As we careen toward the 2020s (!), and I personally careen toward my fifties (!), I have been increasingly experiencing what is probably a universal, and not entirely pleasant shock of aging, i.e., how fucking long ago in history the decade of my childhood exists. Specifically, the 1980s. I was born in 1975, but the ’80s marked the true memorable—in both senses—extent of those verdant years (not so verdant, actually, as most of them were spent in Saudi Arabia, but anyway). The 1980s long ago crossed that invisible cultural line into the realm of nostalgic camp: Pac-Man, early MTV, Arnold Schwarzenegger—even grainy TV footage of Ronald Reagan has long carried with it a kind of hideous sentimental aura. But enough time has passed and sociopolitical changes have occurred that it now exists as wholly in its own time as the ’40s and WWII did when I was a child.
When this amount of time has passed, we can truly evaluate literature from an era, both in terms of how well it captures its own time, and how well it, however obliquely, anticipates or fails to anticipate ours. This seems a particularly pressing question during our current political and cultural insanity: Which books and authors are identifying something true about our moment, and in doing so, perhaps predicting something true about the next? Assuming the existence of readers 40 years from now, they will be able to judge our literature at more or less the vantage we can now judge that of the ’80s. Recently, I happened to reread two of the most-’80s of ’80s novels: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It struck me what a contrast they provide—two ways of looking at what is now a startlingly previous age.
In The Mezzanine, Baker examines an 1980s office park under a scientist’s microscope. Nothing is too small to escape his notice, nothing too trivial to be beneath consideration: the superiority of paper towels to hand dryers; the overflowing multitudinousness of office supplies in cabinets; different vending machine mechanisms for dropping candy; the subtle kabuki of polite office conversations; the layout of a nearby CVS; an intricate, fantastic meditation on the similarities between office staplers, locomotives, and turntables. Applying a peeled eyeball to the overlooked mundana of office life, is, in fact, the aesthetic mission and basic point of the book. As it undertakes a seeming irrelevancy like tracing the evolution of stapler design from the early 20th century to the present, it invites a reader—unaccustomed to this level of granular detail applied to the banal—to ask what is relevant. Absent the large plot movements and rich character detail we’re accustomed to in fiction, what is left? Well, as it turns out, life, more or less. These tiny objects and customs constitute our lives—in the case of The Mezzanine, our lives as we lived them in the 1980s.
The narrator, Howie, is transfixed by the tiny ingenuities that populate the modern world, and by their evolutionary processes—both technical and cultural. Objects—and ways of using objects—have a lifespan as organic as the lifespans of the invisible humans who invent, market, and use them. The culture or character of any particular age is constituted by the stuff of that age and the way society agrees, by unconscious, collective fiat, to keep it or change it or discard it for something else, sometimes better and often worse. Throughout The Mezzanine, Howie’s little ecstasies about this type of staple remover, or that method of polishing an escalator railing, are tempered by a subtle awareness and anxiety about the loss of these inventions and learned behaviors to an ever-coarsening culture of pure productivity that doesn’t prize them (or anything much besides profit and cost-cutting).
The book is unostentatiously prescient on this point. At one
point Howie wonders how all of this makes money, how it can last. As he says:
We came into work every day and were treated like popes—a new manila folder for every task; expensive courier services; taxi vouchers; trips to three-day fifteen-hundred-dollar conferences to keep us up to date in our fields; even the dinkiest chart or memo typed, Xeroxed, distributed, and filed; overhead transparencies to elevate the most casual meeting into something important and official; every trash can in the whole corporation, over ten thousand trash cans, emptied an fitted with a fresh bag every night; restrooms with at least one more sink than ever conceivably would be in use at any one time, ornamented with slabs of marble that would have done credit to the restrooms of the Vatican! What were we participating in here?
His thoughts go in this large, abstract direction as a natural extension of his noticing the very small, concrete things around the office. The sheer fact of the material world around him, all of the things that have to be manufactured and bought and cleaned and serviced to maintain the surface of a functioning 1980s office building, is both a delight and a bit of an existential horror at certain points. It feels—and, in fact, will turn out to be—unsustainable. Howie’s apprehension of the coming changes in the economy, the layoffs and downsizing both financial and spiritual that will render this kind of lavish and stable workplace antique, is a kind of involuntary thesis that follows unavoidably from his close reading of his world’s text. Nicholson Baker, via Howie, goes humbly about his quiet work, gathering data and making reasonable inferences about the world, inferences that have largely been borne out by the intervening decades.
In White Noise, Don DeLillo—in almost perfect contrast to Baker—looks at his world with the telescopic eye of a priest or pop-cultural anthropologist, beginning with a couple of large-scale hypotheses about modern culture and gathering particulars from there. Anyone familiar with DeLillo could more or less guess what these general hypotheses are, as they run throughout his body of work in various guises: 1) modern consumer culture is similar to primitive culture, and, related, 2) people want to be in cults.
As is standard operating procedure for DeLillo, the book, via its narrator Jack Gladney, operates in the oracular intellectual mode. There is, for instance, lots of stuff like this (during one of the many scenes in which Gladney watches one of his many children sleep):
I sat there watching her. Moments later, she spoke again. Distinct syllables this time, not some dreamy murmur—but a language quite of this world. I struggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell of ecstatic chant.
A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform…
Et cetera. If you’re not reading too closely, it sounds good, and the massed effect of paragraphs like this—of which there are many in White Noise—is to generate an impression of gnomic wisdom. But what is this actually saying? I suppose: brands infest our collective consciousness, more or less, though it sounds much more mystical than that. It’s never quite clear to me, reading DeLillo and especially White Noise, where the satire begins and ends. Is this supposed to be a parody of the pompous intellectual Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies and wearer of a toga and sunglasses around campus? It would probably be more convincing as satire if it didn’t also sound exactly like Don DeLillo. And if there was much of anything else going on the book besides these sorts of ruminations.
Over and again, we learn versions of the same thing: car names
are like magic words, shopping malls are like temples, the Airborne Toxic Event
is like an ancient Viking Death Ship (to be fair, this is actually one of the
more striking images in the book). This may or may not be true, but it isn’t
especially illuminating on any level beyond the claim itself. The book, one
feels—despite an established critical reputation for its prescience and
incisive cultural vision—is not looking very hard at the things it purports to
look hard at.
