I have just finished reading another Nicholson Baker novel and am caught in that almost painful afterglow you get when you finish something beautiful and know you have to let go and leave the created world behind.
I began reading Nicholson Baker in 1991, reading his first two novels in the right order, though I have not proceeded along any direct route since. I seem to come across his novels at odd moments, wondering how on earth I could have forgotten him and picking up the next book with a quickening of the pulse. I know that I can look forward to being lost in a world that feels, at least for the duration, more real than the one I live in.
My friends look blank when I talk about him. I don’t know why this American novelist is not better known here. According to his publisher, he has nine novels out.
It was on a trip to Washington D.C. that I first came across him. A wife, the mother of a toddler in a stroller lent by the concierge of the hotel, we got away from the monuments and politics of the city to find a bookshop. At that stage I’d been living on a Pacific island that had no bookshop for three years and I was going back there. I was intimidated by the walls of closed spines. I had limited time – for the shopping expedition and for reading – banking on the patience of a one year-old. In truth, I picked up the two Nicholson Baker novels because they were slim. I didn’t know it, but ‘The Mezzanine’ (1988) and ‘Room Temperature’ (1990) couldn’t have been more perfect. I also bought Gore Vidal’s ‘Washington, D.C.’ (1967) that day. It remains unread and sits on the shelf, a mere souvenir, like a bottle of coloured sand from a seaside resort. Which is not what books are made for.
The beauty of all Nicholson Baker’s work is in the detail. The novels are quiet and small, and vivid and fully embodied. They are brimming with things you’ve never read about before but recognise instantly. And wish you’d written. ‘The Mezzanine’ contemplates life in the distance from one floor to the next while travelling on an escalator. I think of it every time I step onto an escalator. (There is only one escalator in the town I now live in so I am not being that dramatic here).
‘Room Temperature’ has a much longer timespan. The novel fits into the twenty minutes it takes the protagonist Mike to bottle-feed his baby. The minutiae so often overlooked and left unsaid, finds a place in the spotlight. The tiny moments that are really, really trivial and really, really important. A mobile is a telephone these days, back then it meant something different. I too watched my son’s move on the slightest breeze.
‘The Anthologist’ (2009) and ‘Travelling Sprinkler’ (2013) brought me into the life of Paul Chowder a failed or failing or okay poet who puts together an anthology, sits in his car to write poems, watches his relationship drift away, listens to moose calls out back. Free time was not so expensive to negotiate once I got to these novels. I could take my time. Enjoy every word.
And so now, I recently found ‘A Box of Matches’ (2003). A forty-four year old man named Emmett gets up before dawn each morning and lights the fire in the dark. Then writes. Eventually he uses the last match in the box and the novel ends. I was so drawn in, I even thought about getting up each morning before dawn. But alas, the afterglow will fade and I will not change my rituals for Emmett’s. I am a better person for reading the novel though: at least I now know how to best light a fire.
I’m on the lookout for ‘Vox’ (1992) next, a novel in which Nicholson Baker apparently turns his keen observational eye on the subject of sex. It will not be ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ Quiet novels can say so much more.
Image of matches in header by Ashley Van Haeften.