To celebrate the collected stories concert series curated by David Lang at Carnegie Hall (April 22-29), we’ll be posting pieces from past issues of the Believer that tie into with the themes of each show. The last concert in collected stories is Memoir, featuring the premiere of David Lang’s mystery sonatas, and work by John Cage, for which we’re posting Paul La Farge’s essay on the little Nicholson Baker in his mind (from the first issue of the Believer).
NICHOLSON BAKER IS NOT AS STRANGE AS PEOPLE SAY. IN FACT, HE MAY BE ENTIRELY NORMAL—EVEN MORE NORMAL THAN PROUST. OR NABOKOV! COMBINED! COULD IT BE THAT HE’S JUST A PLAIN OLD AMERICAN REALIST?
DISCUSSED:Small Mucoid Ejecta, Perec and Calvino, John Updike, Grocery Lists, A Box of Matches, the Envelope Hypothesis, Pale Fire, U and I, The Mezzanine, the Kingdom of Zembla, Boston, the Lands’ End Catalogue, the Real and the Good, Trains.
Once, when I was in college, one of my closest friends came down with something and developed strange white nodules in his throat. He stood in front of the mirror in our room (we were roommates that semester), his mouth wide open, transfixed by these growths; finally, by dint of a certain amount of coughing, he was able to get a few of them out of his throat into the palm of his hand. “Hey,” he said, “these nodules are really interesting.” “Uh huh,” I said. He held out his hand. “Look, they’re kind of shiny.” I turned away. “You have to see them,” he said. “They’re really strange looking.” “I don’t want to see your nodules,” I said. My roommate tried several more times to get me to look. He seemed surprised that I could be so incurious about the marvels his throat had worked. I felt a little bit guilty—shouldn’t I have been more curious? These were, after all, extraordinary nodules; I might never get a chance to see their like again. And he was showing them to me in the spirit of scientific inquiry. Human beings sometimes produce white nodules; if you want to know what it is to be human, really to understand how human beings work, you should know their unpleasant parts, their small mucoid ejecta, along with the features (faces, secondary sexual characteristics, clothes, thoughts) that interest you in the day-to-day. I was able to follow his reasoning; at bottom I thought I agreed with it, even. It is better to know things about the world than not to know them. But I couldn’t bring myself to look at the nodules.
Reading Nicholson Baker sometimes has the same effect on me. I admire his ability to bring the small features of the world to light; and in principle I agree that everything is interesting, and worthy of careful study, but there are times when I just don’t want to look. But Baker’s writing—like those nodules, probably—is contagious. Whether I want it to happen or not, I find my way of thinking about the world changed by an encounter with his books, and my way of writing, too—how else could I have come to a dense little phrase like “small mucoid ejecta”? To read Baker is to be infected by the desire to put every experience, however small, into words that describe it precisely. Having read a short stack of his novels by way of preparation for this review, I found myself considering pieces of refuse on the street with ferocious care. Grocery receipt, I thought, looking at a white scrap on the sidewalk, small purchase. Small store, too: you can tell from the purple ink. Big supermarkets use black ink nowadays. And so on, to the point where I had to turn off the tiny Nicholson Baker in my head, repeatedly, lest my attention be utterly absorbed by the world around me, leaving me paralyzed in the middle of a crosswalk. That’s one thing you can say about Baker: More than almost anyone writing today, he makes you look.
Precision is surely a good in itself; the writing manuals all say so, and in this case their dictum jibes with experience. If you write carefully about things, they do a better job of holding the reader’s attention; your friend’s mucoid ejecta are more likely to stick in the reader’s memory than someone else’s friend’s sore throat. Baker’s precision, however, is more than a gimmick to get the reader on board; it is a way of making a point—a “deeper” point, I’d say, if Baker didn’t seem to reject the whole idea of “deep” points—about how we experience the world. Near the end of Baker’s new novel, A Box of Matches, the narrator—Emmett, a middle-aged editor of medical textbooks—has something to say about envelopes:
A succession of days is like a box of new envelopes. Each envelop is flimsy and can be treated as two-dimensional. But when you pull out all the envelopes from the box at once, there is a hard place in the middle—a thick lump—that you wouldn’t expect envelopes to have. The lump is created by the intersection of the four triangles in the middle of the back … as you reach around them and squeeze them you feel the nugget, something that isn’t in the envelopes but is of the envelopes. I would almost say that there is a hint on the meaning of life there, in that revealed kernel.
