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.
Since my daughter was born, almost a year ago, I’ve been wary of books about motherhood, whether fiction or non-fiction, tender tale or battle hymn. In the precious few hours I’ve had to read, I haven’t wanted to think about what kind of mother I am. It still feels strange — both wonderfully strange and alarmingly strange — to say that I have a child. I hardly ever refer to myself in the third person, as mom, mommy, or mama. My daughter knows who I am. She’ll put some sort of name to my face soon enough.
I do, however, say “dad” all the time, as in: “Your dad will change you now.” “Your dad will put you to bed.” “When will your dad be home?” “Here’s your dad!” The other day at the park, my daughter was sitting in the baby swing, pronouncing her “da-da-da’s,” as she does, with insistent delight. A woman pushing her grandson asked if “mama” was also part of the repertoire, and I told her it wasn’t. “That’s how it is,” the grandmother said. “The mother does all the work. The dad gets all the glory.”
The truth is, dad does plenty. But, as I suspect is the case in most two-parent households, I can’t help noting the amount of time my partner spends changing diapers, managing feedings, and keeping at least one eye on the kid, in comparison with my own lot. Freud’s concept of penis envy seems as ridiculous now as it did when I first learned of it, who knows how long ago. Dad envy, on the other hand, feels as real as the cries in the middle of the night that mean, “I want milk, and you’re the milk lady.” Though fathers are increasingly involved in taking care of their children, they still can’t give birth, or breastfeed, or feel the same kind of cultural — and perhaps biological — pressures that a mother does to attend to her child’s needs. And though it’s amazing to be able to practice these womanly arts, the physical and emotional challenges can wipe a new mother out. (Which is why womb envy, the most prominent feminist psychoanalytic response to Freud, also strikes me as rather dubious.)
But I want to talk about literature — comic, romantic, escapist literature: that is, dad literature. While I’ve avoided reading books about motherhood since my daughter joined the world, I have read three fantastic books about fathers taking care of small children. Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits is the latest novel by a young writer whose previous two books satirize American culture on a grand scale: one features a Las Vegas fight between a bear and a shark, the other a series of assassinations and resurrections of Upton Sinclair. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature is an early novel by a writer The New York Times recently deemed “The Mad Scientist of Smut.” And Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is a slim volume of diary entries by one of the patriarchs of American literature, whose most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, gives us a tormented father unable to publicly acknowledge his child. These three writers, then, are not exactly known for tender portraits of domesticity. But their chronicles of fathers tending to little ones are the loveliest I’ve read detailing that relationship. With honesty and great charm, they depict a daily experience that’s alternately surprising, boring, exhausting, enchanting, dismaying, and heartwarming — all within the short (and long) space of a morning or afternoon.
In his introduction to Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, Paul Auster calls this endearing little book, culled from sections of Hawthorne’s American Notebooks, the first “meticulous, blow-by-blow account of a man taking care of a young child by himself.” Twenty diary excerpts relate Hawthorne’s time with his five-year-old son, Julian, in the summer of 1851, while his wife and two daughters are out of town. Stationed at their “Red Shanty” in the Berkshires, father and son gather beans from the garden, whittle with a jackknife, venture out for milk and mail, wage war on thistles, fling stones in the lake, visit (and defile) a Shaker village, and bump into Herman Melville and invite him over for tea. A close observer of Julian’s developing personality, Hawthorne both admires his pep: “the little man kept jumping over the high weeds, and the tufts of everlasting flowers; — while I compared his overflowing sprightliness with my own reluctant footsteps, and was content that he should be young instead of I,” and despairs of it: “He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.”
Set 150 years later in another Massachusetts town, Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, just published last year, features the father of a two year old with another child on the way. A humanities professor, Abbott has the summer off, which means he’s on serious dad duty. The novel is structured as a three-month-long record of daily experiences and observations, with titles like “Abbott Takes the Garbage Out,” “Abbott Stumbles Toward a Theory of Use,” and “On the Very Possibility of Kindness,” spanning the range of banalities and profundities inspired by childcare and domestic minutiae. In “Abbott and the Paradox of Personal Growth,” hours of acorn collecting, juice spilling, bead sorting, and other toddler-prompted activities lead Abbott to wonder how he spent his summer mornings, pre-kid. “He cannot even remember, cannot contemplate the freedom, the terrible enormity of Self.” In “Father’s Day,” he proposes, “There is something beyond tedium. You can pass all the way through tedium and come out the other side, and this is Abbott’s gift today.”
