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”.