The Joys of Nicholson Baker

I was a bookish and uncertain young man bouncing around law firms when a playfully perverse paperback halted my calisthenics on the ontological trampoline. The book was The Fermata. Its titular notational symbol stretched across the soft pink cover like a giddy golden rainbow, resembling an Orwellian eye or a junior high schooler’s crude doodle of a mammary gland. As I plunged into its pages, I found myself delighted by a surprisingly erudite novel depicting the lives of office workers – a world I knew quite well — in skippy and candid terms, giving credence to the odd thoughts that many of us toiling in cubicles kept quietly to ourselves.

But the book went much further. Using a high-concept premise of a thirtysomething temp with the ability to stop time, The Fermata was forthright about its protagonist’s kinky caprices. Arno Stine didn’t just take off bras and sneak puerile peeks at women. He penned personalized erotic stories, which he styled “rot,” that were tailored to specific individuals, depositing these racy escapades in places where the subjects could discover them with ridiculous ease. He didn’t always succeed. One naughty narrative – reproduced in the text in its hot and heavy, deliberately hackneyed glory – involves a character named Marian the Librarian. The story is written and recorded onto a tape for a woman driving in a car, but Arno’s attempt at arousing her is a failure when she tosses this cassette onto the highway as if it were casual detritus.

Arno performs elaborate experiments in the Fold – the referential realm he occupies when time has stopped – that frequently involves sex toys and women placed in terribly objectifying scenarios. To some degree, The Fermata was the giddy and licentious counterpart to Bret Easton Ellis’s grisly and eye-popping American Psycho. But it was a testament to Nicholson Baker’s peculiar powers of perspective that his book somehow came across as innocuous. As Arno puts it, when comparing his actions with another’s more sordid speculative chimeras, “some of the things I have done are – let me just say it – rape-like acts that some observers would condemn more vehemently than they would condemn the security guard’s offhand remote-control fantasies, because I should know better, and because, in my own case, they really happened.”

The Fermata arrived more than a decade before The Office became a transatlantic triumph of cringe comedy and Joshua Ferris mined the minutiae of office life for his celebrated 2007 novel, Then We Came to the End. Baker, however, took considerably more chances than his followers. In describing his feelings for an office manager, Arno observes, “You have to be extremely careful about complimenting a thirty-five-year-old temp who has achieved nothing in his life.” But it was not mere prurience that beckoned my attention. What made The Fermata work so well was its remarkable willingness to be absolutely specific about the darker side of human consciousness. There were no limits to what seemingly ordinary people thought about. This candor is particularly evident during one moment when Arno secretly watches a woman address her dildo as if it were a submissive lover. And the disparity between cloistered American fantasies and what is acceptable to American norms has forms the intriguingly incongruent bedrock that Baker has built his work upon.

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Baker was born on January 7, 1957 in Rochester, New York. His parents were art students at the Parsons School of Design. Baker’s concern for details was initiated quite early when his mother suggested that he draw the interior of a pillow. There were early musical aspirations. Baker took up the bassoon in fourth grade and was, at one point, a substitute in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. But he abandoned these pursuits to complete a B.A. at Haverford in 1980. Baker wrote a handful of stories for The New Yorker and other literary magazines, before turning his attentions to his first novel.

Hyperspecificity has been a Baker hallmark from the beginning. Baker’s first two novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, both concentrate on how the details within an everyday chore – respectively, a post-lunch hour ride up an escalator and a young father feeding his baby – lead to protracted ruminations upon the world around us: whether or not one can detect a person’s handwriting entirely by sound and the advantages in hanging a tie over a doorknob, to name just two. Years later, Baker offered another volume along these lines with A Box of Matches, forming a loose trilogy. But this time he offered a more episodic approach, with chapters centered around a middle-aged man who wakes up incredibly early to light a fire and continue a series of morning musings.

In Understanding Nicholson Baker, Arthur Saltzman suggested that Baker’s style “unites a jeweler’s intensity of focus, a forensic scientist’s ferocity for detail, a monk’s humble delight in private discipline, and a satirist’s sensitivity to oddities and errors.” Saltzman was right to observe these motifs, but Baker is often unpredictable with each new volume. His two libidinous novels, Vox and The Fermata, were followed by The Everlasting Story of Nory, an unexpectedly tender novel depicting the internal thoughts of a nine-year-old girl. Two of his novels (Vox and Checkpoint) do away with the detailed description altogether and are presented exclusively in dialogue. In addition to a remarkably candid rumination on Baker’s relationship as a reader to John Updike (U & I), Baker has also authored two nonfiction polemics: Double Fold, an impassioned plea for the preservation of newspapers that also serves as an unexpected expose on how libraries have cavalierly junked their collections, and, most recently, Human Smoke, which recasts the events leading up to World War II from a pacifist perspective.