The result is a novel that misses many present or future aspects of Late Capitalism—Trumpism, economic inequity and class struggle, the Internet—and superficially identifies other burgeoning issues—environmental disasters, anti-depressants—without saying anything very noteworthy about them. White Noise’s mode of intellectual engagement is perfectly metaphorized by the Airborne Toxic Event—a large, dark cloud that floats above the pages and across the events of the narrative without bearing down on the characters or reader in any appreciable way, other than conveying ominousness.
DeLillo’s best book, Libra, operates in a mode much closer to The Mezzanine. Though it invokes its share of non-specific quasi-mystical dread, it is a piece of work grounded in the mundane facts of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life: the abortive time in the military; his awkward marriage to a Russian woman, Marina; the little firings and failures that pushed him, and the country, toward catastrophe. Even the larger circles of intrigue—the CIA and KGB and Mafia and the Cubans—are laboriously researched and rendered, and although a plausible conspiracy is offered, it is a conspiracy of error and stupidity and inertia, and convincing for that reason. Libra notices: it builds its case from the ground up, rather than a big top-down idea that must be proved—that perhaps only can be proved—by exhaustive and unilluminating iteration.
The difference between these novels says something important, I think, about the most fruitful way of looking at our present moment. There is, on Twitter and elsewhere, the constant search for the Big Idea, The Grand Unified Theory of Trump and Late Capitalism. In a media environment that almost exclusively rewards brevity and pithiness, memorable pronouncement is the coin of the realm. In this sense, DeLillo really was prescient—if nothing else, the style of White Noise fully anticipates our era, the superannuation of truth by the impression of truth, or just by sheer impression.
Still, the most important work will always be done on the ground level, with attentiveness to the little particularities. We are always too close to the big thing to see the big thing, and so writers are at best like the blind men surrounding the elephant of their particular era—here, a tail; there, a baffling trunk. The Jack Gladneys and their Big Ideas will not often provide a definitive record of their time, or a projection of the one to come. It will be constructed by the Howies, all the careful and conscientious noticers of the world.
A confession: sometimes, when I can’t seem to muster my prose past some insurmountable stretch in a manuscript, I utter the words “Game Six.” Some writers, in this situation, smoke tobacco. Other writers smoke stuff that is definitely not tobacco. I’ve heard of head-banging and tea-drinking and all manner of ball-squeezing. But for me, the trick is the greatest game in the history of the Detroit Pistons.
Dial it back to the 1988 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. Going into Game Six, the Lakers are favorites to win. They’ve got legends Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. They’ve got the kind of reputation where one of the least regular things in the world, an NBA Finals win, seems the natural outcome for them. Detroit? Well, they’ve got a few passive aggressive contact maneuvers and ambition. Just a few years ago, they were one of the worst teams in the league, but by Game Six in 1988, the Pistons lead the series 3-2, meaning if the Pistons win the game, they take the championship victory for the first time in history.
It’s a close game. Captain Isiah Thomas scores 14 points in a row. There’s the possibility of a playoffs win tingling in his fingertips, and in the order of the court, an aperture seems to open, one through which the Pistons might prevail to become the country’s best professional basketball team. Thomas passes the ball to shooting guard Joe Dumars and takes an awkward step. Just one. But one wrong step can end careers. The aperture closes quickly. Thomas goes down, and sprawled on the floor grabs his shin, as though he might hold his right leg together. He limps to the bench with the help of the Pistons’ trainer.
Except Thomas is not a guy who can sit idly watching his team squander a shot for the title, even if he has a sprained ankle. So seconds later, he returns to play. The rest of the game seems unreal. Sneaker rubber chirps across the court like injured birds. Thomas dogs toward the ball with a hiccupping stride, shoots, scores, shoots, scores. At the end of the quarter, he’ll have taken 25 points for the Pistons on a sprained ankle, setting an NBA record. It’s the most awing performance in Pistons history, the kind of game where somehow, no matter how arbitrary the rules, as foolish as devoting one’s loyalty to one team may be, and in spite of one’s better judgment telling you that pro athletes earn millions for what can only be called recreation, you might find yourself levitating with the confidence that the human will can manhandle any physical limit. Then the Pistons lose, by one point, on Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s final free throw. Thomas’s best is glorious, but it isn’t enough.
And this titanic insufficiency is exactly what I consider when I write, because the athlete’s work is the writer’s work. This comparison may offend those of Cartesian mind-body division persuasion, but sport and fiction are both vocations requiring incredible efforts, imbued with the potential for real beauty, and perhaps offering little utility. Try to explain what’s so important about writing a novel, and what you’ll end up with is not so far from those offered by ye of muscular bent: It’s inspiring. It manifests happiness. It interrogates limitations. It’s for its own sake. It makes us feel less alone. It illustrates the human condition.
More importantly, writers and athletes are both in the business of narrative. As any sports fan will tell you, winning is not what makes a great game; the outcome is mostly irrelevant to the grace of the sailing pass, the coy swish of the net, the steam engine hook sending a fan of glittering sweat from the dumbstruck face of a falling opponent. Yes, we know from the beginning that Humbert Humbert will be found out, but, oh, how those sentences dazzle! The coiling clauses, the bubbling rhythms, the promiscuity of meaning — that is the material of literature. No writer writes merely for the ending, just as no player is simply in the game to see themselves on the other end of the clock. Their jobs aren’t to answer, “What happens in the end?” but “How does the story unfurl?”
Not that ending isn’t a consideration. I don’t know a single writer who loves the idea of writing unfinished manuscript after unfinished manuscript ad infinitum. In fact, I think that that’s most writers’ primary fear in media res. But a book doesn’t appear fully gestated, and it isn’t formed any better by getting it over with. If that were the case, A Farewell to Arms would read in its entirety: We loved and she died anyway. The Hound of the Baskervilles might be: A mystical dog isn’t killing people. The Pulitzer would go to the most outstanding Tweet. Congratulations, Werner Twertzog.
What we see instead from writers is something like a game played with language. Of course when you’re writing, the occupational hazards don’t include facing elephantine men whose primary directive is weaponizing 300 pounds of flesh against you to bone-crushing effect; writing, though it may not always seem so in workshop, is not head-to-head competition. But what authors often do find is that when they’ve written themselves into the corner, they’re looking for the holes where they can pull an agile maneuver. They’ve got a vocabulary of plays, and there’s only one combination they’ll orchestrate for the forward drive. Often, the most spectacular moments are the ones where the constraints seem impossible to work through.
Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes the form of a single lunch break escalator ride. The narrative doesn’t derive tension from a single challenge or imminent threat. Nor is there a particular adversary. In other words, several years ago, Baker found himself in the complex choreography of composing a novel, one bounded by two floors, and he was going to need some fancy fucking footwork to make the narrative move. So he planted the body on the moving escalator to push his narrator forward through time, all the while the mind splintering into branches of thought — and footnotes — that pivot back in time even as the narrator continues up, up, up. In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Baker considered his writing process in strikingly athletic terms:
It was totally absorbing, the feeling of being sunk in the midst of a big, warm, almost unmanageable pond. I could sense all these notes I had, all these observations I’d saved up to use, finally arranging themselves in relation to one other.
Baker’s syntax reveals some ambivalence about his own agency. He could sense, but it’s the observations that arranged themselves. It’s almost as though he cannot quite take credit for his work. The novel is one part the sense of the writer and one part some alchemical miracle stepping one word beyond another, as though preparation has met luck and spat out a slim volume of genius. It’s the kind of statement that could make a lot of aspiring writers push their wheelie chairs back and reach for the good stuff, because, in moments of doubt, it’s easy to wonder the extent to which the lottery of talent muscles out studiousness.
Can every writer be a Nicholson Baker? Can every athlete be an Isiah Thomas? I don’t know. But what I can say is that in both the athletic and literary worlds, interested parties find themselves asking whether the ratio for a successful career skews more toward aptitude or labor. Francine Prose begins her nouveau classic Reading Like a Writer by asking, “Can creative writing be taught?” It’s a question familiar to those following the ongoing M.F.A. debates and one that inverts that of David Epstein, who asks in his book The Sports Gene, “Do ‘sports genes’ exist at all?”
When we consider these questions, fiction and athletics suddenly become arenas where fate and free will grapple in a confusion of twisted limbs. To call a book a work of genius is to marry it to destiny, the kismet of the extraordinary mind. We rarely, however, call an esteemed novel a work of assiduousness, even as we urge students of writing to dedicate themselves to craft considerations. Perhaps because the mind is less visible than the slight frame, we’re less likely to say that a decent prose stylist probably won’t cut it as a writer than to tell a really good defensive lineman that he may not have enough body mass to carry out pro ball-level hard hitting.
While drafting my novel The Hopeful, which, coincidentally, considers whether grand resolve can overcome mediocre ability, I sometimes did wonder if I was deluded to believe I could write a book or just doing what anyone might: working my ass off until I had a manuscript to show for it. In a way, my problem was also that of my protagonist Ali, a young woman who, after an injury, is unsure whether the betrayals of the body have disqualified her from her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Ali wishes to return to the world of competitive figure skating, a sport, like literature, of individuals rather than teams — and one in which the triumphant performance requires the demonstration of both technical facility and artistic merit, a realm where most people fail. In figure skating, an athlete attempts to learn maneuvers she may or may not be capable of performing by throwing herself into the air, falling, trying again and again, and maybe never succeeding. She’s invested not in the agony of defeat, but the agony of hope. And wasn’t I, too, as I wrote, throwing myself on the page to find out whether or not a novel would land?
There was the moment I got to page 40 and didn’t have a clue what my character would do next. There was the period where I decided to cut up a chapter and insert sections throughout the novel as flashbacks but couldn’t see how without sinking the narrative momentum. After the first draft was complete and the middle still felt flaccid, I pondered whether the whole scheme had been an enormous waste.
In his essay “Digging the Subterranean,” Charles Baxter notes that the board game Careers gestures toward a fundamental strain of narrative. The players are meant to choose which life goal they most desire: money, fame, or love. The part where everyone trips up is that you aren’t rewarded for points won in other realms. Want money and instead receive love? You lose. Want love and not fame? You and Taylor Swift both. “To ask for certain outcomes in life and to get another result,” he writes, “is tragic or comic or some combination of the two, depending on where the observer is standing…These discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths.” This was the center of my novel. Ali wants to be an elite athlete, but she’d be much more successful if she just played to her skills, became a litigator or something more cerebral. It occurred to me that life would be an easier and more champagne bubbling existence if I took a job as a pharmaceutical rep instead of writing something that would only maybe one day be a novel. I was possibly situated in a losing round of Careers.
But this is where Game Six really factors in. Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that that night in 1988, Isiah Thomas returned to the court with his gimpy ankle not for the win or big coin or fame but because he loved basketball. It’s easy to fantasize about the published book or the championship victory, and it’s easy to believe that whatever handicaps we suffer, whether the blocked mind or the swelling sprain, are too difficult to circumvent. Yet, I didn’t start writing to publish a novel, even if that’s what ended up happening. I started because I liked the late-night game of turning sentences, plowing clauses to the top or bottom to vary effect, whispering paragraphs to listen for the caught rhythm and assonant glide. So when the story goes flat or the words snag, I don’t convince myself I can knock out a novel or bribe myself with imagined printed books. I think of Isiah Thomas in ungainly pursuit of baskets, throwing that orange globe, hands hanging like autumn’s last leaves from raised wrists, not quite enough and rapturous.
Image Credit: Flickr/slgckgc.
A short time after I finished writing B & Me, a book about Nicholson Baker told in the spirit of Baker’s seminal book-length essay about John Updike, U and I, I was asked to give a reading about Baker’s phone sex novel, Vox, the hitch being that whatever I read aloud needed to be original work, not just something from my book. That was fine with me. Of course it meant that I had to read Vox again, no complaints there, and what I decided to do was read it this time — my fourth time, I think — by listening to it as audiobook, which is the phrase we’ve come to use of late for recordings of authors or actors reading books out loud.
This made sense for a couple reasons, the first being that I myself would be reading something out loud. That was perfect, because when books were, once upon a time, a much rarer commodity, so rare that not many people owned them, in fact, most people had access to the contents of books only through scheduled public readings, and so going to readings was really what reading was because most people couldn’t afford to sit and read a book in the quiet way that we now think of reading. So reading Vox as an audiobook and reading aloud an essay about doing so was possibly a way of bringing literature full circle and asking what this new audiobook phenomenon, if it’s fair to say there is one, is really about.
And the second reason this made sense was that Vox, as an all-dialogue, or almost all-dialogue book, would seem to be pretty perfectly suited to the audiobook format, just add another actor for the second voice of the exchange, and I’d already had the thought, while initially reading the book, that Vox would make a pretty good stage play, something on the order of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, though of course Vox is much racier and not nearly as mediocre as Love Letters, though it’s snooty of me to say that because I haven’t read Love Letters, or heard it, or seen it. But still.
