The erudite novelist and essayist ponders obsessions both old (newspapers and rare books) and new (Kindle 2, Wikipedia, video games).
Very little escapes the attention of Baker (House of Holes, 2012, etc.), whether it’s the small details of old jobs, fleeting summers, technology—both dying and cutting edge—or odd but fascinating obscurities. He likes to find the form in abstractions. In “I Said to Myself,” he digs away at questions many fiction writers have considered at one time or another: What does a person really sound like when he talks to himself? Are thoughts sentences? Should they be placed between quotes, or was James Joyce right to get rid of those? Baker also wants to preserve the past even as he warily embraces the future. In an essay about gondoliers, he refers to the gondola as “an ancient and noble boat, which summed up many lost beautiful things.” Baker is a champion of beauty on the verge of vanishing, whether it involves old newspapers or rare books tossed out by space-squeezed libraries, or Wikipedia entries on forgotten Beat poets. He’s against destruction on principle, as he shows in a defense of pacifism, in which he argues that wars only create retribution and violence. An “armistice without victory” would have saved more Jews in World War II, he believes, a deeply felt if unconvincing hindsight proposition. He prefers war as a video game—and who doesn’t?—such as Modern Warfare 2, which turns out to be “an unjingoistic, perhaps completely cynical amusement.”
Not a major work, but a thoughtful collection from a writer who, to quote his own description of Daniel Defoe, has “an enormous appetite for truth and life and bloody specificity.”
Baker (The Everlasting Story of Nory, 1998, etc.) applies his fine-tooth comb—or magnifying glass—to a short and tightly controlled meander through the hyper-dailiness of domestic life—in a kind of extended prose haiku.
Emmett begins getting up very early each cold morning to start the fireplace and sit in front of it—say, around four or five o’clock. This habit may have started after his wife took the family “to see the sunrise on New Year’s morning,” and it’s going to continue only as long as Emmett’s box of matches holds out—for 33 short little chapters, each beginning with “Good morning.” “What you do first thing can influence your whole day,” says Emmett. His own regimen is to make coffee, light the fire, eat an apple (all in the dark), then touch-type on his laptop the day’s batch of words, the ones we’re reading. What does he talk about? His belly-button lint (he tosses it in the fire), urination (whether to stand up or sit down), beards (he shaves his, then changes his mind), the almost-clogged shower drain. There are, admittedly, other matters, conveyed often with considerable charm: amusing descriptions of the family’s pet duck (named Gertrude), the tale of a doomed ant farm, tender observations about Phoebe (14 and self-conscious), a recounting of Emmett’s first date with wife Claire (a walk to a cash machine), of getting the flu (“My head swivels listlessly, like a brussels sprout in boiling water”), of Henry’s desire (at eight) to be close to his father, even memories of Emmett’s first typewriter (an Olivetti) and first briefcase (good quality). But somehow Emmett fails, throughout all his associative maunderings, to grow deeper, or weightier, or therefore engaging. He observes as much as thinks; treats all things in a single tone; and seems gratuitous and inflated when he says, “I want to take care of the world.”
From Baker (A Box of Matches, 2003, etc.), a tiny little slip of a thing about—about what? About assassinating George W. Bush?
Yup. And a droll piece of work it is, at times even hilarious. A fellow named Jay, it seems, has called an old friend named Ben, saying to Ben that he must talk with him, urgently. Ben drives like mad to DC, goes to the hotel room Jay is staying in, helps Jay put a 390-minute audiotape into a tape machine, then turn it on and test it (“JAY: Testing, testing. Testing. Testing”). Once it’s running, the book begins, the whole portrayed as a two-man closet drama consisting of what the tape records. A bit of small talk—the two haven’t seen each other for quite a spell—and then, bingo: “JAY: I’m going to assassinate the president.” (“BEN: You’re shitting me, right?”) Nope, no shit. At least, it seems that’s the answer, since Jay even has a view of the White House—or thinks he does, that the house of the Prez is just behind a certain clump of trees—an early hint of Jay’s lack of a perfect grip on reality. He’s got magic bullets, he says. And little razor-sharp discs that fly through the air. And other things, including a gun. And, boy, does he have complaints. The nation’s biggest employer is Wal-Mart, he declares: “Sam Walton’s kids are some of the richest people in the world. The money those four have . . . [It’s] enough to make you shit. It’s like they’re sitting in tiny rubber dinghies, floating on seas of hog waste. And it all came from those stores. Our country’s dying, man! We’re killing people and we’re dying at the same time! I brought a hammer along.” High humor, ghastly seriousness (Jay really does have a gun), and a great question, to remain unanswered here: Does he do it?
