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