This idiosyncratic approach has resulted in several ad hominem attacks from critics, who are curiously threatened by a writer who only wishes to delve deeply and honestly into the world’s overlooked foci. Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New York Times Book Review, declared Checkpoint a “scummy little book,” and further suggested that it “could be dismissed as another of Baker’s creepy hermeneutical toys.” Stephen King called Vox a “meaningless little finger paring.” Baker responded to King’s charge in his essay, “Clip Art,” pointing out that, because Allen Ginsberg had sold a bag of facial whiskers to Stanford, parings could not be “brushed off as meaningless.” More recently, Adam Kirsch, writing in The New York Sun on Human Smoke, declared it “not just a stupid book, but a scary one.” These vainglorious vituperations run counter to the first rule of reviewing that Updike set down in his introduction to Picked Up Pieces: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

Baker’s voice may be too distinct for a few standpatting snoots to appreciate. But if one carefully examines Baker’s work, one finds a precision and a lyrical verisimilitude that is just as sophisticated as the realist authors awarded the laurels by critics of more wooden dispositions.

What makes Baker’s prose so interesting is the way that he is taken with quirky yet uncannily apposite associations. In The Mezzanine, he describes the wonders of Toyota turn-signal switches, “which move in their sockets like chicken drumsticks: they feel as if they were designed with living elbow cartilage as their inspiration.” In Nory and A Box of Matches, the comparisons are somewhat more rudimentary, in large part because they involve a child’s perspective. In A Box of Matches, the book’s narrator is galvanized by his daughter’s discovery that “You’ve got to get cold to get warm.” This maxim, mentioned as father and daughter are shivering in a car in which the heater “roared and hurled out a blast of cold and icy air,” is folksy on the surface, but it begins to take on a surprising resonance as the father considers how applicable this phrase is to life as a whole:

That is so true about many things. You learn it first with sheets and blankets: that the initial touch of the smooth sheets will send you shivering, but their warming works fast, and you must experience the discomfort to find the later contentment. It’s true with money and love, too. You’ve got to save to have something to spend. Think of how hard it is to ask out a person you like. In my case, Claire asked me to go on a date to the cash machine, so I didn’t actually have to ask her. Still, her lips were cold, but her tongue was warm.

Associative riffing along these lines is a recurrent character quality. In Vox, a book famously excavated as an item on Monica Lewinsky’s receipt, Jim explains the problems of listening to pop music. He points out that he can’t purchase and listen to albums, because “you really need the feeling of radio luck in listening to pop music, since after all it’s about somebody meeting, out of all the zillions of people in the world, this one other nice person, or at least several adequate people.” This concern for the ordinary leads to a larger longing to search for other voices, and we perceive a subtext for why this character is up late at night trying to connect with another on a phone sex line.

Baker’s misfits, denied a socially acceptable medium for their idiosyncratic thoughts, must find solace by either relating their ideas to loved ones (often wives, girlfriends, and daughters), memorializing their observations onto paper, or retreating to relatively anonymous terrain – whether it be their inner consciousness, the Fold, or a phone sex line. In Baker’s books, mainstream culture cannot always help his characters search for an exit for their ideas, in part because anarchic consciousness and structured narrative remain at loggerheads with each other. In The Mezzanine, Arno checks out numerous autobiographies from the library, “so that I would have a better idea of how to write this properly.” But the narrative he sets down lacks a linear trajectory and is largely a collection of digressions. (In typical Baker fashion, Arno apologizes for this.) Nory is taken with the phrase “TO BE CONTINUED” at the end of Back to the Future. Assigned to write a short story for a class, she ends up writing a lengthy story. But she is unable to finish it, and eventually affixes these three words to the end of her tales.

By Checkpoint, this inability to express inner consciousness takes on a deadlier quality. This novel involves two men meeting in a hotel room to discuss the idea of assassinating President Bush. At one point, Jay, the man determined to carry out this plan, insists that America lost World War II, pointing out that, “We were corrupted by it, and we became more and more warlike and secretive, and we spent all our money building weaponry and subverting little governments, poking here and there and propping up loathsome people, United Fruit. And the gangrene spread through the whole loaf of cheese.”

Consider the intriguing involutions here. The commonplace American concept of a loaf of bread has been replaced by a loaf of the substance that resides in the interior of a sandwich. A war intended to end fascism and secure peace has resulted in more belligerence and more systems. Jay’s rant isn’t entirely a condemnation of governmental policy. It’s a soliloquy of inner frustration, of Jay failing to find a place in America for his unconventional thinking. He has dutifully protested against the war, drawing the crowd in “like a huge amoeba of dissent” and “a spontaneous surge of humanity.” But these results have fallen upon deaf ears.

