Last week I read Nicholson Baker’s new novel, The Anthologist, all in an evening sitting propped uncomfortably across the smaller of two sofas in my apartment. One thing about reading Nicholson Baker is in his exorbitantly minute and often startling descriptions (his first novel, The Mezzanine, is simply the thoughts of a guy during a ride up an escalator, which sounds boring but is incredible), you might think that it would then be easy to get caught up in the vibe, overthinking ideas and elements as you sit in the presence of a master doing the same. And yet, Baker is so good at catching all the spillage of thought you might have in listening to him speak, there is actually very little loosening of one’s own awareness while in the grip of even such an often everyday-aimed and frank voice as he wields. I hardly even recognized how uncomfortable I get usually while reading. It all went down, as have all of his books, leaving me hungry and excited, even in, again, a seemingly arbitrary subject matter: The Anthologist is about a guy, Paul Chowder, preparing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. There is simply probably no one else alive who could pull this off, and Baker does, quite so.
Beyond the conscious-to-the-point-of-jesus-christ logic running through Baker’s work, which for the most part, no matter what he’s talking about, carries you through as if you’re in the middle of an action movie, one of the great things I love about Baker’s writing is how honest beyond honest he is in the fact that you are a reader, and he is talking to you through the paper, in whatever voice, without seeming haughty or trickster. A lot of this book was written, I’ve heard, during a process where Baker set up a bunch of microphones all through his house and went around ‘in character’ as it were, talking to himself or to the house or whoever in the manner of the anthologist talking out his introduction. He then took those tapes and somehow compiled them into what we have here, which is not only a man talking about what he likes about poetry (its sound, meter, the pleasure of the rhyme (it’s an anthology of rhyming poetry), and various other candid craft-style notes), but it also manages to tie in a life of the narrator around him, without seeming forced, or backstory-laden, or even really anything but just a man talking to himself about his own surroundings in the magical way Baker has made part of his DNA. He envisions meeting Poe in a laundromat, has a strange floor-tile laying relationship with his neighbor, sleeps with his books where his recently left lover used to lay, and otherwise concerns himself with everyday, if peculiar, pastimes that further echo the layering of the anthologist’s head. It kind of mesmerizes and opens you out, constructing a wayward but very engrossing narrative simply out of not only sound, but ideas: ideas about objects and conditions and the way we concern ourselves with them. You laugh, and you don’t feel put upon by process or by ‘journey’ or by wit for wit’s sake, but more like a wise old weird uncle letting you in on his bag, twinkling and nudging your shoulder sometime, trickily honest. His word choices and manners of description are so specific and perfect in their own way it can make you sit up in the room and look around. It’s kind of hard to explain with you just actually jumping in, but it’s unlike anything else, really.
Rather than provide direct excerpts (you can read the novel’s beginning here), here’s Baker on the book himself, with his amazing beard.
I enjoyed reading The Anthologist so much after a while passed in having read all of his older work when it came out, that I went back to U and I, his third book, which when I read the first time I didn’t get as well as the others. I think at the time I’d bought it in a Barthelme obsession and was upset that his talk of the passed Donald was only briefly, and so I’d put it down, but in the momentum of wanting more in the mode of The Anthologist, I went right back on in that same sitting. U and I is a truly uniquely conceived nonfiction book if there ever was one: basically Baker is writing about his lifelong obsession with John Updike, despite having hardly read half of the man’s work. The book becomes a psycho fan letter (but in Baker’s benign obsessing way) mixed with a rumination on what he can remember of his reading (Baker refuses to go back and look at any of Updike’s writing in the process of his own writing, which clouds the remembrances and ruminations of the work in a very cool way, not to mention the fact that Updike is still alive) mixed with a sublimely honest and so-raw-its-funny recreation of Baker’s own becoming as a writer (his aspirations, his methods, his awkward poising, and all and all). Some of the bits are so raw and frank in laying bare Baker’s young aspirations as a young artist they made me do the blink-once-slowly-and-stomach-giggle laugh. He’s not afraid to say the things we don’t say because we assume everybody wishes we’d all keep it underneath our sleeve, and in a way that makes you smile, not squirm. The noun is delight. Once again, I couldn’t stop until I was finished with the whole book, and afterwards I couldn’t help but wish everybody on earth were reading and being influenced by this sublime, hyper-conscious memory making, and propulsion, in and outside of the word.
If there’s anything beyond style and pleasure to take away from Baker (which is a lot already), one could do a lot to recognize the great breadth of reinvention and self-challenge he has managed over his career: 11 books in a little over 20 years, each one very different in its manner (from intricate sex fantasy (The Fermata, perhaps my favorite of them all) to unprecedented history tome (Human Smoke, I hate historical nonfiction and I read this 600 pg masterpiece in two days) to phone sex correspondence (Vox, Bill Clinton famously gave this to Lewinsky, and it is amazing) to children’s book (The Everlasting Story of Nory) to a father’s candid ruminations while holding his child (Room Temperature) on and on) and yet each of a style unique only to Baker, sentences built from the syllable up and awake in a way most language is never, and so wholly him that you could pick it out of probably any grouping of other sentences ever. He challenges himself not only to write what no one else could, but in manners and methods he might not have simply fallen on or into. He invents. Where many authors work for themselves first and only, Baker works not only for himself but in the pleasured mind of speaking to the reader like someone sitting beside him in a small room, mouth to paper to mind. I mean he’s an artist, and a person: a seeming kind one. I’ll read every word he ever writes.