An absolute treasure for anti-Bushists, the purest sin-and-snake-venom deceit and villainy to pro-Bushists. Let the reader-voter call it.
In a passionate cri de coeur sure to raise controversy and alarm, novelist Baker (The Everlasting Story of Nory, 1998, etc.) accuses America’s librarians of betraying the public trust as they rush to microfilm and digitize.
Since the 1950s, writes Baker, American libraries have been microfilming newspapers and discarding the originals because, they claimed, paper manufactured since 1850 from wood pulp (more acidic than its rag-based predecessor) was rapidly crumbling to dust and would soon be unreadable. “Absolute nonsense,” retorts Baker, quoting a paper conservation scholar who claims that, when properly stored, old newspapers and books do not disintegrate. The real agenda of the “reformatters”—and among Baker’s principle villains are such respected library names as Fremont Rider, Verner Clapp, Peter Sparks, and Patricia Battin—is to save shelf space and cut costs. That’s why they also manufactured a “brittle books” crisis (based largely on the inappropriate double-fold test that gives this work its title) to convince Congress and the public that old books also should be filmed or computer-scanned and thrown away. In a blistering point-by-point rebuttal, Baker points out that microfilming costs more in the long term than building additional storage facilities; that library users loathe microfilm, which is hard to read at best and undecipherable at worst; that quality control has been so sketchy that whole months are missing from newspaper runs supposedly filmed in their entirety; and that it's inexcusable to destroy books’ bindings in order to film them when spring-balanced book cradles have been available since the 1930s. Digital storage is also ridiculously expensive, and the image comes nowhere near matching the paper original. Due to the author’s eagerness to dismember every justification offered by his opponents, the narrative has a relentless comprehensiveness that may weary even the most sympathetic reader. It’s leavened by acid humor: Baker remarks of one librarian’s metaphor comparing microfilming to chemotherapy, “radiation therapy . . . has a reasonable chance of keeping a patient alive [while] your typical late-eighties preservation-reformatter disposed of the patient after a last afternoon on the X-ray table.”
If even half of what Baker alleges is true, some of America's most honored librarians have a lot of explaining to do.
A catalog of primary sources creatively fashioned by novelist and National Book Critics Circle Award–winner Baker (Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, 2001, etc.) tells the grim story of the making of two world wars.
Using period sources such as newspaper articles, excerpts from speeches and diaries and congressional testimony, Baker presents an in-the-moment reenactment of 20th-century world events. He begins in 1914 with Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s alarm at observing a French movie crowd’s angry reaction to seeing Wilhelm II on the newsreel (“how easily people anywhere could be aroused in a time of a crisis”) and ends poignantly with Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian’s diary entry from Bucharest at the close of the “dreadful year” 1941: “We are still alive. We can still wait for something.” Baker’s chronological collage juxtaposes official government maneuvers by Churchill or Roosevelt with antiwar activity such as U.S. Representative Jeannette Rankin’s vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917 (“I felt…that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it”). Eloquent quotes from Gandhi reflect momentous events in India; bombastic speeches by Hitler and Goebbels chronicle the Nazi seizure of power in Germany; evasive utterances by Roosevelt finesse the issue of raising Jewish immigration quotas on the eve of World War II. The mostly brief, descriptive fragments delineate, for example, Charles Lindbergh’s perplexity at Germany’s “Jewish problem,” while eyewitnesses describe the bombing of Guernica, Shanghai and Coventry. Baker reveals a weighty pacifist presence and moral outcry against oppression of the Jews in Europe, while authorities hurtled toward a military solution. His selections contrast the inhumanity of the powerful with the heart-wrenching testimony of victims and survivors.