Setting aside the orthographic peculiarity of envelop—although maybe Baker wants us to think of the verb, of the fact that envelopes are doing something—the point here is that surfaces are everything. Don’t bother looking for the meaning of life buried deep inside the appearances of everyday life; the deeper meaning, indeed, the very idea that there is a deeper meaning, is an effect produced by a stack of overlapping surfaces. Appearances are everything, and if that’s true, then there is good reason to observe them carefully. If you know the difference between a big-supermarket receipt and a small-supermarket receipt, you know more about the universe than the Zoroastrian mystic who has spent his whole life determining whether the Earth is guarded by three rings of demons or by five. And if you attain the insight that grocery receipts are all there is then, in a sense, you know everything there is to know; although in practice this insight is only useful when it’s continually applied.
And indeed, Baker’s novels—the early ones, at least, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, as well as the new one—put this insight continually into practice. Their absorption into the surfaces of the everyday world give rise to a particular kind of story, in which there aren’t very many characters, not much happens, and only a short amount of time passes, a strange and almost antinovelistic fiction that has been compared to the work of the European avant-gardists Perec and Calvino, to Borges’s tiny world-devouring stories, to Proust’s large world-encompassing ones, and to Sterne’s comical assault on everyone’s ideas about everything. If you read certain works by, say, Perec, you can see what these comparisons are about—Perec, like Baker, is fascinated by things, by lists of things, by descriptions that consist mostly of lists of things—but his work has an entirely different effect on the reader. Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual, a catalog of the contents of a Parisian apartment house, is vastly longer than The Mezzanine, and vastly loopier, too; it has at least one foot in the realm of the imagination, while Baker’s novel stands squarely in the concrete. Indeed, Baker himself seems almost puzzled by the comparison. In U and I, his brilliant, stalkerish appreciation of John Updike, Baker wonders why “not a single reviewer mentioned [Updike] as a possible antecedent.” The oversight is hard to understand, in that Baker’s minimalism really does seem to owe more to the American realist tradition—Updike’s tradition—than it does to Perec or Proust or to the American experimentalists Abish, Barth and even Barthelme, with whom Baker once studied, and for whom he feels a warm sympathy.
You get a sense of Baker’s relation to the Europeans in A Box of Matches. Some time before Emmett has his insight about the envelopes, he sits before his fire and muses on what he thinks of as “the ungraspableness of history”:
The ash was a very light grey, almost white, and very fine—composed mostly, I imagine, of clay, which doesn’t burn when paper burns. Henry [his son], who was watching me, said, “Dad, think of all the stuff we’ve burned, and it all goes down to this much.” It was only the third time I’ve shoveled out the fireplace. The ungraspableness of history, which can seem thrilling or frightening depending on your mood, can assert itself at any moment. I just found another small bedroll of lint in my automatic lint-accumulator and I tossed it into the fire: there was an almost imperceptible flare of differently colored fire—ah! lint fire—and it was gone. That is part of why I like looking at these burning logs: they seem like years of life to me. All the particulars are consumed and left as ash, but warm and life-giving as they burn.
This is the corollary to the Envelope Hypothesis: if the only real experience we have is of a succession of paper-thin moments, then history, and indeed the past, are as illusory as the idea of “deeper” meaning. The particulars of life—its most important characteristics—are exhausted by the passing of time, leaving only memory, which bears as little relation to the things it remembers as ash does to wood. Well, you might think, so much for Proust! The past won’t come whorling back from the bottom of a teacup; and as for that lost time—who lost it, baby? And whose problem is that? Of course, Emmett is typing these thoughts, so we have some record of them even after his fire has gone out. This by no means invalidates Baker’s point, which is that writing can record, but it cannot reconstruct—the best it could do in that direction would be to record someone’s attempt at reconstructing. By the same token, writing does not invent, although it can be the record of an invention—which brings us to the lovely italicized phrase lint fire, which appears between the logs of Emmett’s thought as if by accident.
