An affable rambler, Baker is loved and hated for taking nothing and turning it into novels. Is his newest nonfiction book, Substitute, an attempt to use his observational prowess for a more practical end?
Nicholson Baker is one of the last people you’d expect to find on Twitter. Surprisingly, he tweets often (@nicholsonbaker8). Unsurprisingly, his tweets are a bit odd, and he follows everybody back. Of course he does.
Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), is 144 pages long—about as many pages as a tweet is characters. Like a tweet, the novel is mined directly from the immediate thoughts of its author. It doesn’t really set out to do anything. But unlike a tweet, Baker’s writing is exhaustive, and despite his novels’ slimness, they are—for lack of a better word—tedious. Some, myself included, would say enjoyable so.
The Mezzanine isn’t really about anything. Baker fills 144 pages meditating on shoelaces, straws, and Marcus Aurelius. He isn’t shy about diving into lengthy digressive footnotes—setting the stage for the likes of David Foster Wallace. But if you crack open The Mezzanine or any of Baker’s novels in search of an evident point, you won’t find one. That’s the point.
Baker’s writing reads like a single drawn out musical note, droning on about one idea that evolves into others—unfolding, ebbing and flowing in a distinct authorial voice: part soft-spoken librarian and part awkwardly ageless man—defined by childlike curiosity. This voice is soothing and fun, a large component of Baker’s appeal. We see this drawn-out note in The Mezzanine, but Baker has held it through his career. He held it through Vox (1992), the rambling transcript of a phone-sex conversation where Baker is at his most bumbly—orbiting elliptically around the topic of masturbation. He held it through The Fermata (1994)—which, coincidentally, is the musical notation indicating that a note should be drawn out longer than usual. He held it through The Anthologist (2009), through A Box of Matches (2011), and through his 2013 novel, Traveling Sprinkler—particularly in this passage about his first love, the bassoon:
“A long tone was a note that you played for sixteen beats of the Super-Mini-Taktell metronome. You started as softly as you could, at pppppp, the way you would start the low E in Tchaikovsky’s Symphonie Pathétique, and you held that for four beats and then you did a very slow and very perfectly graduated increase in sound, letting just the right amount of air into the reed and never varying the pitch and never adding any falsification of vibrato, and eventually you were playing as loudly as you could and yet with perfect control, for four more beats, squandering all your lung air, but you still had to keep steady and do a perfect diminuendo for four beats and go all the way back down to an extreme pianissimo for four beats. One day you’d do long tones on a low E and the next maybe you’d concentrate on a middle A flat, and you would do this for every note in the full range of the instrument. This was discipline. And while you did it you emptied your mind of everything except that note—which you were hoping would become, would truly achieve, the fully rounded bassoonistic sort of note that you’d heard the great virtuosi play, men like Herzberg, or Bernie Garfield in Philadelphia, or Maurice Allard in Paris, or Simon Cover, wherever he was.”
The excerpt is long because Baker is difficult to condense, and to condense his writing feels like turning a meadow into a patch of Astroturf. Like a long-tone, Baker’s novels start softly. For example, the opening lines of The Anthologist are, “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” You think he’s joking. From this soft, formal introduction, Baker—as in the long tone—grows louder, but with control. He starts with poetry: “What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion. Now that isn’t true of rhymed poems. It’s not true of Sir Walter Scott. It’s not true of Longfellow, or Tennyson, or Swinburne, or Yeats.” He’s moving forward, growing louder in specificity and, akin to the long-tone, emptying his mind “of everything except that note,” which in this case is poetry.