Similar to but less noisy than John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.: Selective, well-chosen fragments add up to a living history.
Novelist/polemicist Baker (Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, 2008, etc.) takes a nullity as a protagonist.
Narrator Paul Chowder is a published poet of more renown than many. He has accepted a commission to compile and write the introduction for an anthology of rhymed verse entitled—perhaps with a nod toward E.M. Forster—Only Rhyme. Otherwise, Paul is defined by the nothingness of his life. Though the novel initially appears to concern his attempt to write the anthology introduction, it ultimately exhausts most of its narrative on his avoidance of writing it. Paul’s editor sends him threatening e-mails. His devoted girlfriend of eight years leaves him, exasperated. He can’t quite let her go, but he also can’t quite make himself write, or even start, that introduction. Instead, he cleans his office. He attempts to trap a mouse—ambivalently, for the rodent has become his major companion. He lays a floor for his neighbor. And he thinks so much about poetry and poets that it’s clear he could write the introduction at any point, if only he could find the proper tone and format. (He thinks maybe three or four sentences could pass, but the intro could just as easily balloon to more than 200 pages.) Despite his matter-of-fact composure and the chatty tone of his narrative, Paul is always on the verge of breaking down. He rails against the standard elevation of iambic pentameter in the poetic pantheon and builds his case for the four-beat line as all-American meter. He thinks of poets in an oddly chummy manner and holds imaginary conversations with the likes of “Ted” Roethke (“Whoa, Ted…Sounds a little like Dr. Seuss, except dark”). He reveals that he previously worked for a mutual fund and fled teaching in the middle of a semester, before turning to writing poetry—or not writing poetry, or not writing about poetry—full time.
The author’s characteristic obsessiveness and attention to minutiae will appeal mainly to those who know and care as much about poetry as Paul.
The author of The Fermata (1994), among others, offers an extended dramatic monologue by a nine-year-old American girl living in England, a plotless series of riffs exploring the curiosities of a life among English-speaking foreigners. It’s a promising idea, and Baker, a dedicated miniaturist who got an entire novel (Mezzanine, 1988) out of a trip to buy a pair of shoelaces, ought to have found such a venue congenial. There are dangers, however, that he wasn—t entirely able to avoid.For one thing, tininess is not inevitably interesting,but can seem merely trivial. “Babies learn the words for their feet and toes and fingers quite early,” his nine-year-old Nory observes, “because they can hold them close to their faces, and they learn about their eyes and nose and mouth because they are on their faces, but for some reason they are never terribly interested in their ankles.” This leads into a consideration of how Achilles’ mother dipped him “head-first into the Watersticks,” and, Nory explains, how “she held him by pinching hard on the back part of the foot, above his heel.— If one is delighted by the misprision of “Watersticks” for the Water Styx, and persuaded by the youthful trendiness of such adverbs as “tremendously” and “totally,” then this extended take offers a certain low-level charm. For those with less tolerance for the narrator’s cuteness (or the author’s delight in his own imposture), that charm is likely to wear thin very quickly.And once that happens, the reader will start to notice all the small errors, which in this kind of performance are nearly fatal. Nory remembers her fear of the Tweety monster, which was “just simply a monster version of Tweety-bird in a Sylvester and Tweety tape—Tweety turned into it when he drank a special potion. No reason to be scared of a casual little cartoon.” What, the word —casual— from a nine-year-old? It rings wrong, totally. (Author tour)
The talented Baker returns with sex for sophisticates, making Vox (1992) seem like a warmup exercise. A 35-year-old office temp and grad-school dropout, Arno Stine has the ability to stop the flow of time—a talent he discovered when he had a case for his fourth-grade teacher ``and wanted to see her with fewer clothes on.'' Which he did, by switching on a toy transformer and, when everything around him was struck into a time- frozen motionlessness, taking off his own clothes and a pretty good number of Miss Dobzhansky's. Ever since, he's been doing what he calls the ``Drop,'' putting the entire universe on pause and dropping into the ``fold'' or the ``fermata,'' pretty much at will, by flicking a switch, pushing his glasses up, or snapping his fingers. And what does he do when everything except himself goes on hold (and even the raindrops stop falling)? Well, mainly he masturbates—and masturbates and masturbates—often with, or near, or onto, women whom, under cover of the time-freeze, he's disrobed, or followed home, or in one ingenious way or another aroused with an aim to observing them (and joining them, separate and unseen) in orgasm. Arno considers himself harmless, tenderhearted, sensitive, even considerate (he's fond of ``giving'' sex toys to women, who'll never know where they came from), but to the reader he's—well, a one-note symphony, indisputably a gifted stylist (he's writing—as you read it—his autobiography), but psychologically pretty much skin (and more skin and more skin) deep. Arno Stine is, by and large, more interesting to watch than listen to. The metaphor of time-stop as art-power, and art-power as sex- power, has its allure. But drama is drama and porn porn, this among the most literary-respectable of the latter that money can buy.