If Hawthorne and Abbott are pensive grumps by nature, whose children occasionally inspire moments of fatherly bliss and awe, my third favorite father is a gleeful kook on a fatherhood high. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, in which a guy feeds his six-month-old daughter a bottle, appeared before Vox (guy calls phone sex line and chats with equally horny and hyper-articulate gal), The Fermata (guy with the power to stop time removes women’s clothes without their knowledge), and this year’s House of Holes (lots of guys and lots of gals cavort at a fantasy sex palace). The earlier book is, wonderfully, in the same spirit as the racy romps. Baker’s narrators are fascinated by things related to both sex and childcare: basic bodily functions, the usefulness and/or kinkiness of ordinary household objects, and the oddness of intimacy with another human being. These preoccupations inspire both terrific narrative foreplay and wild tangents prompted by the simple act of rocking a baby to sleep. Room Temperature’s Mike even relishes the more tedious aspects of tending to an infant. I don’t have much patience for my daughter’s protestations when I’m trying to pull a shirt over her head. Mike, on the other hand, happily stretches out the neck holes of his daughter’s tops before sending her through them, thinking fondly of the elaborate ritual he used to perform with his underpants after a shower. “Thirty years of such little masteries could now find new twists and applications in fatherhood,” he rejoices. “I held nothing back for her! I loved her!”
The pleasure I take in these books stems partly from their spot-on depictions of an experience common to many, and partly from the precise characterizations of particular parents and children. Another part of the pleasure surely comes from the position of the mother in the narrative. The object of longing, curiosity, frustration, and admiration, she is usually (or always) offstage. As the date of Hawthorne’s wife’s projected return draws closer — it isn’t certain, the postal service and horse-drawn carriages being less dependable than cell phones and minivans — he becomes increasingly anxious for her: “Phoebe cannot fail to shine upon us. It seems absolutely an age since she departed.” When she fails to arrive for several days, her “disconsolate” husband overflows with feeling for her: “God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! . . . No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!”
During Mike’s afternoon of bottle-feeding and ruminating, his wife Patty is at work. Mike’s own mother, “a colorist for Greff Fabrics,” taught him that “women were the only route out of the brown world.” As a pre-adolescent, he masturbated to an Edward Steichen photograph of a woman giving birth, inspired by “the lust-transfiguring generousness of allowing a life to pass hurtfully through her widening bones.” Still turned on by the things women do without men, Mike tells us about listening to Patty writing in a diary before bed. He tries to detect words “from the complicated sequences of felt-tipped sniffing sounds her pen made,” her recorded thoughts like a tantalizing code he can’t divine.
Even Abbott’s somewhat vexed relationship with his wife is satisfying to me, in an admittedly uncharitable way, in that it casts the dad in the more harried and put-upon role. While Abbott wrangles their daughter and collects “acute and contradictory feelings” for his wife, she is often catching up on sleep, completing her own set of domestic chores, or simply existing elsewhere. I found myself cheering these elusive mothers: Let her work! Let her sleep! Let her leave town! Some of my fondest feelings toward my daughter, I must admit, rise up in me when I imagine her at home with her dad, while I’m walking across campus to teach a class, or sitting in a cafe with my laptop and a latte.
Very young children follow the Buddhist path to enlightenment in at least one respect: they exist fully in the present moment. For the attending parent, the present moment is usually a scramble. Occasionally, like Mike, we may rock a sleeping child in our laps, while our imaginations wander across a great terrain of comical reminiscences, curious obsessions, and loving insights. Often, like, Abbott and Hawthorne, we muddle through the daily cycle of feeding, dressing, entertaining, and cleaning up, our physical and emotional resources rigorously tested. Only later, after the kid has, we pray, retired for the night, will we contemplate what a wonderful thing it is to watch a child (our own child!) grow and learn and become her own person. Sometimes in the evening, amidst the miraculous peace that has descended since our daughter’s been sleeping through the night in her own crib, my partner and I will realize that we miss her. Sometimes I’ll scan through my photo library, admiring pictures of her, when there are so many other things to do, things that I was desperate to do during the day, while she was demanding all of my attention.
The most wonderful moments in these books gesture toward the future consciousnesses and emotional lives of children now dependent on their parents for companionship, as well as round-the-clock care. Watching Julian “riding on his rocking-horse, and talking to me as fast as his tongue can go,” Hawthorne concludes that his son’s “desire of sympathy . . . lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been.” To envision your child free from some personal failing or unhappiness of your own is, of course, one of the fondest dreams of parenthood. More selfishly, you hope that the child, grown to a contemplative adulthood, will think of you as a good parent.
