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.