Why isn’t Nicholson Baker publishing fiction anymore? I ask this question not just because I like his name — the surname a durable representation of Anglicism, the Christian name evocative of an underrated form of American currency that will, in a few short years, become as meaningless as its baser mono-cent cousin, the two names meshing together into a five-syllable charge of the light brigade — but because I am fond of his work, which has dealt in large part with describing minutiae — and by minutiae, I mean the bric-a-brac we take for granted, the pleasures of a straw or a laundry tag, all of it representative of an unexpected euphoria and enthusiasm with the quotidian.
A brief aside: I now have on my desk a 453.6 gram bag of Rold Gold pretzels, cloaked in a sallow hue that I find ghastly, purchased a few evenings ago because more diminutive packagings of pretzels weren’t available at the convenience store immediately around the corner, and because I was too lazy to walk the additional distance to a store that might have a more reasonable size. The bag claims to be a “One Pound Value Bag,” and, if we are to round up the 453.59237 grams to one pound measure to the tenth, we do indeed have 453.6 grams. Of course, since I do not possess a scale or any measuring device that will register this pretzel bag’s mass, I must trust that this bag, before I unsealed its top, its unsealed edge now staring back at me with six crenelated horizontal ridges and its rumpled plastic exterior resting reasonably firm until I decide to unsettle it with a slight movement, did in fact weigh one pound. I must therefore place trust in the Frito Lay Company that I am indeed getting “one pound” of value, even though I paid $2.49 for it when I would have preferred to pay around a dollar or so for a smaller bag of pretzels that would have served my nefarious snacking purpose. So there is, in fact, an excess of pretzels that has rested, untouched, on my desk for two nights. And I don’t know if I will eat the remainder. When I also consider the additional fact that, given these lack of measuring tools, there is no way I could have matched the reported 453.6 grams against the real 453.6 grams, I don’t feel any sense of “value” at all. Even if I were to disseminate the balance of these pretzels amongst the vagrants in my neighborhood or even the drunk and noisy teenagers who I have espied through my bay window (after hearing some unsettling noises), one of whom has just regurgitated on the steps leading up to my apartment building, I’m thinking they would likely reject my offering of pretzels in lieu of a hot meal or a forty ounce bottle or even cold hard cash. So the “value,” which suggests an egalitarian dissemination of goods that evokes a Robin Hood-like figure spreading the wealth, is wrong on multiple levels. And I am stuck with excess pretzels.
If I were to read a new Nicholson Baker volume, there is no doubt in my mind that he could put this conundrum in perspective. I suspect, with his keen eye for the picayune, he would have anticipated my current pretzel contretemps and he would have meditated at length upon this notion of “value,” a word unabashedly printed upon too many things, as if the word “Value” is a kind of naked lady you find in a deck of cards.
I was reminded of Mr. Baker tonight, when I found myself without a book to read on the way home. This caused a slight sense of panic, because, after countless hundreds of journeys on my bus line, I had grown quite accustomed to the many buildings through the window along my commute and had grown very comfortable with this idea of submerging myself into a book to pass the time. And I walked to City Lights, and with the help of the excellent Suzanne, a friendly and intelligent young woman who I once had dinner with and whose name I embarrassingly forgot, even when she had cried, “Ed!” as she saw my rumpled and book-starved form perusing many literary options, I managed to discover a Nicholson Baker volume I had not yet read, a book called Room Temperature which I am now halfway through. And Baker’s concern for these small details and these small conflicts that we take for granted has made me sad that he’s decided to sit it out since Checkpoint, a book savaged by Leon Wieseltier in the most callow of ways. (You can find the details here. I miss Mr. Orthofer’s lengthy reports and I hope we will see another one soon.)
So I must ask what has happened to Nicholson Baker. In the madness of our times, his fictive perspective is badly missed and sorely needed. I could always count upon looking through a dictionary when reading his books. I could always count upon seeing the world around me with fresh eyes. Plus, it helps that he was a bit of a pervert. I can’t say these things of a lot of authors. But I can say them of Nicholson Baker. I don’t know if he has a muse that any of us can speed-dial. But the literary world seems somehow lesser without Baker.