After reading my marked-up copy of Abbott Awaits, my partner chided me for not putting a check mark next to a particular passage. Reading the section over again, I saw that he was right: it’s one of the most affecting parts. After Abbott tries, and fails, to teach his daughter a lesson about delayed gratification by preventing her from immediately opening a package of stickers, he imagines her, 25 years later, bringing home a lover. In the comfort of their shared bed (Abbott and his wife, progressive parents that they are, permit the young couple to sleep together), the boyfriend reflects: “‘Your parents are great. Especially your dad. He’s really great.’” Abbott’s daughter responds: “‘When I was a kid, he was the kind of dad who wouldn’t let me put stickers on my face. And he’d correct my grammar in a way that he thought was fun and loving. And he’d tell me to be careful all the time. God, he’d tell me to be careful when I was making toast.’” The fantasy concludes, “And then they will lie together in that old bed, most likely naked, and for a long time talk about fathers, the failures of fathers.” Abbott is a wise enough dad to know that fathers inevitably fail. But the mistakes he hopes to make are of the best kind, motivated by protectiveness and care.
The ever-vigilant Mike (in matters, that is, of his own idiosyncratic fascinations) contemplates the “many mouth sounds the Bug was going to notice and master in time,” including “woodblock tock[s],” “ducklike squirts,” and “the little kissy noise you could make by sucking the air from the blue cap of a Bic pen.” At the very end of Room Temperature, Mike proposes, “if in ten years Bic pens were still around, and the Bug, inconceivably long-limbed, were to chew on one as she sat in class . . . she might taste the same quizzical six-sided plastic taste and wonder why it tasted so good and so awful at the same time . . . and why the sound of her saliva fizzing through the tiny airhole in the side of the pen’s barrel was such a peculiarly satisfying, calming, thought-provoking sound.” When she brings the chewed pen home, it allows her dad to explain this odd attachment to the Bic, that it “might have something to do with the hint of plastic in the warm evaporated milk that Patty and I had fed her from a six-sided bottle on magnificent fall afternoons when she was a tiny baby, only six months old.” And so, he confesses, “Everything in my life was beginning to route itself through the Bug.”
It’s hard to say, without reinforcing the obvious gender stereotypes, what makes these characters distinctly dad-like. There’s a certain sense of humor, a certain playfulness, a certain grumpiness, a fixation on some things and not on others. I don’t want to suggest that a father cares for and feels toward his children in a way that fundamentally differs from the care and emotional involvement of a mother. I’d rather read literature about parenthood than advice manuals because I want the story, not the tip; the particular impression, not the general rule. But I suspect that I’ve taken to these dad stories, as opposed to stories from a mother’s perspective, as a way of identifying with a narrative about the experience of a parent, while keeping myself a little apart from that identity. Dad envy, I think, ultimately stands less for the actual role an individual father plays in taking care of his child, than for the idea of a dad at his best: funny and easygoing most of the time, fiercely loving and tender when it counts. For a mother, for me, it comes with the opportunity to see how the man with whom my life is routed discovers for himself, day by day, what it means to be a dad.
Image Credit: Flickr/Spigoo
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.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”—Blaise Pascal
“What’s the point in going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”—Homer Simpson
The novel is perhaps the most housebound of all art forms. At both ends of its supply chain, there is a fairly strong imperative to stay put. There have always been writers who practice their profession in unusual locations, of course, just as a certain amount of reading is always going to be done on the move—on buses, on trains, on planes. But the literary exchange is, for the most part, a sedentary one. Writers tend to hold up their end of the deal by sitting at a desk and staying there until the book is written; readers tend to hold up theirs by sitting still, book in hand, until it is read. “The novel,” as Martin Amis once observed, “is all about not going out of the house.”
Between these two static real-world points, however, is almost always plotted a line of imaginary action. The form, in other words, tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people do go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them. Odysseus would probably not have been worth talking about had he stayed in Ithaca pottering about the palace, just as his Twentieth-century reincarnation Leopold Bloom would probably not be nearly so great a character had he stayed put in his house on Eccles Street flipping through old issues of Titbits, admiring the cat, and making sure that no one came around to have sex with his wife. The story of Anna Karenina would have been a less tragic one had she stayed at home in St Petersburg reading novels and playing with young Seryozha, but then it might not have been worth Tolstoy’s time telling it. Even Christ himself would not have made much of an impact on the western imagination had he continued hanging out at his Galilee workshop focusing on his cabinet making.