The specificities of the passage display Baker’s acute eye for obscure details—the brand of a metronome, the opening note of a symphony, the names and locations of various virtuosi of the bassoon. Throughout all of his novels, Baker revels in minutiae, and his obscure references are unique to his own interests. The crossover between Baker’s characters and Baker himself becomes increasingly evident—particularly with the dilly-dallying poet, Paul Chowder, from The Anthologist (2009) and Traveling Sprinkler (2013). Chowder lives in New England, Baker resides in Maine. Chowder spends much of his time writing—or attempting to—in an old barn. Baker’s house is an old colonial. Baker derives his novels from personal experience and makes no effort to hide it or to distinguish himself from his narrators, other than by changing their names. Emmet, in A Box of Matches even has a pet duck, like Baker. The author/narrator overlap is transparent. This is a good thing for readers who like Baker and who love reading about the bassoon and about John Greenleaf Whittier or a green Kia Rio. But for those who read The Mezzanine with ambivalence, our endearing, white-bearded, red-faced one-trick-pony can get a bit tiresome.
I fall in the former camp. Yes, Baker’s effusive encyclopedic odes to the obsolete can be grueling to get through, but moments where he applies this thoroughness to universal experience are tenderly hilarious in their realistic absurdity—particularly when he writes about the gross or the perverse. There is a passage in The Mezzanine where Baker writes of corporate bathroom culture and etiquette. He is not shy—well, he is at the urinal, but not on the page.
“I was just on the point of relaxing into a state of urination when two things happened. Don Vanci swept into position two urinals over from me, and then, a moment later, Les Guster turned off his tap. In the sudden quiet you could hear a wide variety of sounds coming from the stalls: long, dejected, exhausted sighs; manipulations of toilet paper; newspapers folded and batted into place; and of course the utterly carefree noise of the main activity: mind-boggling pressurized spattering followed by sudden urgent farts that sounded like air blown over the mouth of a beer bottle. The problem for me, a familiar problem, was that in this relative silence Don Vanci would hear the exact moment I began to urinate. More important, the fact that I had not yet begun to urinate was known to him as well. I had been standing at the urinal when he walked into the bathroom—I should be fully in progress by now. What was my problem?”
It is nearly impossible not to laugh out loud. Again, the passage is long because Baker kicks and screams on the cutting board. Rarely is a men’s room so vividly, honestly and shamelessly depicted—not since Leopold Bloom “allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read.” As base as it may be, the bathroom is a place we’ve all been. When Baker’s intimate minutiae strike a common chord with the reader, a connection is forged on a deep level. And there’s more to this passage than toilet-talk. “What was my problem?” The gut-dropping feeling of awkwardly standing at a urinal, unable to go, is not limited to the restroom. Baker, through his long-tone style, captures this typically unverbalized facet of human experience.
Mundane universalities are Baker’s wheelhouse. Baker loves simple pleasures like buttering raisin toast, “when the high, crisp scrape of the butter knife is muted by occasional contact with the soft, heat-blipped forms of the raisins.” He told the Daily Beast that his favorite article of clothing is “a dark blue T-shirt made of thick cotton”—the Nicholson Baker of tee shirts: simple, nondescript, with a thickness only known to the lucky wearer. As Baker is happy to see this shirt in his pile of clean clothes, Baker’s fans—myself included—are lulled into happy ease by his writing.
Sam Larson interviewed Baker for the Paris Review in Fall of 2011 and noted a common thread throughout Baker’s work: “an instinct for preservation.” Baker agreed, he said, “I don’t like when precious things slip through people’s fingers—especially things that seem defenseless or undercelebrated…Sometimes I’m astounded by the absence of sentimentality in other people. How can you not become attached to the poignant scraps that flow through life?”
This is an interesting lens to apply to Baker’s body of work, his long-tone style and the subjects he applies it to. Looking at his biography, it is notable that Baker founded the American Newspaper Repository, which preserves original copies of old American newspapers. All of his writing reads like a celebration of the uncelebrated, or a preservation of things Baker is worried might be neglected. There is a sense that he’s fighting to protect these things from obsolescence, or from going unnoticed.
