Friday, August 17, 2012

Nicholson Baker, Platonic forms, and things I've read aloud lately to rocketlass

{Photo by rocketlass. I'm actually laughing at Wodehouse, not Nicholson Baker, in this photo, but it serves.}

As it's Friday night and I'm in the mood to sit at the piano, I had intended to do little tonight in this space other than share a couple of passages from the essays in Nicholson' Baker's new collection, The Way the World Works. Like this one, from "String," about the street he lived on as child:
Some parts of the Strathallan sidewalk were made of pieces of slate that sloped up and down over the questing roots of elm trees (one had a mortal wound in its trunk out of which flowed, like blood, black sawdust and hundreds of curled-up larvae), and some parts of the sidewalk were made of aged concrete, with seams cut into them so that they would crack neatly whenever a growing tree required it of them. These seams made me think of the molded line running down the middle of a piece of Bazooka bubble gum, which you could buy in a tiny candy store in the basement of an apartment building near where we lived: the silent man there charged a penny for each piece of gum, machine-wrapped in waxed paper with triangular corner folds. It had a comic on an inner sheet that we read with great interest but never laughed at.
The close grain of the memories, the associative leaps, the care in description matched with a deliberate inventiveness of word choice--that is what I love about Nicholson Baker, the sense that everything in the world deserves our attention, especially those parts of it, both physical and verbal, that we barely even bother to notice anymore.

By the time I was a kid, nearly twenty years after Baker, Bazooka was offered in two sizes, a 3-cent or a 5-cent, and also in grape. Grape, though tempting, always led to regret, in strict defiance of a later friend's oft-repeated certainty--known in my circle as Pete's Axiom--that "Whatever can be made grape should be made grape." What hadn't changed in the intervening years was the relationship to the comic wrapped around the gum: slipshod as it was in every respect, from concept to printing, it received our rapt attention nonetheless. Young, we knew little of the world and its infinity of things, so how were we to judge what merited our scrutiny?

The guy who sold us Bazooka was named Earl, and he ran the Bunnyhop Cafe in the New Hope Hotel, a rundown terra-cotta oddity behind our middle school. He was far from silent. Old and round-nosed and laughing, rather, always wearing a floppy fisherman's hat and frequently seen tooling about town in his '54 Plymouth.

And I'd planned to share this one, from the same essay:
Sometimes my mother let me take the spool off the sewing machine and thread the whole living room with it, starting with a small anchor knot on a drawer handle and unreeling it around end tables and doorknobs and lamp bases and rocking-chair arms until everything was interconnected. The only way to get out of the room, after I'd finished its web, was to duck below the thread layer and crawl out.
Such kindly parental indulgence, so well-attuned to the desires of the child, reminds me of Ray Bradbury's stories of his Aunt Neva, who built with him a model of the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in the backyard, dressed him (and herself) in costumes, and generally encouraged him to keep imagination's door always propped open.

And I was going to share some bits from my favorite essay in the book, "One Summer," which consists of short, separate paragraphs all starting with the two words of the title. I was going to share only those I read aloud, with giggling joy, to a simultaneously amused and bemused rocketlass last night. Like this one:
One summer my daughter learned how to read the word misunderstanding.
And this one:
One summer I went to Italy with my girlfriend and her family. My girlfriend's uncle brought a set of dissolvable capsules containing foam circus animals. Every night at cocktail hour we dropped one capsule into a glass of water. As each foam leg emerged, we would say, "There's another leg!"
Or this one, which I had trouble reading because laughter--mine--kept interjecting itself:
One summer I was on the verge of making a baloney sandwich. I had the tomato in my hand and I'd opened the door of the refrigerator and I was looking down at the jar of mayonnaise on the bottom shelf, and then I thought, No, no baloney right now. And I closed the refrigerator door. I was able to resist that baloney and put it out of my mind.
And, finally, this one:
One summer a raisin stuck to a page I was writing on, so I drew an outline of it and wrote, "A Raisin Stuck Here--Sunmaid."
And that was to be it. Post posted. Piano beckoning.

But then I read Michiko Kakutani's review of the book from Monday's New York Times. Oops.

She didn't get it. I suspect there's no way she ever could have--Baker simply seems not to be her kind of writer, his book not her kind of book. Kakutani is serious; Baker is (mostly) silly. Kakutani writes (mostly) about novels; Baker writes novels that read like nonfiction, and nonfiction that reads like no one else's. Kakutani is looking for the point; for Baker, looking frequently is the point.

All of which might still not been enough to prompt me to even mention the review, had it not been for this passage:
The individual essays not only carom around the world in subject matter, they also vary greatly in quality. Some showcase his eye for detail and his ability to nail down those details in velvety, Updikean prose. Some read like parodies of self-absorption that highlight Mr. Baker’s apparent need — shared with his idol, John Updike — to capture even the most trivial of his jottings between the covers of a book. “One Summer,” a list of things the author did over various summers, actually contains this paragraph: “One summer a raisin stuck to a page I was writing on, so I drew an outline of it and wrote ‘A Raisin Stuck here — Sunmaid.’ ” And later on, this sentence: “One summer I was on the verge of making a baloney sandwich.”
"Those bits you liked, Levi, enough to read aloud, I disliked." If there is a Platonic form of the ideal Baker reader, Kakutani may well be the necessarily-existing-in-a-dizzying-undergraduate-seminar-way Platonic form of its opposite.

Tastes vary, of course--the Venn Diagram of mine and rocketlass's overlaps but little, yet the gap diminishes our passion for our favorites not a whit. Baker, admittedly, is not to all tastes, and his fans won't be swayed away by a review that pulls quotes for opprobrium that they'd pull for appreciation.

But the failure to connect, my certainty that Kakutani's wrong, burns despite. Baker writes elsewhere in the book, in "The Nod," an appreciation of Updike delivered at a memorial, of reading Updike's story "The City" to his thirteen-year-old daughter:
And as I was reading it to my daughter, I came to the moment in the story that I remembered from when I first read it. The man is lying in his hospital room in the middle of the night and he hears people moaning on either side of him and then there's a sound of "tidy retching," and then comes the sentence: "Carson was comforted by these evidences that at least he had penetrated into a circle of acknowledged ruin." The word ruin there was so amazingly good and well-placed--"acknowledged ruin." And maybe it was that I gave it a special inflection as I read it aloud, but I don't think so. My daughter said, "Oh, that's good." Right at that moment. She liked and she was excited by the very same phrase in the story that I'd been excited by. It seemed so reassuring to know that there is sometimes an absolute moment in a story that many people will independently discover and remember, even across generations, and that this may have been one of those moments.
Products of a century of mass-production and mass-marketing, iconoclasm may be our aspiration, but nevertheless we ache for others to like what we like; the harmony thus generated can be so abundantly joyful.


  1. Anonymous10:14 PM

    I loved Human Smoke! It's a model for the next book . . . should the next book ever materialize.

    Josh Buhs

  2. OK, so I was already looking forward to your next book--now I really can't wait! That's such a simple, yet demanding form; I can't wait to see what you bring out of it.