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Nicholson Baker’s Splendid Digressions

Nicholson Baker’s thirteenth book, House of Holes (Simon & Schuster, $25, 272 pp.), provides an occasion to consider his extraordinary life as a writer, which began with his first novel, The Mezzanine, in 1988. Baker, like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, seems to me a true American original, and more than either of them—certainly more than Franzen—his books show a variousness and compelling oddity.

House of Holes is not a novel or a collection of linked short stories, but, as its subtitle confesses, A Book of Raunch: a group of short vignettes of matters sexual. It sounds like pornography, but—as I will suggest later on—is something else. Yet Baker’s previous six novels were not exactly novels either—surely much less so at any rate than the long, plot-packed, character-filled narratives of Franzen, or even the tortuous contortions of language and incident that mark the pages of Wallace, both fiction and “non.” Some years back, in an interview, Baker opined that one day he would like to write a big novel, replete with characters, but that “I get to the point where there should be a major thing that goes wrong and I don’t want it to happen”—a declaration extremely revealing of a temperament and worldview.

Baker began his career with two novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, which are about as far from the “big novel” as books could be. No plot, no characters, only the continuous first-person presence of a voice that never lets up in its relentless explorations of life’s trivia: a broken shoelace; the act of pulling on one’s socks; how the composition of drinking straws has changed over the years; how milk moved from bottles to the “peaked roofs” of cartons; how CVS stores have an “uncertain, childish kinkiness and indirection to them, mixing so many kinds of privateness together in one public store” (like decongestants, shoelaces, Maalox, sanitary napkins). One of the funniest and (for males) embarrassingly lifelike sequences in The Mezzanine addresses the experience of standing next to someone at a public urinal and being unable to urinate; our embarrassed hero tortures himself by imagining his neighbor musing, “Wait, I don’t think I heard that guy actually going! I think he stood there for a minute, faked that he had taken a piss, and then flushed and took off! How very weird! That guy has a problem.

Baker offers up a key to his narrative procedures in a passage in U&I, a book focused on his obsession with John Updike, when he quotes a warning from his idol about not clogging the narrative with set pieces or other “digressions.” For Baker, on the contrary, “The only thing I like are the clogs.” Looking back at The Mezzanine he confesses that what he had aimed at in writing the book was “a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers, the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked-for seepage-points of passage.” Like its predecessors, U&I is one narrative clogger after another, as the Baker persona struggles with his worshipful relation to Updike, the man and his works. This involves much inspecting of the narrative sentences the acolyte has, as it were, just written, in the process uncovering his “pretense of being a direct, enthusiastic, slightly crazed, fringe, no-bullshit idiot savant who pipes up in opposition to Updike’s peerless, polished, mainstream, genteel lucidity.” The sentence continues by noting the injustice of using “genteel” for someone “much too smart, too sneaky, too sexually appetitive, and too mean to fill that bill.” After which the following chapter begins by asserting: “Mean? Yes, he is mean.”

What holds Baker’s best books together is the performing voice that issues from their center—a voice that is (vague words will have to do here) appealing, affable, insouciant, apologetic, uncontentious, and reasonable while apologizing for moments of seeming unreason. Baker’s domestic affiliations are more than once made genially explicit: U&I, for example, is filled with affectionate remarks about his parents, while Room Temperature and The Everlasting Story of Nory feature his daughter as infant and young girl. He is often show-offy, but the show is always alleviated by some winning touch of humorous reflection. Relatedly, Baker is very far from being anything like a satirist, seeming to take no pleasure in tearing down either his characters or his real-world subjects. In Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper—a passionate book about the folly of libraries converting their newspapers and magazines to microfilm—he interviews a number of librarians enthusiastic about the very process he condemns. But he refuses to take potshots at their shortsightedness. For all its passion, there is also something trusting, even boyish, about Baker’s outlook. In the interview where he lamented his inability to write about “a major thing that goes wrong,” he added that “I don’t feel entitled [to do so], because very few bad things have happened to me.” Such a direct and amiable manner does not easily conduce to satiric disdain or tragic despair.

