Wednesday, February 06, 2013

De La Pava to Baker to DeWitt, which deserves, methinks, an Oh, my!

When I asked Sergio De La Pava a couple of years ago what his goals were as a writer, he said that he wanted all of his books to be completely different from each other--which admirable goal got us to talking, trying to figure out what writers, if any, could claim that for their work. After dismissing a lot of possibilities, I finally came up with one: Nicholson Baker. Baker has written novels about feeding a baby, a trip to the drugstore over lunch, lighting a fire, a child's thoughts on grade school, assassination, failing to write poetry, stopping time (and using that power for sex), phone sex, and sex sex. Each one takes its own form, some feeling, structurally, like a fairly typical novel, others feeling more like freely conceived essays or memoirs.

I was thinking about Baker again this week because I just read his novel The Everlasting Story of Nory for the first time, prompted by an appreciative essay by Jeremy Noel-Tod in Slightly Foxed that said it was "a bedside book in the best sense: it comforts and amuses, and translates the world with dream-like lucidity." Which is accurate, and, in an odd way, could be said of most of Baker's otherwise disparate books. And I kept coming back to the idea of all his books being different--yet, at the same time, all feeling like kin. So what holds them together--what are Baker's primary qualities as a writer?

I'll try three:

1 He's not embarrassed by any of his thoughts.

2 He thinks nearly everything in the world is worthy of thought.

3 He thinks the words used to describe that world, or those thoughts, are at least as important as the things described.

The most amazing of these is, of course, the first one. We all are embarrassed by our thoughts, because we all have plenty that are banal, or nonsensical, or, most embarrassing, solipsistic. That last is at its worst when it comes to sex, one of Baker's recurrent topics. There's simply no way to write about sex without revealing more than we want to of ourselves, laying ourselves open to ridicule. Yet that doesn't stop Baker.

Such freedom is admirable, but--especially allied to the second point--it also could easily make for unbearable writing. And that's where Baker's congenial, approachable, fundamentally likeable mind comes in. The unbearable version would parade his most idiosyncratic (and/or dirtiest) thoughts as if they were TRUTHS (think D. H. Lawrence, whom I love at times, at his phallocentric worst); Baker presents them as if he knows he should be embarrassed, but he's so excited by them, so wholly engaged with following them where they're leading, that he can't help but share them, and share his confidence that we'll enjoy the chase, too. He's giggling, quietly. When you add the third point, a prose as lush, precise, and worked-over as any since Nabokov, the combination can be incredibly winning.

It doesn't always work, and sex is, not surprisingly, where it most often falls down. In The Fermata, a book that is mostly quite good, the parts where Baker explicitly and deliberately sets out to write pornography are the only truly dull stretches in his oeuvre. And even the much better (when it comes to porn) House of Holes: A Book of Raunch (2011), his most recent novel, while at times a lot of fun for its sheer linguistic and scatological inventiveness, ultimately falls a bit flat. Baker, clearly, is taking unabashed joy in letting his smuttiest imagination fly--and, again, he's wholly unembarrassed about its contents--but someone else's fantasy, however well-honed, is ever going to do for you what it does for them.

All of which, by the roundabout ways that reading and thinking about books works, brought me to Helen DeWitt, an author who, in the hyper-logical intensity of her sentences, has some affinities with our starting point, Sergio De La Pava. The same year that House of Holes came out, DeWitt published her second novel, Lightning Rods. It, too, was, in a way, about sex--in fact, one of the masturbatory fantasies with which its down-and-out salesman protagonist consoles himself at the start of the novel could almost be plunked down into Baker's book. But in every other way, DeWitt's book is different, and superior.

Baker writes about sex as it might be if we could strip it of consequence and inhibition both; it's an unrealizable (and, I suspect, fundamentally masculine) utopia. DeWitt writes the more chillingly plausible story of what happens when sex is run through the grinder of corporate jargon, masculine privilege, and capitalist nonsense. In telling the story of an entrepreneur who finds success selling companies on the value (to their bottom line) of offering their sexual harassment–prone alpha male salesman types an anonymous sexual outlet at the office--the "lightning rods" of the title--DeWitt never breaks character, never lets on that this jaw-dropping fairytale of a simple problem and a simple solution just might have more personal, social, and political valences than dreamed of in her salesmen's philosophy. In fact--and here's where I stand in awe--to my memory she doesn't write a single phrase that couldn't have come from the mephitic bowels of a corporate strategic messaging office, as-told-to business memoir, or Successories calendar.

Take this self-assessment by one of the lightning rods:
Lucille had always thought of herself as pretty unflappable. The way she saw it was, she was the kind of person who could take things in her stride. She didn't let things get to her. Whatever might be going on around her, she just got on with whatever it was she had to do. Also, she prided herself on her attention to detail More specifically, she prided herself on paying attention to detail without getting obsessed about it. Basically she was the kind of person who could just get on with the job without making a fuss about it. Give her something to do and she would get the job done.
Or this, from the salesman himself:
For the next couple of days Joe tried to put a brave face on things. He tried not to think about the PVC with a slit in the crotch which the Equal Employment Opportunities Act was going to force him to implement. If he thought about it he was just going to get depressed, and in sales you can't afford to get depressed. You can't afford to go around thinking What's the point? That negative take on the product will communicate itself to the customer, and before you know it all the hard work you put into getting your foot in the door will be down he drain.

Sooner or later, though, we all have to face the facts.
Such is the shorthand, and the shortcuts and short-circuits of thought, with which corporate life implicitly encourages us to mask the reality, and real consequences, of what we're doing as we blithely type away at our workstations every day.

Baker, most often, and particularly in House of Holes, is playing--though from his playing, as from all play, real emotion and real, lasting meaning can and do emerge. His play, because he cares about it so much, is in its way serious. DeWitt, however, is hunting--and bagging--bigger game. Lightning Rods is an astonishing book: funny, smart, vicious, and effective. It paints a picture of a future--hell, a present--where corporate culture's goal of making us all slides in a perfect problem-solving PowerPoint presentation has reached one of its logical end points. It may be funny--at times enough to make me laugh out loud--but damn, is it bleak.


  1. In honor of the title, and topic: "Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble"

  2. Well played, sir. Well played.