And so, anyway, not only did I decide to, so to speak, audially re-read Vox, I decided to do this in public, because the audiobook phenomenon, and this may be my hypothesis here, may not actually be helping the world of books because people don’t just sit and audially read books, the way people used to — no, they listen to books while they vacuum, or drive, or exercise, which means that books are more and more coming to play a background role in peoples’ lives, like mood music, and one might reasonably ask whether audiobook reading is really reading at all, in any sense of the word. But that’s not what I would do. And what I did do, audially listen to Vox at a coffee shop over two protracted listening sessions, led to the slightly bizarre but revealing thing that happened because as soon as you introduce technology to the reading equation you introduce, as well, the possibility of “technical difficulties.”
And so what happened was, I didn’t, at the start of my second listening session, jam my headphone plug into my handheld electronic device nearly as far as I needed to for it to engage. Hence, when I turned the book back on, it picked up from where I’d left off the day before, and of course I still had the volume turned quite loud, and of course the coffee shop was crowded with quiet studiers, and, what happened was, the following line, really just a fragment, spoken by veteran stage, film, and audiobook actor Mark Boyett, playing Jim, suddenly burst into the room:
hundreds of female orgasms could be inferred from the books themselves — you didn’t need to harass any particular woman, you didn’t need to invade anybody’s privacy…
Boyett delivered these lines with exactly the kind of hurried, panting enthusiasm that comes from Jim’s words even when you read them just to yourself, and after this short, incomplete phrase, I managed to hit pause. But what was truly remarkable about the moment that followed was that none of the quiet studiers took any note of the voice at all.
This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, I was teaching in a small conservative college, and, one afternoon, I was seated in a booth in the school’s small, on-campus restaurant, and I was having a quiet lunch, and I was once again surrounded by quiet studiers, mostly students this time. But there were several televisions in the room, all tuned to the same daytime talk show, which no one was watching. I wasn’t watching either, I was grading papers, but my ears piqued when suddenly the panel of talking head hosts began discussing female ejaculation. Now I wouldn’t say that I have any particular interest in female ejaculation. I’m not preoccupied with it, and it’s not something that my mind drifts to all on its own. That said, I’m not averse to the idea of female ejaculation, and so when I heard female ejaculation mentioned quite loudly in an otherwise quiet room I looked up with the sort of expression that probably said something like, “Why, sure, I have a healthy curiosity about female ejaculation, so please, by all means, if you have something new to share on the subject, proceed!” The thing was, I was the only one. I was the only one in a room filled with mostly bored college students. Female ejaculation turned exactly one head in that room — mine.
I thought of this, of course, again, in the coffee shop, when I became, for a moment, an accidental broadcaster of the audiobook rendition of Vox. And once I had fumblingly fixed my headphone plug and settled back into my chair to finish my listening I realized that something actually quite important had been illustrated in that moment. That kind of passive, disinterested silence was about as far as you could get from the reception to Vox’s initial broadcast, its 1992 hardcover publication. This reception went both ways. On the one hand, the book was a giddy, trailblazing bestseller, with a healthy first printing of 50,000 copies and reports that the paperback rights — just the paperback rights — sold for more than a $100,000. But on the other hand, critically speaking, Vox was almost uniformly dismissed as a childish work, triggering a kind of critical anti-orgasm, an involuntary spasm of disgusted adjectives and puritanical claims that this sort of thing was simply beneath a writer of Nicholson Baker’s many talents.
Praise of his heavily footnoted first novel The Mezzanine aside, this pretty much characterizes Baker’s early career. He fairly often received middling reviews from peers doomed to obscurity, and, oddly, he also found himself subject to bizarre assaults from far more celebrated authors. Indeed, no lesser a light than Stephen King seeped out from the woodwork to cast churlish judgment on Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and the even lovelier Room Temperature, which I have to point out are pretty distinct from King’s horror genre — I’m tempted to say they’re not “horrible” in the way King’s books are — and you sort of have to wonder what button of King’s Baker had managed to punch to have solicited the evil eye from the reigning puppetmaster of evil eyes. Similarly, Martin Amis, in an essay reprinted in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, lashed out at Vox itself with a blasé and mostly unquotable claim that there wasn’t much there there, so there!
And then there’s Philip Roth. Roth didn’t attack Baker, but he did plagiarize him. Sabbath’s Theatre, published in 1995, includes a long phone sex conversation, a conversation embedded in a very, very Bakerian-style footnote that stretches across 20 pages. Three years after Vox spent a couple months on the bestseller list, and eight years after The Mezzanine reintroduced the footnote to literature, Roth churned out passages like this one, depicting Mickey Sabbath’s fiber-optic seduction of a student:
Oh, I’ll bite on your nipples. Your beautiful pink nipples…Oh, it’s filling up with come now. It’s filling up with hot, thick come. It’s filling up with hot white come. It’s going to shoot out. Want me to come in your mouth?
You might be able to tell where I’m going with this. Because Sabbath’s Theatre was not dismissed as childish or beneath Roth’s many talents. No. It won Roth his second National Book Award and was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. (He lost to Richard Ford’s Independence Day, which, for what it’s worth, also features, briefly, a young female writing student sexually involved with her professor.)
To be fair, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani did lash out at both books. Sabbath’s Theatre, she wrote, was “distasteful and disingenuous,” and Vox was “not particularly revealing or emotionally involving.” But to this I have to say that if a book’s longevity matters at all, if it matters what books people actually keep talking about, or keep reading, or keep audially listening to, then I think it’s fair to say that Kakutani was wrong on both counts. And I’d further say that Vox, though there can be only anecdotal evidence for this, is talked about these days far more often than Sabbath’s Theatre.
But that doesn’t explain why a snippet of the book, or, for that matter, female ejaculation, can fall so flat, these days, when broadcast to the general public. I have a theory about this. What the phenomenon of Vox demonstrates, I think, is a combination of the one old saw about how great books either create a movement or destroy one, and the other old saw about how saints are murdered for the originality of their revelations, and what I want to suggest is that Vox, precisely because it was a good book that left an indelible mark on our world and paved the way for other books that would exceed its celebrity and acclaim — precisely for all this good the book did, for the change it made, it was chided and attacked, and, critically speaking, burned at the stake. The good news is that when you murder a saint you ensure his immortality.