A more apt image for Baker’s novel could not be found. Lint fireis not a bonfire but a small illumination, made from a material, lint, produced by the rubbing of the self against its soft surroundings. But for the careful reader, the phrase has another resonance as well. It’s an echo of Pale Fire, a book we know (v. U and I) Baker has read, by a writer—Nabokov—whom Baker numbers among his heroes. Pale Fire has the formal peculiarity of being divided between two “authors”: the American John Shade, to whom the poem “Pale Fire” is attributed; and the European exile Charles Kinbote, responsible for the commentary and the index. Shade, an academic who fusts in the rural splendor of New Wye, USA, bears a more than passing resemblance to A Box of Matches’ Emmett. Here is the poet speaking of his morning routine:
Since my biographer may be too staid
Or know too little to affirm that Shade
Shaved in his bath, here goes: “He’d fixed a sort
Of hinge-and-screw affair, a steel support
Running across the tub to hold in place
The shaving mirror right before his face
And with his toe renewing tap warmth, he’d
Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed.
Never mind that Emmett shaves in the shower, not the bath, or that he shaves by feel rather than with a mirror; the tone of this passage is Bakerian—or does the influence run in the other direction? Little matter; you can feel the kinship between the two writers in phrases like tap-warmth. The Anglo-Saxon noun-couple is at once new and familiar, like the thing—although you hadn’t realized, until you read the phrase tap-warmth, that it wasa thing—it describes. Baker would have been happy to coin it, but one doubts that he’s jealous: He has too many good ones of his own. Lint fire is his tiny gesture of indebtedness to the Nabokovian word-hoard; it’s a flicker in A Box of Matches’ steady burn, as if to say, yes, I like the Europeans, too.
THE MEN THAT DON’T FIT IN
The kinship between Shade and Emmett is a matter of more than well-chosen phrases. In their feeling about the relative importance of big things and little ones, the poet and the textbook editor are on the same philosophical page: “Now I shall speak of evil as none has / Spoken before,” Shade writes, but he invokes no vast abyss; the line concludes, “I loathe such things as jazz.” Or again:
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
The big questions Shade raises in “Pale Fire,” about life, death, and even life after death (“the grand potato,” he calls it), have only small answers: the shape of a shaving mirror, the silhouette of a bird seen through glass. And so back to Emmett and his stationery: what’s important is not text, the words the envelope might contain, but texture, the weave of the paper itself.
But this is only half the story. While Shade is writing about what is, Kinbote is frantically at work on what is not, or might not be, a fantastical account of kings and plots in the kingdom of Zembla, where not all is as it seems. This is a side of the Nabokovian style for which Baker, in A Box of Matches at least, has little sympathy. If Emmett is his Shade, then his Kinbote is the poet Robert Service, the author of Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, Lyrics of a Low Brow, Carols of an Old Codger, etc. Emmett reads Service nightly, but mentions only one of his works by name, a versicle called “The Men That Don’t Fit In.” He doesn’t quote the poem, which reads, in part:
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet plodding ones
Who win the lifelong race.
This is about as conservative as verse gets, about as conservative as art gets—it might as well have been titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republicans.” The poem is a paean to conformity, crossed with a lecture on the dangers of travel and inconstancy. It’s an unusual sentiment for a writer to take to heart; one expects writers to be in favor of travel, and of invention, in favor of new things if not, always, of strange ones. It’s almost as if Baker were refuting Nabokov, or having Emmett refute Nabokov: All of your crazy mirror-schemes, Vladimir, they’re just bunk! You have to pay attention to what’s here! Not the pale fire of the imagination, but the lint fire of the belly button.
How seriously are we supposed to take Service? Could he be some sort of ultra-Nabokovian ruse, a clown whose corners we’re supposed to see around, the way the clever reader figures out that Kinbote is a folding chair short of the whole lawn set? If Baker has introduced Robert Service into the novel as a figure of fun, then the humor is very subtle indeed. Emmett’s decision to read him is bound up with his decision to write down his thoughts—that is, with the whole project of the book:
On New Year’s morning this year Claire got us to drive to the ocean to watch the sun rise. That outing was what made me suddenly understand that I needed to start reading Robert Service again and getting up early—that New Year’s outing combined with the time a few months ago when I took the night sleeper car from Washington to Boston and woke up in my bunk and pulled the curtain to look out the window and saw that we were in the station in New York City, and I realized that I was passing through a very important center of commerce without seeing a single street and that something similar was happening to my life.
Unless we read A Box of Matches as parody from one end to the other—and Baker gives us no cue to do anything of the sort—we have to accept Service as a serious presence in Emmett’s reflections, of a piece with his understanding of envelopes. At most, there is a restlessness in Emmett that Service helps to assuage, a question, Is that all there is?, to which Service answers, resoundingly, Yes.
