Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #172: Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker

Even in the restricted category of "novels that takes place entirely in the mind of one character," there can be clear distinctions. Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, cataloged the thoughts of a man named Howie on his way back to work after his lunch hour one day in the early '80s. His second novel similarly covers the thoughts of one man during one short action -- but the focus is very different.

The Mezzanine was almost hermetic: full of footnotes, obsessed with minutiae, describing the processes of a mind in large part trying to understand itself, focused on small details of the narrator's life and especially specific physical objects. Howie connected intellectually with objects, and in a small sense with writers of the past, but wasn't thinking about other people or his place in the world. Baker's second novel, Room Temperature, though, is all about connection and family and communication with others -- what we say, what he hesitate to say, what can only be brought up after a long relationship.

Room Temperature takes place, like Mezzanine, entirely in the head of its narrator -- but the action of Room Temperature is that narrator, Mike, cradling and feeding his infant daughter, called the Bug. And so this novel -- though still full of thoughts about peanut-butter jars and French horns and the sound of a pen writing in a notebook -- is much more intimately concerned with family life, with the progress of a marriage, and with its narrator's own journey through life and the choices he's made. There are no footnotes, though there certainly are digressions -- the entire book is a digression, what one man's mind thinks about while he's doing something that doesn't require thought.

Room Temperature is a warmer, friendlier, more personal novel than The Mezzanine was -- Mike is mostly thinking about his wife, Patty, and about all of the things that swirl around their relationship. Some of those things are grossly personal -- nose-picking, the damage birth can do to a woman's genitals -- but they're all treated matter-of-factly, inside a friendly, happy, loving marriage. Mike isn't perfect -- are any of us? -- but we like him and wish him well, because we can see aspects of ourselves in him.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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