But if Baker’s life hasn’t produced major things that go wrong, he has found them in American culture and politics. In 1999 his passion and disappointment were aroused by the British Library’s preparing to junk its collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American newspapers—and in a truly extravagant gesture, one seemingly of a piece with the overall extravagance of his literary career, he purchased many thousands of books and bundles and had them shipped to be stored in a mill not far from his house in Maine. A similar, albeit more political, “intervention” is represented by two books that take war as their subject. The first of these, Checkpoint (2003), is a tiny novel consisting of a dialogue between two men, one of whom, hunkered down in a Washington hotel room, has decided to assassinate President George W. Bush, mainly because of the war in Iraq. Jay tries to talk Ben out of his decision, and seemingly succeeds, but not before graphic details emerge of some horrors attendant on the Iraq enterprise—horrors that leave no doubt about where the author himself stands.

While Checkpoint is the rare Baker work without an “I” narrator, the book in which a central consciousness is most glaringly absent is Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008). The work consists of a chronological arrangement of newspaper items and features from the years immediately preceding and continuing into World War II; Baker offers no intervening narrative comment whatsoever beyond identification of the item’s day and year. In effect, the reader is invited to consult the evidence and judge whether this was a “good” or just or necessary war—and the answer, even without a mediating narrator, seems indisputably negative. Other writers have worked similar ground, seeking to complicate our sense of World War II and its meaning; to take one example, in 1989’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Paul Fussell, a critic, cultural historian, and former Army officer, spoke out strongly against the “sanitized” version of the war typically presented to Americans. In contrast to Wartime’s forceful authorial judgments, Human Smoke exudes a do-it-yourself quality, its lack of explicit commentary resolutely in accord with Baker’s penchant for never doing things in the expected manner.

This roundabout approach extends to the theme and preoccupation for which Nicholson Baker is best known: sex. His erotic trilogy began with 1992’s Vox, a hot-and-bothered phone-sex novel said to have been given as a present by Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton. The Fermata, the second and by far the best of the three sex books, details (a useless word applied to this novelist of excruciating detail) the career of Arno Strine, an office temp whose major gift is the ability to stop time in the world around him and enter what he calls “The Fold.” His main motive in so doing is the desire to take women’s clothes off. Strine’s daily temp task, transcribing audio tapes, has made him especially sensitive to “the editability of the temporal continuum,” so that what seems at first hearing like a seamless vocalization “may actually elide, glide over, hide whole self-contained vugs of hidden activity or distraction—sneezes, expletives, spilled coffee, sexual adventures—within.” Such observations make Arno endearing rather than creepy, at least to this reader, while showcasing the typical Baker originality of sentence (“‘Rot makes life,’ I sighed happily to myself, thinking of lonely old Henry James.”)

The two tales about “Marian the librarian” inserted in The Fermata, even though designed as clever interruptions of the book’s larger narrative, are indistinguishable from pornography. House of Holes, much as the language may often look like it, is not pornographic. “Authentic” pornographic writing attempts to incite the reader in an erotic manner. It must sound as if its narrative were “real,” and most surely not call attention to its author or narrator as a very odd writer—in other words, it must not direct us to language rather than event. And it must tell a continuous story that pushes us from one part to the next, with alternations between “hot” and less hot scenes. House of Holes doesn’t meet these requirements. No narrative overall, but a series of short “chapters” in which figures with names like Shandee, Rhumpa, Ruzty, and Pendle visit the House, seeking various kinds of sexual adventure or rehabilitation: one man is searching for a lost penis; one woman desires an oversized ass. These episodes are nothing if not, well, playful, both in concept and execution. When D. H. Lawrence, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, had Mellors preach a sermon about the goodness, the rightness of the old English four-letter words for talking about sex and body parts, he did not perhaps envision what his American successor would come up with in the way of inventing zany new words (for example, babymaker, beatstick, longdog, Lincoln Stiffins) for one of those body parts.

