could just as easily have been — or are merely slouching around before being turned into — movies, comics, or interpretive dances. The Baker novel is long-form text on the page as well, but it’s also long-form text at its core, and on every level in between. Adapting it into anything else would be a ludicrous project at best and an inconceivable one at worst; you might as well “adapt” a boat into a goat.

coverBaker lays out certain clues to the effectiveness — or if you’re on the other side, ineffectiveness — of his concept of the novel in the texts themselves. Brazen, perhaps, but awfully convenient. U and I: A True Story — not a novel and thus not really up for discussion here, but irresistibility is irresistibility — braids the strands of admiration, anxiety, and rivalry that, at one particular moment in time, unspooled out of Baker’s inner John Updike. This isn’t the spirit of John Updike that presumably resides deep within all writers great and small, but Baker’s own avuncular, threatening, helpful, and remote mental conception of John Updike, which he cobbled together from a half-remembered chunk of the older author’s bibliography, second- and third-hand anecdotes about his life and opinions, and a couple of fleeting encounters with the man himself.

Pondering the death of Donald Barthelme, the event that ultimately motivates him to write this missive on the then-still-living Updike, Baker realizes that one of the principal aims of the novel — of his own novel, anyway — “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.” He has a character put it more simply and vulgarly in Vox, a novel that famously operates entirely on a phone-sex line: “I guess insofar as verbal pornography records thoughts rather than exclusively images, or at least surrounds all images with thoughts, or something, it can be the hottest medium of all. Telepathy on a budget.”

2. The earlier quotidians
cover Stephen King called Vox a “meaningless little finger paring.” Baker’s fans have seethed about this for years, but can we really blame King for his feelings? It’s almost preposterous that King’s heaving sheaves, plainspoken and grotesque, swarming with mad scrums of characters and pumping like oil derricks of narrative suspense and release under their embossed covers, get shelved in not just the same section but the same building as anything Baker has ever published.

Yet King and Baker happen to owe their literary success to startlingly similar skill sets. They have keen eyes for detail and, much more importantly, sound instincts about when and how to redeploy that detail. King’s is a balancing act, which, in theory, makes you believe in the appearances of killer clowns and demonic Plymouths by bracketing them with a crisply described, wanly recognizable America of tract houses and Cheerios boxes. Baker, who would more than likely spend half a novel on one Cheerio, zooms into these latter elements until they become as freakishly compelling as the former.

If King didn’t appreciate Vox, then boy, steer him away from its predecessors, Mezzanine and Room Temperature. The tales of a young man’s post-lunch escalator ride back to the office and a slightly less young man’s pre-nap bottle-feeding session with his baby daughter, respectively, Baker’s first two novels draw their solid if slim lengths from their narrator’s ability to think, at length, about matters of no more obvious import than clipped cuticles. The brains of the first book’s Howie and the second book’s Mike are variously captured by the ever-changing buoyancy of drinking straws, the profitability of Penguin Classics, the guts of escalators, the late-night sound of cheek against teeth, the developments of jokey euphemisms for bowel movements, and the exhaustive history of the comma.

Though in most respects still youthful, Howie and Mike find themselves more routinized, more domestic, and simply living smaller than the men they’d once blearily hoped to become. That they skirt this disappointment by focusing hard, long, and wide-rangingly on the stuff of life as it’s turned out for them may warm certain readerly hearts, but I swear I can taste a thin layer of paralyzing existential nightmare salt just below the surface. You’ve got to concentrate to pick it up, but it’s there. As much solace as one’s own coming-of-age memories, reflections on the nature of parenthood, and ruminations on peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches can offer, something hard, something terrible and inescapable, remains undissolved.

3. The triple-Xers
Vox and The Fermata, Baker’s third and fourth novels, are his only ones routinely called “infamous.” The former drew much of its infamy second-hand — Monica Lewinsky was supposed to have passed a copy to Bill Clinton — but both are well known for their nearly singular focus on sex. Vox’s unbroken back-and-forth of hypothetical eroticism surely shook those fans still cooing over the resigned contentment which ran through its predecessors. The Fermata’s near-punishing stream of creepy voyeuristic fantasies made, er, flesh, must have pushed them right over the edge.

Baker deals almost exclusively with loners. They aren’t Unabomber types who, unable to deal with society, have thrust themselves into social and intellectual exile; they’re mostly just plain souls too overwhelmed by the vastness of their own interiority to maintain many high-bandwidth interpersonal connections. It couldn’t be otherwise; hundreds upon hundreds of words on the physics of shoelace strain rarely pour from social butterflies. Taking on such a two-player game as sex when your form requires such isolated characters is thus, to put it mildly, a challenge.

