The Anthologist

categories: Reading Under the Influence


I love Nicholson Baker.   So much that I’ve been putting off reading the rest of his books, just re-reading and savoring the ones I’ve already devoured.  That’s a nice thing about books, having the cake and eating it.  U and I is where I started, his paean to John Updike, with many amazing moments and great humor, my favorite (in memory at least) being when he claims he can recite whole passages of Updike from memory, and then proceeds to do so, a long paragraph.  But of course the paragraph he recites is recited on the page, that is, not recited at all, letting the reader in for a little amused skepticism.  Later in the book, though, Baker decides he better check the passage and finds he’s got it all wrong.

Like Updike, Baker is nervy about sex, really lays it out.  My copy of The Fermata I took as my reader’s gift at a bookstore in Sydney after a reading (yes, reader’s gift—a lot of independent bookstores still honor this tradition, a book of your choice for your trouble in traveling, etc.).  The Australian cover of The Fermata is a spoof of an old porn novel, embarrassing on the plane home, perfect.   And it’s very sexy, a boy’s wet dream of a novel, in which the main character can stop time because of some little known property of physics he’s discovered.  Which he calls the fermata, nice, a musical term for a note held for as long as the performer likes.  The protagonist/narrator uses his power to look at women naked, basically, and finds a true love in the process.  Their first intimacy is through the communicating doors in their two motel rooms, with her security chain attached.  It’s excruciating and very sexy.

Vox, famously, is a phone-sex novel, entirely dialogue between a pair of long-distance lovers.  It’s literary, and it’s hotter than you’d think.

There are nine other Nicholson Baker books at this point, all great, all deep, hilarious, comfortable with confusion.  The new one is The Anthologist (Simon and Schuster, 2009), about a well-read and well respected poet driven half mad by love and left with the need to say something important about poetry.  Also the requirement to say something: he’s got a contract for an anthology, and he’s put off writing the introduction forever.  If he can only get done, he’ll get his girl back, he believes.  And he’ll get his editor off his back.   And he can resume life.  Because as long as he’s not done with his introduction, he’s an unfinished person, as well.

The narrator is funny and smart and really is a poet, really knows a lot.  He’s not a Charles Kinbote, Nabokov’s crazy academic, a guy who lets his own inner life overtake his exegesis of “Pale Fire,” an epic poem.  No, this is a guy who can interest you and convince you about all sorts of poetic issues, including something he calls the four-beat line, what everyone else for centuries has called iambic pentameter.  He’s got a spectacular vocabulary, and very wide-ranging interests, this poet.  He’s got a dog named Smacko.  He loves Theodore Roethke and tells us how to pronounce the name.  He notates verses as music.  He can swing a hammer.  He knows his New England trees.   He makes lists when he wakes up from naps:

People I’m jealous of:
–James Fenton
–Sinead O’Connor
–Lorenz Hart
–Jon Stewart
–Billy Collins

And then he says: “ ‘Billy’ Collins, indeed.  Charming, chirping crack whore that he is.  No, that’s incorrect—I know nothing about him.”

  1. David Scott writes:

    Hell, Bill Clinton reportedly like Vox…. if that’s not an endorsement., what is?

    • Bill writes:

      I remember that… I’d love to hear him read it out loud, with maybe Monica Lewinsky doing the woman’s voice…

  2. monica wood writes:

    I’m reading THE ANTHOLOGIST right now and I’m charmed. I’ve liked much of Baker, and also hated much: VOX and FERMATA were just plain dopey. Bill–honestly–to call VOX “literary”? Really? Would you care to rephrase?

    Anyway, thanks for the recommendation. The narrator is one of the most endearing I’ve encountered in a while.

    • Bill Roorbach writes:

      I don’t know, I thought Vox was pretty interesting, limiting himself to dialogue on the phone, most of it sex talk, and still managing to delineate two complicated characters? And The Fermata was, come on, really cool. Like every 8-year old boy’s dream, plugged into the oddest possible narrator, plugged into the oddest possible love story, and again, fascinating characters… I did love the Anthologist…

      • Bill Roorbach writes:

        What does literary mean? Did I really say that word?

        • monica wood writes:

          Bill. Please. VOX was stupid. Oh, indeed, extremely “complicated” characters, if you compare them to the cable guy and half-dressed coed in a porn film. Which you definitely could. The last page of AHHH AHHH AHHH’s — holy cow. What was he thinking? I mean, really, why expose your fantasy life to the public like that?

          Fermata — go figure. But then, I’ve never been an 8-yr-old boy.

          But The Anthologist, which I just finished, absolutely sold me. It’s about nothing, basically: an obsessive-compulsive with writer’s block. And yet it drew me so pleasantly inside the cockeyed world of the narrator, and allowed me to empathize with his social awkwardness, and truly feel his crisis of confidence and identity. Every writer I know has felt that same existential pain, and for him to feel its full wallop when he’s in front of a European audience–what a scene.

          • Bill writes:

            Phew–I’m glad we agree on The Anthologist… Don’t make me read Vox again! I’m sure I can’t defend my enjoyment of it… But I liked the people and found their loneliness pretty fascinating, and also found the whole book funny. Really funny… Even the Ahhh-ahhh stuff… I don’t know… And my particular cable guy seemed pretty interesting, kind of too smart for his job. And many, many of my woman college students, smart people and deep and subject to loneliness for sure and perversity no doubt and other human stuff. As Robert Lowell said, or at least something-like: Why not say it?