Aristotle saw both tragedy and comedy as predicated on changes in the fortune of a character (and character was, for Aristotle, subordinate to action). In comedies, stuff happens that leaves characters better off at the end than they were at the beginning; in tragedies, stuff happens that leaves them worse off (often to the point of being dead). Either way stuff has to happen, and for this stuff to happen, the characters have to go out of the house. Pascal’s pensée about all humanity’s problems stemming from “man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” may well be right—or at least might have been before the advent of the Internet—but as practical advice it is of even less use for literature than it is for life.
So the history of narrative fiction is, in a sense, a history of imagined action (poetry, of course, is another thing entirely). But there is a small but fascinating niche within that history, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere. I developed a fascination with these books a couple of years back, when I was a graduate student writing a thesis on the work of the Irish novelist John Banville (himself a writer who could never be accused of excessive plotting). With a couple of Banville’s books, it seemed to me that he was getting away with an omission that would, in the work of most other writers, have been an outright deal-breaker: he was leaving out the plot. Novels like Ghosts and Eclipse struck me as being in some sense Banville’s purest and most honest work because of the way in which they all but did away with the artifice of plot, with the encumbrance of having things happen.
I went through a phase of seeking out books that effected this omission in increasingly extreme ways. It is probably no mere accident that this phase coincided with a period during which I was spending most of my own time at home alone, writing, reading—working or not working or, more often than not, some uneasy compound of both—and generally not going out of the house. My life felt radically plotless, devoid of incident to an almost avant garde extent. So I suppose I identified with shut-ins and hermits and layabouts in a way that I didn’t identify with characters who went out and did things, who became embroiled in plots and events. During this period, I came across a book called Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, which seems to me to be the ur-text of this sub-genre. It is in fact not a novel at all, but a sort of anti-memoir or non-travelogue. The French aristocrat, military man and occasional author—whose older brother was the reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre—wrote the book in 1790 while he was under house arrest in Turin for dueling. During the forty-two days in which he was confined to his rooms, he occupied himself by writing an idiosyncratic account of his inner life and his immediate surroundings. He begins with the following exhortation which, by managing to be at once relentlessly jocular and obscurely mournful, sets the tone for the rest of this peculiar little book:
Follow me, all you whom humiliation in love or neglect in friendship confines to your apartments, far from the pettiness and treachery of your fellow men. Let all the wretched, the sick, and the bored follow me—let all the lazy people of the world rise en masse;—and you, whose brain is aboil with sinister plans of reform; you, who in your boudoir are contemplating renouncing the world in order to live; gentle anchorites of an evening […] be so good as to accompany me on my voyage, we shall travel by short stages, laughing all along the way at travelers who have seen Rome and Paris.—Nothing shall stop us; and abandoning ourselves gaily to our fancy, we shall follow it wherever it wishes to take us.
It’s difficult, of course, and perhaps even misguided, to separate this strange anti-manifesto from its historical context. De Maistre was a French aristocrat living in Turin, and as he wrote these words his nation was undergoing a radical separation from its monarchist past which, for many members of the social class to which he belonged, entailed the even more radical separation of their heads from their bodies. A huge and violent historical narrative had led him to Turin; a small and violent personal narrative (something to do, I think, with a thwarted love affair that led to the duel) had led him to be placed under house arrest. During the time he was writing this book, his existence amounted to a confinement within an exile, to a compound displacement from the site of activity, of incident. To stay indoors is to ensure that nothing much happens to you. Not going out of the house, voluntarily or otherwise, is a way of forswearing plots of all sorts.
As a kind of real-life patron saint of literary shut-ins—as the brother superior of ‘gentle anchorites’—de Maistre bequeaths a scattered legacy of plotless novels about staying in and not doing things. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, in which the titular shiftless aristocrat spends much of the book avoiding getting out of his dressing gown and venturing forth from his St. Petersburg apartment. Oblomov’s entire existence is a repudiation of the very idea of activity, a protest against the pointlessness of motion. He is constantly baffled by his friends’ incomprehensible strivings after worldly success, romantic conquest and intellectual abstraction. Such pursuits lead too often to disaster. History itself is a grim repository of evidence for Oblomov’s stance (or, rather, recumbence). Reading history, Goncharov writes, “merely casts you into melancholy. You study and read that in such a year there were calamities and man was unhappy. He gathered all his forces, worked, rooted around, suffered terribly and labored, always preparing for brighter days. Now that they had come, you’d think that history itself would take a break, but no, again clouds gathered, again the edifice collapsed, again there was work and more rooting around. The brighter days didn’t linger, they raced by—and life kept flowing, always flowing, smashing everything as it went.”
