Saturday, April 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2017 #97: The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

I'm no expert, but I think this counts as a vast, sweeping novel for Nicholson Baker. Sure, I haven't read all of his books, but the ones I've seen -- The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, Vox, and A Box of Matches -- are all tightly constrained around a short moment in time, and almost entirely concerned with a character's interior life. (Vox is about two character's interior lives, or at least the parts of those lives that directly affect their genitals.)

By contrast, The Anthologist takes place over the course of several weeks, and actually has several other major characters in it. Sure, it does take place mostly in the head of the narrator, Paul Chowder, but we can't expect Baker to jump straight into family sagas, can we?

I'll admit that Anthologist, if it were written by anyone else, would count as a novel deeply focused on one character and his interior life. But Baker's been so deep in that direction that it comes almost as a surprise that Paul actually has external dialogue with other real people in a real world in this book.

(I may not be making the best case here that anyone would want to read this book, or anything by Baker. Well, he's a witty, sprightly writer who has lots of interesting insights and embodies those in appealingly flawed characters. And his books are like nobody else's -- which is a powerful reason to read them.)

Paul is a minor poet, living somewhere in New England. He's supposed to deliver the introduction to a big anthology of rhyming poetry -- he sent in the book itself long ago -- but he's just not getting it done. The Anthologist is, maybe, what he wrote instead of that introduction, or a record of his mind during the time he finally got down to that introduction. (Depending on how aggressively textual you are, you could argue it either way.)

Paul has a lot of opinions about poetry: he likes rhyme, even though he's no good at it himself. He insists that the usual terms for meter and feet are wrong in various ways, and that analysis of poetry must take into account implied rests at the ends of lines. And so on -- I have no idea if these are Baker's own opinions, or purely the character's, or even if they bear any resemblance to actual disputes in the world of poetry. And it doesn't really matter: the point here is that we have a smart, verbal Baker character telling us about something he cares deeply about and has spent a lot of time thinking through.

He's not just thinking and writing about poetry, though. His long-time girlfriend left him, partly because he can't manage to finish a simple book introduction. And there's the other issues of his life: a friend or two, neighbors, whether he'll have to go back to teaching poetry for a living (which he loathes). He's just a guy, who does something specific and cares deeply about it. And Baker brings us into his world and head, and lets us live there for a few months that are important to Paul.

Maybe they'll be important to you, too. Maybe the theory of poetry here will spark something; maybe you'll see yourself in Paul's relationships with others. Maybe you'll just enjoy the way Baker puts words and thoughts together -- the traditional job of a novelist, which Baker is really good at.

Maybe. Why not?

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