To give the flavor of this odd book, I quote the openings of three representative sections: “Shandee...met Zilka for melon and a croissant at the terrace restaurant overlooking the Garden of the Wholesome Delightful Fuckers.... Wade woke up in his hotel room and pressed W., for woman, on the Sex Now button of his remote control....” and “Since she’d surfed the lake, Henriette had received two invitations to the Masturboats and visited the Hall of Penises.” The “book of raunch” often sounds like Sex Fables for Curious Children; there’s a kind of wide-eyed reportorial, though mischievous, impartiality with which the “hot” events of conventional pornography are cooled down into a kind of weird poetry. The usual names for porn-related prose (“steamy,” “kinky,” etc.) seem totally inadequate for Baker’s inventive diction. Samuel Johnson called Pope’s Rape of the Lock “the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions,” and in this regard we may compare House of Holes with Pope’s sequence in Book IV where the sylph, Ariel, visits the Cave of Spleen:

         Here living Teapots stand, one arm held out,

         One bent; the handle this, and that the spout:

         A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;

         Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pie talks;

         Men prove with child, as powerful fancy works,

         And maids turn’d bottles, call aloud for corks.

Where the Cave of Spleen is a dystopia served up for treatment in ludicrous fashion, Baker’s House of Holes, animated in its composition by a similar ludicrous-making impulse, is a utopia. Nothing goes wrong for very long at the House of Holes; gratification of one sort or another invariably occurs as everyone gets what he or she came for. In a shrewd review of Vox, Deborah Garrison noted that all Baker’s writing, not just the explicitly sexual part, was “sexy,” since his inordinate “riffing on detail” consorts easily with extended foreplay and deliciously delayed climax. The particularly utopian aspect of House of Holes means that, in Baker’s words, there is no “major thing” that goes wrong; in that sense the book is as far away from a Real Novel as anything he’s yet produced.

At one point in The Fermata, Arno Strine reflects on his skill at stopping time and entering The Fold, “the place of ultimate loneliness”; being alone this way, he muses, is like being suspended “in a solvent medium of loneliness.” Nicholson Baker has confessed in an interview that he is by nature a contrarian; such a nature both conduces to and supplements the impulse to cultivate loneliness. In his brilliant essay “Lumber,” he pits himself against the forty-thousand English Poetry Database by Chadwyck-Healey, “the greatest CD-ROM reference work yet created,” by way of exploring the word “lumber” as it was used in older English writers, to signify heaped-up, useless odds and ends that might be kept in a lumber room. This is a writer who (in Double Fold) fought against the destruction of hard-copy newspapers “converted” to microfilm, and one might think that “Lumber” would chart a triumph by the assiduous “contrarian” researcher over the marvels of electronic access. Not so. By the end of the 150-page essay Baker finds that using “lateral access” for “nine lumberlost months” has enabled him to “read more, read deeper, read with more curiosity, joy, fanaticism than he had since early college days.” Uncannily, he makes the reader (this reader, anyway) participate and share in the curiosity and joy of literary exploration.

In a similar way, The Anthologist, his best novel—and indeed his novel that is most like a novel, with a plot, progression, a sympathetic human being at the center—a similar thing happens. After the putative anthologist, Paul Chowder, has conducted his lonely, joyfully contrarian endeavor to convince us how poetry should be sounded, read, and thought about, he produces a wonderful definition of the art, calling it “a controlled refinement of sobbing.” For all its “specialist” subject (matters of prosody are not what most readers look for in a novel), The Anthologist seems to me the place where a reader new to Baker might begin—then follow his or her impulse in whatever direction, to whatever book of his seems implied next. But wherever you start with Nicholson Baker, I’m betting it won’t be long before you are moved to recognize, along with Charles McGrath in the New York Times Magazine (August 7), that you are reading “one of the most beautiful, original, and ingenious prose stylists to come along in decades.”

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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