So maybe, now, when we read Vox, we don’t just read the book for its original effects, we read it for its historical value, we read it to remember the world to which it delivered a violent but much-needed chest compression. And perhaps what the exercise of reading an audiobook in public does is recreate that odd life-giving jolt. Because imagine me sitting in my comfy coffee shop chair, nothing in my hands, earbuds in, simply scanning the crowd as Jim and Abby’s voices co-created sexy stories. It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I sometimes projected those strangers into the book, imagined each of them as Jims and Abbys hovering over their laptops and tablets, occupying Internet chat rooms not really so different from Vox’s telephonic bordello. Truth be told, I drew their attention too, because Vox is a funny book, and I sometimes laughed at it, which means that I was a guy sitting in a chair, appearing to be doing nothing but staring at my fellow coffee drinkers, occasionally giggling. One woman began glancing back at me with a slightly-more-than-worried kind of regularity, and sometime into that second listening session I think I became one of those guys that you sort of need to keep surreptitious track of in public. Indeed, for 20 or more of those coffee regulars I was probably added to an internal database of local potential perverts. But that’s unfair! Because not only does Vox lack the kind of criminal trespass that Mickey Sabbath’s phone sex chat in Sabbath’s Theatre depicts, it’s actually just a simple love story. Michiko Kakutani, I’m sorry, but you missed it. The end of Vox is a quite moving exchange, as, after Jim and Abby’s respective climaxes, they make tentative plans to connect again. It’s a heartfelt goodbye, and it’s very “emotionally involving.” And if it seemed odd to you, my fellow coffee drinkers, that I would sit there for several hours, sometimes laughing, sometimes cringing, and finally getting a little teary — well, what I must insist is that you understand that I was not a pervert. I was not weird, or bored, or crazy. No. I was reading.
It’s difficult to think of many writers who manage to be both as distinctive and as resistant to definition as Nicholson Baker. There’s something attractively paradoxical about his writing, in that the more it changes from one book to the next, the more insistently Bakeresque it becomes. Doing things that are out of character has, in other words, become one of the defining characteristics of Baker’s career.
He made his name in the late 80s and early 90s with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, two brilliantly essayistic — and rivetingly plotless — novels about the supposedly trivial odds and ends that clutter our everyday lives; he then solidified his reputation as an entertaining innovator with U and I, a hybrid work of autobiographical criticism (or critical autobiography) on his lifelong relationship with John Updike’s writing. He has written a passionate and intensely researched polemic about how the introduction of microfilm led libraries to destroy countless books and periodicals (Double Fold), a work of history attacking the notion that the Allies had no choice but to engage the Nazis in Europe (Human Smoke), and three exercises in balls-out erotic high jinks (The Fermata, Vox, and House of Holes).
His new book, Traveling Sprinkler, is a sequel of sorts to 2009’s The Anthologist, revisiting that novel’s narrator, Paul Chowder, as he attempts to reinvent himself as a songwriter, win back his longtime girlfriend Roz as she prepares for a hysterectomy, and negotiate his own rage at the Obama administration’s drone warfare policies. Alongside his writing of the book, Baker pursued a parallel songwriting project — some of the results of which can be heard here and here.
The Millions: You’re known for writing fiction that largely does away with the business of plot. I’m wondering at what point you realized that this would be the kind of writing you would do. Did this evolve out of necessity, in that you found you had no affinity for highly plotted narratives, or no ability to write them, or was it a more calculated choice?
Nicholson Baker: I like the beginnings of things. The beginnings of a story, of a poem; I like that moment when the white space on the page gives way to actual type. The early paragraphs of a book have a kind of joyful feeling of setting out, like the sunny moment of merging into morning traffic from the onramp of a highway. And then comes the troubling question, where are we going?
In Traveling Sprinkler, though, some fairly big things eventually happen: it’s a love story involving a hysterectomy, which is a bit unusual. And the barn floor collapses, squashing a canoe. Not “minutiae,” whatever that means.
TM: I was intrigued by Paul Chowder’s attendance at Quaker meetings in Traveling Sprinkler. As someone who’s more or less an atheist, I find there’s something very appealing about the way Quakers practice their faith. Where did your interest in this come from?
NB: I’m an atheist, too, I guess, but the word sounds kind of harsh and aggressive, so I generally just say I’m a non-theist. Quaker meeting is a place where people are trying to figure out how to live better lives. There are no rules. There’s an etiquette, that you should wait a while after someone has said something, to give it a buffer of stillness, when everybody thinks about it. That becomes a sort of a white space. The silence is a powerful force that’s working on everyone. When somebody stands and says something, it’s often incomplete, it’s unprepared. It’s provisional — and yet it’s full of love or hope or grief or sympathy — and then other people think about what’s been said, and then someone else stands and adds something more. This goes on for an hour. It’s like hearing the rough draft of a really heartfelt essay collection.
And there are several hundred years of history to Quakerism, with much suffering and martyrdom; the Friends were people who were willing to stand up to, say, slavery, early on, when it was unpopular, dangerous to do so. And of course there’s the antiwar “testimony,” as it’s called, which always gets me. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.” Utterly deny. Wow. It turns out to be a testimony you can live by. Not that I go every Sunday. I just love the idea that people are agreeing to be quiet together.
TM: So this is something that has taken a significant place in your life over recent years?
NB: I’ve been going to meeting on and off for about 12 years. Actually I come from a Quaker family, a little bit. My grandfather was raised as a Quaker, but he lapsed. He was interested in Renaissance art, and Quakers were a little suspicious of art and music in the past — or Philadelphia Quakers were, at least. He was a drinker, and they didn’t go for that either. My mother grew up in an unreligious household — so that’s how I grew up. I went to a Quaker college, Haverford College, but never went to meeting there except on graduation day.
I’ve learned a lot from the Quakers about incompleteness, about waiting for things to be sayable, about the possibility of reconciliation — and also about discarding certain trappings of eloquence. It’s certainly had an effect on me. As a person, but also on my writing.
TM: Well, now that you bring it up, there’s been a noticeable progression from your early books — The Mezzanine and Room Temperature and U and I — where there’s a luxurious intricacy to the prose. Whereas your last few books have been characterised by a kind of straightforwardness of address.
