I’ve just finished Nicholson Baker’s latest novel, The Anthologist. It’s just wonderful. It makes me so happy. He writes like a dream.
The novel is about a minor American poet, Paul Chowder, who has been asked to compile an anthology of rhyming verse, Only Rhyme. (Chowder,
though being a free versifier himself, has recently become a convert to
the joys of rhyming poetry.) He has chosen his poems and has only to
write the introduction. But he can’t do it. He procrastinates, he allows
himself to become distracted, he undertakes unnecessary side-projects,
he lets the process of moving his books and papers and setting up an
office in which to write overwhelm the introduction. This is the last
straw for his partner Roz, who despairs of his lack of drive and
commitment and leaves him. The book details his attempts to finish the
introduction, or rather his continuing inability to focus on the task.
Towards the end of the book he has a crisis of some kind while teaching
poetry in Switzerland and returns to finish the introduction, which he
does, at great length. It is suggested that this book is perhaps that
I love Nicholson Baker so much. I got into him right at the start when The Mezzanine came out, and bought it for loads of people. Then Room Temperature, which I saw him read from at Waterstones, Charing Cross Road, RIP. I&U,
his strange book about Updike (or rather his ongoing literary
relationship with Updike), came next, then a swerve into two very sexual
books, Vox and The Fermata,
both somewhat pornographic in tone and intention. Beautifully written
but I felt that it was a body-swerve that I wasn’t really keen to
follow. I dropped him for a bit. I couldn’t whip up enthusiasm for his
children’s story or his campaign to save newspaper libraries. But then A Box of Matches came out; beautiful, elegant, minute but exact. Checkpoint
was slight but insinuating: a dialogue between two men, one of whom is
determined to assassinate George Bush. And now this, certainly his best
novel since The Mezzanine.
It’s about writer’s block and sadness
and middle age and love and it’s really really about poetry. Really, the
character goes on about it, often when he really should be writing his
introduction (though finally you realise he has been). Without seeming
like a fogey he traces the wrong turning of Marinetti Modernism and
reflects on poets he’s loved and the foolishness of prosody and the joy
of the four-beat line and of rhyming.
The writer’s block aspect - well, the
strange ability of many writers simply to do anything, anything at all,
rather than write - is moving and very funny indeed. He likes to
emphasise his points about scansion by setting some lines of poetry to
music and then sing them. The image of him in his converted barn office
singing away while his book remains unwritten and his girlfriend’s
patience cools is joyful and awful.
As ever with Baker, the words are so
precise. But while earlier novels seemed minutely obsessive, albeit very
funny too, this has a carefree quality. The narrator is one of the most
insanely delightful literary characters I’ve ever encountered. Less
clear-sighted than we are, full of enthusiasm, riddled with distraction,
longing for his girlfriend again. There are moments, just tiny ones,
where he admits his feelings in a strangely alienated way; noticing them
What if Roz let me hold her breasts again? Wouldn’t that be incredible? That soft familiar palm-loads of vulnerability - and I get to hold them? That’s simply insane. Inconceivable. (p. 178)
That’s the saddest passage in the book,
and it’s not even that sad. He still can’t keep from marvelling, even as
he knows what he’s losing and has maybe lost.
It’s an unimportant book. It doesn’t offer a State of the Union address. It doesn’t interweave characters from the full range of American society. It doesn’t say much about globalization, the credit crunch, the environmental catastrophe. It doesn’t launch itself at you with its literary style flashing. It’s just a beautiful, heartfelt, very true book that I had to stop myself gulping down. I’m sad it’s over and I want there to be another Nicholson Baker soon.