But is that all there is? Let’s play Kinbote for a moment, and consider when, exactly, Emmett decided not to let life pass him by. Baker has a habit of giving his characters his own outward characteristics: The narrator of The Mezzanine is roughly the age Baker was when he wrote it; the narrator of Room Temperature has an infant daughter and lives in the Boston suburbs; Baker had an infant daughter and lived in the Boston suburbs when he wrote Room Temperature. Consider: Emmett tells us he’s forty-four (although the jacket copy lists him as forty-five: Like Baker, he must have aged between the composition of the novel and its publication). Baker was born in 1957. If he and Emmett are the same age—conjecture, pure conjecture—then Emmett celebrated his forty-fourth birthday in 2001. A Box of Matches takes place in January. Which means either it’s January, 2001, and Emmett has just turned forty-four, or it’s January, 2002, and he has been forty-four for some time. We hear about pretty much the whole month over the course of the book. No birthday. And that means—conjecture, Dr. Kinbote, conjecture!—that this book takes place at the beginning of 2002. If that’s so, certain phrases in the passage above take on a muffled significance. A very important center of commerce: not to say a center of world trade, or a world trade center? And a few months ago was what, September or October of 2001? You don’t have to ask why Emmett would take a night sleeper car rather than, say, flying home. This is the only mention of New York in the novel, and it makes you wonder whether Emmett’s sleepy concern that something might pass unobserved masks a “deeper” concern, that something might be said.
Of course New York City is peripheral to Baker’s literary imagination, which is centered on Boston and its suburbs. Boston is the home of the Atlantic Monthly, which published some of Baker’s first essays, and which, about a hundred and twenty years before that, published four poems by a young and talented writer named William Dean Howells. In time Howells became the Atlantic’s editor, a position which was in those days even more influential, within literary circles at least, than it is now; he used his power to promote a kind of writing which has become known as “American realism.” The notion of a specifically American realism, as distinct from French realism or British realism or international realism, belongs to Howells and to his friend Henry James, who also lived in Cambridge, and who also published in the Atlantic. As Howells (mostly) conceived it, American realism undertook to represent emotions and experiences that people had in common—not just what was, but what people could relate to, what they had felt in their own lives. Like the nation that spawned it, American realism was to be a democratic art; and, for Howells at least, its democraticness had strong ethical implications. Conditions in this country, he wrote, “invite the artist to the study and the appreciation of the common, and to the portrayal in every art of those finer and higher aspects which unite rather than sever humanity.” Notice how common shades into finer and higher: The common is what we agree to define ourselves with, and, because we like to think of ourselves as good people, for the most part, the common is tugged in the direction of goodness. Howells allowed his work to be pulled along in the same direction, towards the happy, the righteous, and the comfortable. He saw no problem with the bias. “If our novelists concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life,” he wrote, “it is because they are more American.” (For James, the common and the good were not so easily equated. Indeed, as his imagination took root in Europe, and flourished there, James was to chide his old friend for a nationalism that bordered on sentimentality: “If American life is on the whole more innocent than that of any other country,” he wrote, “nowhere is the fact more patent than in Mr. Howells’ novels, which exhibit so constant a study of the actual and so small a perception of evil.” It is worth noting that James, who was no stranger to evil, also wrote that the good, when they died, would go to Paris, while the wicked would be sent to Boston.)
After Howells, American realism veered in the direction of the dark and squalid, with Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris; then the pendulum swung the other way, with William Saroyan and Pearl S. Buck; and it has been swinging ever since, alternating between an increasingly tiny hope and an ever smaller despair. Realism itself has fallen in and out of fashion, but it remains the cesium atom for American writers, the element against whose oscillations all other styles are measured. And in its bones, American realism remains Howells’s child. Disparaging other styles of fiction, written by Europeans and men in velvet suits, Howells asserted that “the talent that is robust enough to front the every-day world and catch the charm of its work-worn, care-worn, brave, kindly face, need not fear the encounter, though it seems terrible to the sort nurtured in the superstition of the romantic, the bizarre, the heroic, the distinguished, as the things alone worthy of painting or carving or writing.” This is a story about genres that has gotten into the ground-water, so to speak, from which American writers drink. The everyday is worn but still brave and kind—one imagines a farmer, or a middle manager, but not a bank president (in stereotype sleek and pale) or a union organizer (sallow and grumpy). Arrayed against our kindly laborer are a gang of adjectives that suggest Old World inequality (distinguished is particularly rich, with its connotations of “aristocratic” but also somehow “grey-haired,” as in the phrase a distinguished gentleman), weakness of character, and perhaps even (bizarre!) mental infirmity. When you play the game of fiction-writing with a deck stacked in this manner, the outcome is not in doubt. You get stories about men and women of modest means, living outside the big cities, burdened with jobs and perhaps families (how else do you get to be care-worn?) but unencumbered by anything too odd, too romantic, or too distinguished. This is the tradition that leads from Howells to Dreiser, from Dreiser to Yates and Bellow (some of him, anyway) and Updike (ditto), and, through him, to Baker.