NB: In U and I, which is a very baroque book full of sentences that twirl around, I said something about how the metaphorically dense style usually has its big moment early in a writer’s life. After a while, if you’re lucky, the complexity of the semicoloned involutions gives way to something else — maybe to a social attunedness. So I was waiting for it to happen back then, and I think it has happened — although in my non-fiction writing, my magazine pieces, sometimes I’m in the middle of a paragraph and I get that old excited feeling of sliding an unexpected word into place or making a clause swerve to the left in a prosily tricky way.
But the real reason that the recent books, The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler, read so differently is because I wrote them by talking them. Both these books are about the audible human voice, about what comes out of silence. They’re all about meter, and melody, and vocal chords, and intonation, and stereo microphones — and I wrote the books by recording myself in various ways — sometimes with a video camera, sometimes speaking into a mini handheld recorder, sometimes typing as I talked. Most of the first draft of the books came out of my mouth, as opposed to out of my fingers, and that’s really the reason why the prose has a different sound.
TM: Maybe this is something you hear from people frequently, but I have these moments that I think of as “Nicholson Baker moments” that are interspersed throughout my everyday life. There are certain objects, for instance, that when I come across them, I find it very difficult not to think of your books. Things like shoelaces, say, and peanut butter jars and bendable straws. And every time I have to dry my hands on a hot air dryer in a public toilet, I inevitably think of The Mezzanine.
NB: I’m so glad. I’m still thinking about the hot air dryer myself. I feel there’s more to say and yet, damn, I’ve kind of done it.
Many of the things I wrote about in the past were things that fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to be an inventor, and I had long talks with my father about new forms of lift and aerodynamic shapes and how refrigerators worked. I guess I didn’t have enough to do in school, which can be a good thing. When I wasn’t on a bike trip or practicing the bassoon or plinking on the piano I spent a lot of time looking at things around the house — at water flowing from the tap, at the spinning washing machine, at the way the molded numbers in a glass peanut butter jar cast their shadows on the peanut butter inside. In the garage there was a beautiful rusty traveling sprinkler that my father had bought at Sears. I made a route with the hose for it to follow and watched it twirl and chuff away, despite the fact that we lived in Rochester, which is a very cloudy city — the lawn was doing fine on its own.
After The Fermata came out I sometimes took on bigger topics — for instance a destructive episode in library history, or the early years of the Second World War. But I still love the sensation of slowing down a moment of observable time with the help of sentences.
TM: There’s quite a lot of political anger in Traveling Sprinkler. Was this anger part of your motivation in writing the novel, or was it something that seeped in from the outside as you were in the process?
NB: The book began as a non-fiction book about trying to write protest songs — songs that objected to things going on under the Obama administration. And then my character Paul Chowder intruded and everything changed. He reads the paper and he also tries to stay sane, and the news is sometimes so overwhelming and awful, especially when it involves some horrific civilian fatality. How do you keep going if you really open yourself up to a terrible piece of news? And we do; obviously, we keep going. We read something, and we think it’s horrible, and then later that afternoon we’re sitting in a coffee shop and there’s noodly jazz playing and we’re sipping a latté, for God’s sakes. It’s a mixed life. It’s got grief in it, it’s got indignation, and demonic laughter and jealousy, and the desire to find someone to love. Debussy’s sunken cathedral is in this world, too. I wanted to include political grief in something that was recognizably a love story.
Obama’s administration has been a devastating disappointment, in so many different ways. Fanatical secrecy, the persecution of whistleblowers, foreign interventions and arms shipments that make things worse, the quintupling of drone killings — it just has to be said. And it has to be thought about in a way that does justice to the complexity of daily life. How does an emotion of political dissent thread through one’s days? That’s one of the real problems that the novel is trying to address.
TM: In the book, Paul’s creative energies are invested in learning how to use music making software and in writing songs, which is something that you yourself did in the writing of the book. Did you write these songs “in character” as Paul Chowder, or as Nicholson Baker?
NB: There are 12 songs altogether, some love songs and some protest songs, and one that uses a stanza from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and one about a street sweeper. There’s a so-called deluxe e-book version of the book where you can hear them, and I’m also putting them up on Bandcamp — what the hell. I’d posted some earlier attempts under my own name on YouTube, protest songs, but what was interesting was that as soon as I started writing the book in the voice of Paul Chowder I also felt more freedom with my songwriting. I could write the music I wanted to write because it wasn’t exactly me. I became more able to sing with more freedom, I guess, than when I was writing it as Nick Baker the writer.
TM: Have you been nervous about sending the songs out into the world?
NB: Yes, there’s nothing more vulnerable than singing, especially if you’re not a terribly good singer. I can’t describe to you how much more sensitive I am to criticism about these musical attempts than I am about the writing. It’s important to me that the songs are not an embarrassment, that they have qualities that make them song-like. I want them to have a certain level of success. It feels like a new beginning, and I have all the anxiety of being an apprentice. Which is really part of the fun of it. One of the things that’s useful to do, I think, is to cut the legs out from under yourself periodically.
TM: That’s something that you’ve done on various occasions throughout your career — you’ve written books that have caused people to throw up their hands and walk away from you. The Fermata would have been the first time that happened in any kind of significant way, right?
NB: It was really Vox where certain people said “Oh, well the first three books, yes indeed, but Vox is just a tiresome little chirp.” Hey, no, it’s a courtship, it’s a love story. The Fermata, though, yes — that one was received very badly, especially in England. “Whatever you do, don’t shake his hand,” said one reviewer. And the odd thing is how people’s feelings for certain books change over time. I now realize that sometimes critics react at first in a kind of affronted way, and then the book establishes its own position, and people say, “The other books are okay, but The Fermata [is] the one I really like.” It’s been a little confusing, actually, over the years, but also reassuring to discover that a book in the end finds its particular sub-group of readers, regardless of whether or not it was universally shunned at the time.
I always think when I’m starting a new project, “I want to do everything in this book; I want it to cover every single thing.” And it doesn’t ever turn out that way. It can’t happen. But that’s always the emotion I have pulling at me. I try to pour in every charged particle, and say all that must be said, and of course I can’t. Which means that the next book has to be about everything. So I give it another shot, and that one also falls short. Each book is in some way trying to correct the state of imbalance and incompletion left by its predecessors — chugging around the garden, watering new tomatoes.
It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.
As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.
Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)
Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.
The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.
The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.
I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.