On a private adult phone-sex line, Jim, a West Coaster in his late 20s, connects with East Coast Abby. Birds of a feather—both of them witty, obsessive, yuppie masturbators—they're off, trading stories and fantasies and the psychopathologies of everyday life. Baker (The Mezzanine, Room Temperature), heretofore more a monologist, a literary performance artist, than much of a novelist, folds his deadpan honesty and funny fussiness double—and though Jim and Abby finally seem so much like the same voice that they don't really qualify as characters, they don't have to: Baker has found a conceptual format, the phone sex, perfectly tailored to his talents. This is a mini-epic of Big Chill—ed safe-sex: rambling stories that start out as aids to titillation but dry and crumble into homely and self-satisfied details that challenge eroticism; the overturning of classical seduction theory (here, both the man and woman, unseen to each other, know that the other has his/her hand on his/her self); lots of little snappy apercus and joshings establish intellectual coziness. The tropes of modern sex—olive oil, VCRs, copying machines, the letters in Penthouse Forum—are traded breezily, sometimes hilariously, but are nothing compared to the main technological thrill; after Abby tells him exactly how she masturbates in the shower, Jim (in the book's best and most concentrated moment) declares it a miracle, ```a telephone conversation I want to have. I love the telephone.''' And Baker does expose a strange kind of dignity, in that Jim and Abby aren't using each other for very much more than as instruments of exemption from embarrassment. Quite a literary season for self-relief! First Harold Brodkey as the Mahler, the Liszt, of the hand-job, now Nicholson Baker as its David Letterman.
Baker returns to the eroticism of his earlier Vox (1995) and The Fermata (1994) but kicks it up about a dozen notches.
There’s no plot to speak of here—just couplings in every conceivable (and many inconceivable) way. Some characters recur from chapter to chapter, yet they’re fairly interchangeable, and Baker aims to disconcert readers with breezy surrealism. In the opening chapter, Shandee finds an arm on a field trip with her Geology 101 class, and this appendage quickly informs her (because it’s able to write) that it’s known as “Dave’s arm.” She discovers it can give considerable pleasure, the kind of sexual climax that all his characters seek. The title alludes to a kind of “portkey” that sucks characters through various holes (straws, the backs of dryers, putting greens) into a phantasmagorical alternative universe presided over by the formidable Lila. In this “house of holes,” suffice it to say that weird things are the norm: Reversible crotch transfers, for example, result in gender-bendering; women have sex with headless men; men hump holes in a sex field; we hear rumors of the Cock Ness monster; a character named Rhumpa visits the “pornmonster,” who grows bigger the more that porn is sucked out of the world...and these are just a few of the exploits coyly alluded to—others are even more graphic and bizarre. Even a put-together Dave makes an appearance toward the end.
Baker explores a fine line between eroticism and pornography here, and were it not for his wit and verbal play, the latter would win out.