Reading Oblomov doesn’t make a life spent in dressing gown and slippers seem appealing; despite his scrupulous avoidance of misery’s apparent causes, Oblomov is not an especially happy guy, and the novel is, as much as anything else, a satire against the shiftless entitlement of the serf-owning aristocracy. But it does make asking “what’s the point of it all?” seem more than just an excuse for apathy. Avoiding living is, of course, a perverse way of avoiding death. If life keeps “flowing, always flowing, smashing everything” as it rushes toward the ocean of death, the desire to scramble for the bank and sit the whole thing out on dry land is understandable, if ultimately self-defeating and futile.
The horrible, intransigent fact of the individual’s inevitable end seems to sit like a stone at the dead centre of many plotless novels. (Malone Dies, in which Malone lies naked in bed, and then dies, is maybe the most explicit example of this, and Beckett’s attraction to Goncharov’s novel is well documented—he occasionally signed his letters to his lover Peggy Guggenheim “Oblomov”). History is either a chaos or a plot, but both end, one way or another, in death. Although he only mentions it once in passing, it is by no means an inconsequential detail that the nameless narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s 1985 novella The Bathroom is a historian. This strange, impassively hilarious book presents the disjointed reflections of a young academic who decides to spend his time hanging out in the bathroom of the Paris flat he shares with his girlfriend. He lolls about in the empty bathtub, smoking cigarettes, listening to soccer matches on the radio, receiving the occasional visitor. He wants a life without movement, it seems, because movement itself is powerfully associated with the forward rushing momentum of time.
Like Oblomov, he wants no part of the world. Looking out his window at one point, he watches people on the street fleeing a heavy rainfall, and imagines it as a “continuous downpour obliterating everything—annihilating everything.” But then he realizes that it not the “movements taking place before my eyes—rain, moving humans and automobiles” that fill him with dread but rather “the passing of time itself.” About a third of the way into the novel, the narrator abruptly and unaccountably leaves his flat and gets on a train to Venice. Once there, he promptly books into a shabby hotel which he then spends much of the remainder of the novella not going out of, essentially substituting a Parisian confinement for a Venetian one. Inactivity is his aim because it is, as he sees it, the ultimate aim of all activity, all movement. The “essential tendency of motion,” he tells us, “however lightning-swift it may appear, is toward immobility,” and “however slow it may sometimes seem, it is continuously drawing bodies toward death, which is immobility. Olé.” This is a bit like a more explicitly philosophical version of Homer Simpson’s questioning why Marge would want to go anywhere when “we’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”
In U and I, his quasi-memoir about his long-standing obsession with John Updike, Nicholson Baker admits to feeling slightly restless as a reader when reaching that point in a novel when the author stops mucking about with description and atmospheric evocation and gets down to the serious business of plot. He takes issue with a remark of Updike’s about writers who “clog” their narratives with description. “The only thing I like are the clogs,” objects Baker, “—and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling.” Baker has gone on to make a career out of these bits: his novels are all clog and no narrative. The “plot” of Room Temperature—a great and funny book about not going out of the house—concerns a young father sitting in a rocking chair feeding his infant daughter warm milk from a bottle. Pretty much literally nothing happens; the closest we get to action is when the narrator exhales forcefully in the direction of a paper mobile hanging from the ceiling of the baby’s room, and the paper flutters around for a while. And here’s the thing: there’s not a dull moment in the book. Baker’s brilliance as a writer lies in his ability to make the (apparently) utterly trivial utterly compelling.
The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off. I don’t have much interest in the pronouncements of dinner party eschatologists like David Shields (the only appropriate reaction to someone announcing the death of the novel is to surreptitiously check your watch and mutter something about having an early start in the morning), but there is something undeniably compelling about a book that can do away with a thing as seemingly crucial as stuff happening.
Plots are mostly necessary. Writers need something for their characters to do, some reason for them to exist; they need some taut thread of narrative along which they can string their bright beads of observation and insight. Characters need to be kept busy so that we as readers don’t get bored with them, just as we as people tend to keep busy so that we don’t get bored with ourselves (and so that we can pay the rent). But as Oblomov asks of both the life of manic activity lived by one friend and the latest work of literary social realism championed by another, “where is the human being in this?” His own story provides an answer, of sorts, to his question. When you stay inside, when you opt out (or are kept out) of narratives and events—when you cease to be a character in a plot—what you are left with is, for better or worse, the person. The human being is right there: lying around in his dressing gown, or in his bathroom, or bottle-feeding his baby, dying alone, reading or writing. Doing whatever it is people do when they don’t go out of the house.
Image credit: Flickr/pinkmoose.
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.