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A BOX OF MATCHES by Nicholson Baker


by Nicholson Baker

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-50287-4
Publisher: Random House

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.”

Skilled. Often charming. Minor.