Baker’s style of close observation may seem like a departure from Howells’s realism—didn’t it earn him comparisons to the bizarre Perec and the distinguished Proust?—but in fact it’s a way to preserve the central tenet of the genre, namely, that the real and the good are in cahoots. The everyday isn’t what it used to be, if it was ever the way it used to be; in the century since Howells, its kindly face has been distended almost beyond recognition by mass media, freeways, and disposable consumer products. Some writers have responded to these changes with revulsion. Philip Roth: It’s difficult “to understand, describe, and then makecredible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” So Roth retreats to the self, which he calls “the only real thing in an unreal environment,” and other writers adopt their own strategies of avoidance: DeLillo has his satire and gnomic Baudrillardism; Pynchon his paranoid wonderlands, etc. Only Baker has found a way to make the environment real again. By restricting his focus drastically, he undoes the effects of mass production, mass distribution and mass communication. His writing makes each thing it considers seem singular and somehow magical—little wonder that the Home Depot in A Box of Matches is staffed by bearded dwarves, as though it were Santa’s workshop. Here Emmett watches a woman shop for a toilet seat:
She looked at it from several angles—a big angelic oval in the air above the heads of the ground-level shoppers—and then she handed it down to her husband. He held it for a while, nodding, then handed it back up to her. She rehung it on its hooks.
An angelic toilet seat! The image harkens more to the supernaturalism of, say, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma at the end of Kafka’s Amerika than to the bustle of a Home Depot during daylight hours. It’s as though time had stopped, the way it does in The Fermata or, really, in the Lands’ End catalogue—as though we were back in an era when each thing was made by hand, or, better yet, by miracle, with no end in mind but to enchant you with its usefulness.
The problem is, the real and the good aren’t always in cahoots. There are quiet, omnipresent badnesses, like acid rain or the plastic six-pack holders that end up strangling waterfowl; and there are big, spectacular badnesses like war—a very large supply of reasons to be tired of the things that are, and to wish that people would, say, drive electric-cars, however strange and new they may seem. I’m sure Nicholson Baker would be in favor of electric cars, too—he strikes me as an electric cars sort of person. But there’s a small point to be made here, and it’s one that you don’t find in A Box of Matches: To see past the things at hand to the world that produced them, you need imagination. Maybe not the virulent Kinbote variety, which sees conspiracy in a blade of grass (six-pack holders? Petroleum products! Iraqi oil!), but the sober Shade-y kind of imagination, which considers small things because, if you look at them right, the chance resemblances between them seem to form a pattern which is no less beautiful for being (in all likelihood) illusory. This is where Shade and Emmett part ways:
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something ofthe same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
Life is a game; little matter if you will never know who the players are, or how it turns out. The point of living is to enjoy guessing at the purpose those unknowable players had in arranging this or that coincidence—to get into the spirit of the game, in other words. The alternative is death, or something very like it. If you think about things too much, you become like a thing—stare too long at a grocery receipt on the sidewalk, and see for yourself. To keep walking, you need a story about what you are doing, and why—going out for cigarettes, running away from home. And things in themselves aren’t a story, any more than envelopes are a message. To tell a story you need imagination, which, precisely because it is outside (or inside, if you prefer) the envelope of experience, gives you a perspective from which to understand that there’s more to envelopes than the presence or absence of a security pattern, the variety of adhesive, and the thickness of the paper—that the envelope has a use, the transmission of letters, which no amount of meditation on the thingness of the envelope alone will reveal. This is Shade’s “plexed artistry,” the sense that life is lived for something, and it is no less important for being completely imaginary. To believe otherwise is to sleep while the train carries you along.
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