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Maybe the best way to approach House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s new smorgasbord of ribaldry, is to sample its delectable language. So here’s a glossary of Baker-isms for the various human body parts, fluids, and functions that play starring roles in a novel that is aptly subtitled “A Book of Raunch”:
PENIS: bulldog, thundertube, ham steak, wanger, truncheon, mandingo, spunkspewer, purple cameroon, tuber, charley horse, fleshbone, pack mule, hellhound, manjig, stonker, putz, seedstick, babymaker, and, a bit more personally, Pollock, Malcolm Gladwell, and Lincoln Stiffins.
VAGINA: stash, train station, slobbering kitty, chickenshack, snatch patch, slutslot, cameltoe, tooter, stovepipe, and lettuce patch.
SEMEN: manstarch, silly string, cockslurp, sweet salty hotness, sackshot, blookie, doddle-goo, and ham juice.
BREASTS: hangers, jerries, britneys, cookies, and jaybirds.
Buttocks are “wonderloaves,” testicles are “hot young stones” or “jacksons,” a clitoris is a “lemondrop” or “Monsieur Twinklestump.” To ejaculate is to “pop the oyster.” And here are a few of the verbal volcanoes that erupt when various characters reach climax: “He seems to want to make me come, oh god, oh shit. Ham, ham, oo, oo, oo, oo, oo,oo, ham, ham, HAW!”; “Mgonna come, mgonna, come. Nnnnnnggggggggaaaaaaaw!”; and “I’m almost there, I’m almost there! I’m there, ah, ah, AAAAAH, hoof hoof hoof.” There are also some non-sexual grace notes, as when an English accent is “wuffly,” a sigh is “murfling,” and a character “had a great contentment bubbling inside her like the little bubbles that you see when you shake up a bottle of salad dressing.”
By now you’re probably guessing that House of Holes is both very frank and very funny, and you would not be guessing wrong. For better and for worse this novel will inevitably be linked to Baker’s two previous sex romps, Vox, which consists of a long phone-sex conversation, and The Fermata, the story of an office temp and libertine named Arno Strine who has the power to create something called “the Fold,” when time and motion freeze and he’s free to do anything he wants to do – which usually amounts to undressing his female co-workers and masturbating to their immobile bodies.
These earlier novels divided readers into two warring camps, and House of Holes is not likely to bring about detente. People tended to love these novels or loathe them. (Monica Lewinsky loved Vox so much she gave her personal copy to Bill Clinton.) The books strike me as a couple of one-trick ponies, attempts to tease a pair of thin premises into full-blown novels that are only partially successful.
House of Holes is a pony with a much bigger bag of tricks, but it’s still a pony, a carefully constructed contrivance, a vehicle for exploring a fantasy that could exist only in a country that’s both obsessed with sex and deeply conflicted about it. The fantasy is simple: imagine an alternate reality where everyone is attractive, having sex is as natural as breathing, nothing is forbidden, everyone’s doing everything with everyone and enjoying it, and for good measure there are no unwanted pregnancies, no sexually transmitted diseases, no guilt, and only an occasional flare-up of jealousy. People enter the House of Holes through any number of round apertures: a cocktail straw, a clothes dryer door, a golf hole, an earlobe piercing, a woman’s purse (blackest of black holes!). Once there, they can get an “ass-grabber’s license” or swap genitals with someone of either gender, there’s a “clothes-dissolving wind,” a man can temporarily sacrifice an arm in order to get a bigger penis. In short, it’s every pubescent boy’s wet dream. But is it good fiction?
The only way to arrive at an answer is to try to divine Baker’s motives for writing so obsessively and fluorescently about sex. Right off he should be absolved of the charge that he’s exploiting that tired credo of the retail crowd: sex sells. He’s after something much bigger than cheap thrills or quick cash. Baker’s appeal, in his eclectic fiction and non-fiction, is the way his imagination zeroes in on minutiae that most people, including most novelists, don’t bother to consider. His books are not painted or drawn; they’re etched. His preferred tools are the magnifying glass, the zoom lens, the X-acto knife, and acid. Trivial and mundane things are hugely important to him, including staplers, shoelaces, matches, nail clippers, bathroom towel dispensers, the perforations that make paper towels easy to tear. Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, consists of a 133-page ride on an escalator. He followed it with Room Temperature, which takes place in the 20 minutes a man needs to feed his baby daughter her bottle. It includes the speculation that “with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.” In keeping with Henry James’s dictum, Baker is one of the people on whom nothing is lost. For him, everything is worth noticing. Including, obviously, sex.
To rephrase the earlier question: Is it enough for a novelist to be a great noticer? The answer, unfortunately, is no. For all its many virtues – its attention to detail, its imaginative brio, its lavish language and sense of humor – House of Holes turns out to be a surprisingly flat performance. Though there is some sort of scorching, rococo sex act on virtually every page, Baker’s style is intentionally neutral, lukewarm, almost clinical. A key to this fantasy, and to much of the humor, is that the people living the fantasy find it utterly ordinary. Here’s a typical exchange between a willing young man named Cardell and a reluctant married woman named Betsy:
“You seem rich.”
“I’m not poor. My husband’s father was rich. He was supposedly a
ruthless businessman, but he was always nice to me.” She smiled.
“I’d love to see you come,” Cardell said thickly.
She laughed. “Ah, but I’m married, as you know. I don’t cheat. Much.”
“Does your husband have a friendly sex organ that treats you well?”
“He does,” she said, in a distant voice. “It’s got a knobby end that fits me just right. But I suppose that’s private information.”
Cardell looked out at the ocean. “I wish I had a cold iced tea right now.”
Much of the novel is like that, careening between the sexually charged and the grindingly mundane like a drunk on a four-day bender. The novel has no plot, unless you consider careening a plot. After a while this careening becomes routine, which I believe is Baker’s intention, because he has set out to create a very un-American world where sex is treated without hang-ups or fanfare. But eventually the routine becomes monotonous, which may or may not have been Baker’s intention. Either way, he winds up getting sabotaged by the success of his invention.
While Baker has endured some blistering reviews in the past, he has also been given the serious critical treatment. In Understanding Nicholson Baker, Arthur Saltzman wrote that Baker’s achievement has been “to depict the private and the perverse so ingeniously, to bring out the universal fascination within unheralded or even vulgar habits so convincingly, as to purge them of indecency.” Jack Murnighan’s The Naughty Bits: The Steamiest and the Most Scandalous Sex Scenes from the World’s Great Books lumps Baker with the usual bad boys, including Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Rabelais, among others. But perhaps it was Jane Smiley who got closest to what Baker is up to. Vox is one of the 100 novels Smiley includes in her dissection of the writing process, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. “Baker’s style is always plain and clear,” she writes. “It is also sometimes even tedious and dreary – intentionally so, since fidelity to the conversation of average people sometimes requires that they seem tedious and dreary in order to seem average.” Later she adds:
Baker’s strong suit as a novelist is that he is intriguing…. When we read his books, we are in part reading them for themselves – that is, as individual narratives. What we are also reading for is just to find out what Nicholson Baker has been thinking about lately.