Vox solves this problem by happening entirely in that just-less-than-modern vortex of loneliness, the phone-sex line. At the bargain rate of 95 cents per minute, the service connects Jim and Abby, two singletons who always subconsciously suspected but never really knew that finding someone to whom they could describe their idiosyncratic fantasies would really do the trick. Abby recounts to Jim a dream involving a trio of randy, creatively roller-wielding house painters. Jim regales Abby with the details of the time he invited a crushed-on co-worker over to determine the parallel masturbatory value of a particularly hokey dubbed porno tape. These stories expand into discussions of the extremely erotic to be found within the outwardly unerotic — i.e., all the pieces of life’s detritus making up Baker’s first two novels — as well as disquisitions on the meta-eroticism of all this: is one simply turned on by the suspicion that the other is turned on by the tales one is telling of being turned on?

coverHence Baker’s reputation as something of a thinking man’s pornographer. But he wouldn’t go on to make the rest of his literary career out of it, opting instead to take the fusion of sexual subject matter and the Bakerian micro-examination to its limit with his very next novel. The Fermata allows the sole whiff of the supernatural into Baker’s oeuvre, but what a whiff; its protagonist and narrator, a middle-aged temp named Arno Strine, can freeze time at will. We’ve all fantasized about this superpower’s limitless possibilities, but Strine possesses the focus to explore just one, over and over again: removing the clothes of the frozen women nearby, and then perhaps masturbating.

There’s no small frustration in realizing that, nope, this guy isn’t going to do anything more interesting with his gift, and doubly so since it’s Nicholson Baker doing the writing. If anybody can cast into literature the experience of altering the flow of time to more acutely examine one’s surroundings, it’s him. In a sense, all novelists do this — writing prose that slows down to describe some things and speeds up to describe others still qualifies as an avant-garde experiment — but Baker’s power is essentially Strine’s, and Strine’s Baker’s. Part of me wishes Strine could have taken the time to do something other than pleasure himself, but another part of me understands how incisive an illustration he makes of how lives get wasted when freed from two important constraints: the pressure of time’s implacable passage and the check of other human beings — other animate human beings — provide on the growth of isolation’s bizarre proclivities.

4. The escapes
covercoverThe Everlasting Story of Nory and Checkpoint feel like novels written from driving, undeniable desires. Whether they’re the type of driving, undeniable desires best acted upon publicly is a judgment that will vary from reader to reader. As different from Vox and The Fermata as Vox and The Fermata are from The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, Baker’s fifth and seventh novels, his longest and his shortest, are sexless forays into two minds seemingly meant to lay quite far from the average reader’s own experience. (Not that the average reader would have nodded in solidarity at Arno Strine’s chronologically arrested experiments with anuses and okra.)

Everlasting is right,” a reader unsympathetic to young Eleanor “Nory” Winslow might mutter. Though it only offers 226 of them, The Everlasting Story of Nory’s pages all spill from the consciousness of this precocious nine-year-old who attends schools with names like the International Chinese Montessori School, Small People, and The Blackwood Early Focus School. To Baker’s credit, he meticulously constructs what really do seem like the thought processes of an actual nine-year-old; in a certain pure way, it’s his most ambitious and successful telepathy-on-a-budget exercise. But Nory is like a logorrheic guest in a highbrow version of Kids Say the Darndest Things, and only so much of her near-miss conception of the world (“Virgil Reality”) is digestible in one sitting.

Just as The Everlasting Story of Nory must have offered Baker a cleansing escape from the obscurantist genital symposia of Vox and The Fermata, it’s easy to see how Checkpoint could have acted as a pressure valve against that affront to every sensitive artist of the 2000s’ existence, the George W. Bush administration. A brief book-length dialogue whose strong similarities to Vox are mostly superficial, Checkpoint presents a hotel-room meeting of longtime but semi-estranged buddies Jay and Ben. Jay has called Ben to his room in order to grandly reveal what he has come to understand is his life’s mission: the assassination of the then-president.

Set off for whatever reason by a newspaper story about an Iraqi family accidentally hailed with bullets at the American checkpoint of the title, Jay has formulated a host of murderous, preposterous plans involving depleted uranium, flying saws, and Bush-seeking bullets. Foreseeing the probable consequences of Jay’s actions — and perhaps sensing that Jay may have come down with a touch of the schizophrenia — Ben takes it upon himself to talk his friend down from a presidential assassination to a simple smashing of a presidential photograph. As collisions of literature and contemporary politics go, Checkpoint, is less embarrassing than it could be, but it showcases precisely none of Baker’s strengths while throwing the spotlight uncomfortably close to his weaknesses.

