The art of writing about everything and nothing
Nicholson Baker’s 10th novel is mildly eccentric and at times self-indulgent, but it is also sharp, daring and honest
Nicholson Baker: writes fiction based not on story but on his world view. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Paul Chowder gets by. He is a poet who has lost interest in writing poems and would rather spend his days making music. About to turn 55, he seems more like 18 and is still yearning for something wonderful. His thoughts are filled with random lines that might some day become a song. Lyrics come and go through his mind. When Roz, his ex-girlfriend, asks what he would like for his birthday, he knows what he wants: “a cheap acoustic guitar”. He also knows exactly where to buy it: “You can get them for about seventy dollars at Best Buy. They come in an exciting cardboard box.”
Anyone who has read Nicholson Baker’s previous novels will feel comfortably at home within the opening paragraph of this, his 10th. Baker writes about everything and nothing; he sees fiction as the best place for anyone interested in getting their mind in order. And he may be right. Even if he is not, he is engaging company, mildly irritating at times, obsessive, clever, wry and far more radical than he may initially appear.
Along with the guitar, Chowder wishes to win back Roz, who produces medical programmes and is seeing a new man, a slick and successful doctor named Harris. Chowder attends meetings at the local Quaker house and works out at a gym called Planet Fitness. He seems content but desperately lonely.
Aside from this novel being another jaunt through Baker territory, it is a world filled with useful objects of interest, such as vintage guitars and the travelling sprinkler of the title.
This is not a major novel, but it consolidates the return of Baker, master of the random observation, to the mildly eccentric, which began with The Anthologist (2009). That novel featured the first appearance of Paul Chowder, sometime poet and compiler of poetry anthologies. The Anthologist appeared to have ended Baker’s preoccupation with sex, begun with Vox (1992) and pursued increasingly unsuccessfully with The Fermata (1994), which centred on sexual fantasy to the point of overkill.
Chowder’s difficulties in The Anthologist were far more interesting, and he managed to emerge as a character, not merely as a device for attempting to be outrageous. His career as a poet has tended to be muted. In this new novel Roz’s partner informs Chowder that she had given him one of his collections. Chowder is pleased and asks which one. Harris, clearly not overly sensitive, replies: “I think it had a blue cover. Or maybe it was orange. Or green. Was it green?”
It is a dismissive exchange. Harris also shows little sympathy for Roz’s operation. The story, such as it is, meanders along through the days. Not much happens, although the floor of Chowder’s barn collapses – and that is exciting, as his canoe is crushed. Chowder goes to the gym, smokes cigars and recalls how a basketball injury ended his bassoon-playing.
Preoccupation with the quotidian
Baker is a cerebral yet playful writer. He shares far more with the French original Georges Perec in his subject matter and preoccupation with the quotidian than with his avowed hero, John Updike. Yet Baker’s artistic manifesto takes as its central thesis Updike’s comment that “a man, in America, is a failed boy”.
Something of childhood lingers in all his writing. Baker, who was born in 1957, and has moved from California to Maine, retains that essential curiosity about anything that interests him: objects, lists, popular culture, junk food, ballpoint pens. It is the same fascination that encourages boys to collect baseball cards or comics. He would understand why an adult woman would set out to collect every version of Barbie ever manufactured.
It is true that Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine (1986), remains his best book. In this novel, one man explores the minutiae of his lunch hour. It is filled with in-depth exploration of the design genius that created the wing flap on a milk carton and the fate of the paper drinking straw. The Mezzanine came complete with wonderful footnotes. Most of all there was the epic struggle to repair a broken shoelace.
Baker understands the profound in the ordinary. His second novel, Room Temperature (1990), is both domestic comedy and metaphysical meditation, taking place as the narrator prepares a bottle of milk for his infant daughter.
At the heart of everything Baker writes, including his most personal inner musings, is his sense of the United States. U and I , his 1991 homage to Updike, is a bizarrely moving book. Baker may appear bonkers, but it is a deliberate act. He often manages to articulate the essence of something in a way few can. There is an immediacy at work that is deceptive and astute.
Travelling Sprinkler is a love story, and it culminates in a little episode that is more real and intimate than any sex could ever be. Aside from this moment at the end, it is a likeable book that may not be great but delights in empathy as well as the little barbs that ensure no reader is going to mistake Baker for a genial clown. He is even sharper than Garrison Keillor and far less coy. Baker has his little jokes, but he is also deeply serious. His observations about music are the best reasons for reading this book. Baker misses little, particularly when he is at his most disarming.
“Glenn Gould, you know, used to sing along while he played Bach. He was a hero of mine when I was in high school. I liked his clean staccato playing style. Later, when I got into Debussy’s Preludes and Grieg’s Lyric Pieces , I was less sure about him . . . Gould was a performer, not a creator. He was cold all the time. He took pills and he wore scarves and hats and coats indoors . . . What was missing from Gould’s art was very simple: love. His jumpy playing style showed that – or no, that’s a cheap shot. He sat very low in front of the piano and did beautiful things to it.”
Nicholson Baker writes fiction based not upon story but upon his personal world view. It is self-indulgent, but it is also unexpectedly daring and often very honest.