Here’s the current answer: Nicholson Baker has been thinking about rigid stonkers and prime Angus cockbriskets spewing hot loads of silly string into various slutslots and lettuce patches. That, plus cold iced tea, and the little bubbles that you see when you shake up a bottle of salad dressing. Baker’s many fans are sure to lap it up. The rest of us will be slightly amused but ultimately bored. The war continues.
Late last summer, I read Nicholson Baker’s U & I, which, though I can’t recall the reasons, I can’t recommend enough. Published in 1991, U & I chronicles Baker’s obsessive fascination with that most pale of prose geniuses, John Updike, even while admitting he is by no means a completist and hasn’t read all of Updike’s books. I was visiting my then-girlfriend in New York while reading U & I, and from the first sentence I was so devoted that one day I carried it onto the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I was meeting an old friend to watch football and drink beer. I could barely endure the torturously hot subway station, though, and as I waited for my train in the heat I felt like I had hot coals tucked into my armpits. The subway car, by contrast, was so cool and Baker’s self-deprecations so engrossing that I remember this brief period (probably something like a half hour) as one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my entire life.
The problem now is my absent memory of Baker’s book. I can conjure up an image of its cover, which isn’t, frankly, all that memorable, but my mental storage unit is empty when I go looking for eloquent Bakerisms. Second, even the “plot,” such as it is with Nicholson Baker, escapes me. I vaguely remember Baker explaining how his mother had a conniption fit laughing at some humorous essay of Updike’s, a piece where he described a divot in a golf course being “big as a t-shirt.” I also have a foggy memory of Baker meeting Updike at some Harvard gathering, where he allows Updike to believe that he—Baker—also attended that august institution. It goes further. I can’t remember Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, either, although I read it last summer, too. His most recent novel, The Anthologist, which I devoured after A Box of Matches, another Baker book, also remains mostly sunk, like an iceberg, in the warming waters of my brain. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx (or whoever) said. I supposedly read these four Nicholson Baker books less than twelve months ago, and now my dominant memory is a section in The Mezzanine that describes the various sounds adult men make while defecating in corporate bathrooms. I recall that the word “spatterings” appears in all its horrifying, onomatopoeic glory, but remember the poop joke is not my most cherished literary principle.
There isn’t any inherent reason to worry about forgetfulness, of course. Reading is reading; what you remember can seem a gift and what you forget just one of many things that, slipping away, never did you any harm. But—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a PhD student in the thick of preparations for my comprehensive exams—a large part of the pleasure (and struggle) I experience with books relates directly to my capacity to remember the words that appear in them. And despite the fine arguments of writers like Joshua Foer in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I’m not looking for brute memorization, i.e. Xeroxing Shakespeare’s complete works with my brain. I keep notes when it counts, after all.
Perhaps it’s from reading too much (lately, it’s felt like too much, as I burn through a booklist that is supposed to represent the foundation for my future academic career), but the best tactic is to rely on the accidental art of memory, which patterns information organically, without much pre-set strategy. When I recently read an essay on ruins by Geoff Dyer, for example, his comment that the remains of ancient buildings suggest the triumph of space over time reminded me immediately of a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz that I thought I had forgotten: “We know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” Now, I hope, I’ll remember both these poetic conclusions. This kind of recall depends, actually, on the same digressive energy that both Dyer and Sebald lean on in their writing. And anyway, the great virtue of underlining sentences in the books you read is the opposite of what it seems to be: you’re giving yourself permission to forget all the non-underlined bits. As I become more comfortable with the forgetting, I realize the shape of the remembering.
The situation actually seems both grimmer and more hopeful when I glance at the list of books I’ve already read thus far in 2011. There are 31 books there, and I can remember, on average, a single line or phrase from probably 11 of them. For others—particularly for books which make a sustained argument—I can remember the logic of the thinking, but would have to go back to my notes to recall the specific turns of vocabulary that make the arguments stick. On the one hand, it seems like terrific luck to have retained particular lines at all. On the other, I can’t help but feel sad in the face Harold Bloom’s prodigious memory. In a recent video interview with The New York Times, Bloom reeled off some lines of Hart Crane’s poetry with such perfect rhythm and confidence I felt equal parts charmed and inspired to jealous rage, which is not the point of (most) Modernist poetry.
But if the issue is my happiness as a reader, I take comfort in a quotation provided by critic Eric Santner in his 2006 book, On Creaturely Life, a study of, among other writers, W.G. Sebald. Santner mentions, as an aside, a comment from philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes that “…we need to go back to an older English usage of happiness in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things working out well rather than badly.” Happiness as good luck makes perfect sense, particularly if you think of the word hapless, which roughly means luckless, without hap. So, by contrast, to be lucky, is—by substitution—to be happy. In other languages, like German and Dutch, lucky and happy already go by the same word. That I or anyone else is fortunate enough to remember whatever books we’ve read therefore appears to be a textbook case of happiness. Even so glorious a wet blanket as Friedrich Nietzsche already had some sense of happiness as this game of chance. In Beyond Good and Evil, he comments, “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want.” Thought, like memory, has its own life; we are just its devotees. If a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God can find the exit door here, then I’ll take the accidental hap of memory, if nothing else.
This is all such a stupid luxury, of course, hand-wringing over the proper way to read and remember. And the picture of the reading life and its haunted memory that I prefer now is from the book I have just finished: Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the second half of the novel, the unnamed narrator observes two fellow travelers and friends and comments, “Earlier that day, as I was coming back from Manikarnika in a boat, I’d glanced up at the terrace of the Lotus Lounge and seen them there, arms round each other. As the boat skulked upstream, I looked up from time to time like some sad fuck in a Henry James novel, relieved that they’d not seen me seeing them.” Even if he can’t remember which sad fuck, the narrator’s memory tells him that he’s part of a grand tradition. How lucky.
(Image by C. Max Magee)
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.
Baker 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
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?
Hence 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
The 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.