Because their thoughts cannot find a niche within the baseline of American culture, this may explain why Baker’s characters are largely unforthcoming about their names, which are frequently revealed late in his books. It is left to other characters to ferret out this basic identifying detail, often through dialogue. We learn that The Mezzanine‘s protagonist is named Howie only when others address him. And while Howie freely identifies his co-workers, he takes great care to hide the name of his girlfriend, who we know only as “L.” This suggests that the collective consciousness of his characters is perhaps greater than their identities, or simply a more private realm. Or perhaps this is simply what comes from remaining relatively anonymous in an office setting. Howie is asked to sign a get-well poster for Ray, a forty-five-year-old janitor who has hurt his back while “trying to move a swimming pool.” But the process of signing his name is laden with propriety and deportment. Howie can’t bring himself to sign near his boss’s name because “it might be construed as the assertion of a special alliance…or it might seem to imply that I was seeking out my boss’s name because I wanted to be near another exempt person’s name, avoiding the secretarial signatures.”

Complicating matters further, Baker’s characters often feel a linguistic diffidence when expressing their inner feelings to trusted confidants, an intriguing contrast to Baker’s frequently graphic depiction of their fantasies. In The Mezzanine, Arno refers to his penis as his “richard” and flinches at slang terms for pubic hair. Vox features lengthy conversations about whether commonplace slang terms for anatomy are acceptable. Jim, for example, cannot bring himself to use the word “breasts.” So he uses the word “frans” instead. Room Temperature‘s narrator confesses that “he had been unable to use normal swear words until I was eighteen.” What Baker is suggesting here is that, while perverse thoughts and innate associations may be as American as apple pie, the common language used to express them may be something of a hindrance.

Despite these obstacles, a word phrase often serves as a Proust-like madeleine. In The Mezzanine, Howie’s consideration of the phrase “often wondered” causes him to consider how often he has wondered about the profitability of Penguin Classics, which results in another train of thought. As Howie puts it, “Merely saying that you often wondered something gave no indication of how prominent a part of life that state of mind really was.” These verbal lucubrations sometimes lead to a giddy actuation of the senses. In The Fermata, Arno is greatly excited by the way an office manager dictates the phrase “lied like hell” onto a cassette.

Time too presents a crisis. The aforementioned janitor in The Mezzanine empties “each wastebasket liner into a gray triangular plastic push-dumpster, and thereby defining that day as truly over for that office, even though you might still be working in it, because anything you now threw out was tomorrow’s trash.” Each chapter in A Box of Matches begins with “Good morning, it’s 5:07 a.m.” And even Human Smoke provides a very specifically phrased date-stamp within each entry: “It was March 11, 1941.”

In his review of The Everlasting Story of Nory for The Boston Review, Ed Park suggested that willful thematic inversion has carried across the whole of Baker’s work. Park suggested that Nory was Room Temperature’s baby nine years later, pointing out that “the original object of affection…is now the main sensibility, whose thought patterns might conceivably mature into that earlier book’s cogitational wonderworks.”

To me, the common thread involves the degree to which imagination and conceptual association is permitted to flourish in America. This is clearly an idea that goes back to Don Quixote or Walter Mitty. But Baker suggests that these fantasies are an ineluctable part of American life – perhaps part of a quotidian multiverse that most are unwilling or unable to perceive. This may also explain in part Baker’s preservationist instincts, seen in his criticisms of libraries junking their newspaper collections in Double Fold and, in a recent New York Review of Books article on Wikipedia, his concerns for articles slotted for deletion.

Today, as I live a stranger and more rewarding and more uncertain life without the millstones of checking case citations and massaging boilerplate (at least for now), Baker’s books now depict an American utopia that I wasn’t entirely aware of during my initial plunge. In his fiction, Baker seems to be calling for a nation that is both more accepting and comprehensive about its consciousness. And in our current environment of executive branch autocracy and zero tolerance, it seems rather fitting that Baker has responded with Human Smoke, a book daring to suggest that the supposed good war could have been averted. The dreams of a hyperspecific terrain have migrated to the more pressing territory of the real. And if mainstream culture cannot accommodate this cheery simulacra, then Baker’s books most certainly will.


  1. This is an excellent post. I particularly appreciate your pointing out how dark Baker can be. He’s got such a genuine sense of what it means to be human right now, in all of the subtlety and un-subtlety that term implies. Thanks.

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