5. The later quotidians
Recent years have seen Baker return to the kaleidoscopic view of mundanity he took in his earliest novels. A Box of Matches, widely received as a spiritual successor to Room Temperature, shares with the earlier book a household setting and, within that, the even closer confines of the mind of that household’s partially enervated patriarch. Each morning, Emmett, a medical textbook editor and family man, wakes up before anyone else in the house, brews coffee, lights a fire, and writes down his reflections about his family, about the medical textbook business, about the house itself. Sometimes his reflections are about a duck.

If the years have mellowed Baker’s zeal for the mechanics, interconnections, and historical references of the common things that surround us, they’ve also given him a fascinating candor. He had candor before, it might seem — Room Temperature’s many passages concerned with  bodily functions, their nature and their frequency, return to mind — but this is candor of a different order, candor about the kind of despair hinted at but never meaningfully confronted in the first two novels. It manifests in Emmett as a series of increasingly bizarre suicide fantasies, including a particularly memorable one involving a roller coaster and a sharp blade positioned just so. A Yatesian condemnation of domestic emptiness this ain’t, but the tip hints at a large, desperate iceberg indeed.

This glimpse into the darkness promised much for Baker’s eighth novel, The Anthologist. I had expected, with or without license, an unflinching stare into the apathy-embattled, relevance-starved interior world of the contemporary poet. Alas, narrator Paul Chowder, an over-the-hill poet and severe procrastinator hoping to win back his fed-up girlfriend and write an introduction to an anthology of rhyme, gives one big amiable shrug instead. Despite being a reasonably rich character with many opinions to share about the history and techniques of the form to which he has, with a slight reluctance, dedicated his life, he seems to dodge most of the medium to big questions staring him down. But then, that’s his way; his life, as Baker excerpts in the novel, is a study in procrastination. Procrastinators look into the abyss too, but they don’t take long to find something else to think about.

6. Without getting bored
It wouldn’t exactly be right to claim that Nicholson Baker bases his novels on tricks, and it certainly wouldn’t be right to claim that their main trick is to focus on, take apart, and then focus even closer on that which we ignore most of the time. That might be a feature of theirs, but it’s only a feature. Try this thought experiment: focus on and describe to yourself a nearby object — pen, stapler, dripping faucet — for as long as possible, in as much detail as possible. The finer-grained a level of detail you reach, the more and farther-flung external associations flood your consciousness. At least, the more and farther-flung external associations flood my consciousness, as they presumably flood Baker’s and certainly flood his narrators’. The difference is that they get entire books out of them.

This all makes it into the novels because the novels, for the most part, are their characters’ consciousnesses. Only a novel can be someone’s consciousness; at least, a novel does it infinitely better than any other form. Until the day when technology allows us to tap one another’s brains directly — until we get deluxe, not budget, telepathy — books like Baker’s are the best we can do. Sure, sometimes the minds to which he grants us access irk us with their half-baked judgments, stubbornly refuse to dismount from their hobbyhorses, or come off as complacent weenies. But at least they belong to people who can exist in the world without getting bored — ever — and who can think cogently about the ceaselessly repeated micro-experiences we all have but would never have bothered articulating. Seeing that happen on the page is, itself, heartening.

, in addition to his journalistic and blogging pursuits, produces video and sound art and hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas.

2 comments:

  1. Nice. The thing about Baker is how moving he can make these meditations. Kakutani called A Box of Matches repellent, the same week, Baker pointed out with glee, that she called Updike repulsive. (And then Leon Weiseltier called Checkpoint “This scummy little book” in his review in the Times Book Review.)
    Kakutani particularly hated the passage about shaving. And she didn’t like the really sad, melancholy loss of the ability to stretch out fully in the bathtub. But the book ends happily, no? with reconciliation.

    Baker himself praised Stephen King, and quoted that line in his truly great article about the finger nail clipper, here, at The New Yorker:

    http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1994-11-07#folio=164

    And his quixotic attempt to save paper artifacts, newspapers and books preeminently, is wonderful.

  2. Colin: Thanks for this appreciation piece. I admit I adore most of Baker’s narrators and share and teach his books whenever I can. When I taught The Mezzanine at a writer’s conference a few years ago, the participants nearly mutinied in protest.

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