So much of Baker boils down to simply noticing things. In The Anthologist, Paul Chowder repeatedly praises and alludes to Newcastle Brown Ale, which—to anybody who’s had it—is a distinctly forgettable beer. In Traveling Sprinkler, Chowder praises his Kia Rio, a distinctly forgettable car. One would be hard-pressed to find another novel in which a Kia Rio is mentioned, let alone praised. After listing all its flaws—broken air-conditioning, a leak in the power steering—Chowder gushes over his vehicle in another of the affable ramblings that fill the pages of The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler. “But it’s my car,” he writes, “my Kia Rio, and I love it. I really love this car. No car has ever been this good to me. I will be faithful to this car forever. I will nurse it along. If, when I’m a wobbly old man wearing young man’s blue jeans, the University of Texas asks me to sell them my correspondence, which they probably won’t, I’ll say to them, Forget the letters, forget the manuscripts, what you want is my green Kia Rio.”
But in his attempt to save the obsolete from ineluctable obsolescence, Baker might be condemning himself to the same fate. He admits that the sentimentality he seeks to save “isn’t savable.” Perhaps neither are novels like Baker’s. He’s been criticized as boring, plotless, rambling—he keeps doing the same schtick over and over again. This is precisely what Baker’s fans—however many or few there may be—love about him. But there are few readers who fall in the middle. If you don’t love Baker, you probably can’t stand him, and to the reader in 2016, Baker’s long-tone fiction might seem boring. Flip through any of his novels and pick a random sentence: often they sound like a crazy grandpa who just won’t stop talking. Performing this exercise with A Box of Matches, one finds a paragraph starting with, “Consider for a moment what chimney sweeps had to do.” Baker defines “moment” as a few pages. Flip ahead: “I’m glad there are fifty-two weeks in the year—it seems like the right number, and there is the interesting congruity with a deck of cards.” Like with the prolix murmurs of a grandpa, you either want to stay and listen or you want to tell him to shut up. Clever and obscure, long-winded and sigh-like—this is vintage Baker. But there comes a point when you wonder if this old dog knows any other tricks—because we’ve already seen this one.
In 2013, Baker said his next book would be “dark and shiny and irrefutable, but full of inconsistencies and uncertainties. Or maybe a book about renting a hydraulic lift and painting the house. Too soon to tell.” But his most recent book is not about a hydraulic lift. There is no Bakerish narrator waxing poetic about the puny pleasure of prying the lid off of a paint-can. It is a work of nonfiction, Substitute, a behemoth 700 page account of Baker’s experience as a substitute teacher. Maybe this new sort of undertaking is Baker’s attempt at a different trick. Not necessarily a new one—Baker’s written stellar nonfiction before—but a change of pace from our good friend Paul Chowder. Substitute still reveals shades of Baker and his penchant for the unappreciated. Baker writes, “In the hall, just outside the door to a classroom, I spotted Toby, the fifth grader who told me he sucked at everything, sitting by himself at a gray table. ‘Hi, I know you,’ I said. ‘How’s it been going?’” It feels natural, Baker speaking in first person—actually as himself—since we’ve been subject to his Bakerish narrators for so long now. And it is comforting to see that he remains the same, a lover of things unloved, drawn to “the fifth grader who told me he sucked at everything.”
The very criticisms that can be said of Baker’s novels have emerged as points of praise for Substitute. The thorough details Baker loves have a very comfortable home in nonfiction. Baker has been praised for nonfiction before, with his WWII book, Human Smoke (2008), mostly comprised of primary source material. Like Substitute, Human Smoke is lengthier than Baker’s novels, nearly 600 pages, but perhaps Baker’s ability to aggregate and catalog even the most obscure details is put to better use in longer works of nonfiction about concrete ideas than in shorter works of fiction about nothing in particular. This could be a trend in Baker’s output—a transition to nonfiction—moving forward, but Baker will always be known, first, at least to his fans, as a novelist. His books will always, to those who enjoy them, read a bit like, “Hey, I know you.”
In his Paris Review interview, Baker recounted a childhood anecdote: “my father was really interested in keeping bits of buildings that were torn down as part of urban renewal. He took me to the huge Rochester train station while it was being torn down…It was an impossibly great train station…My father saved some of the encaustic tiles from this station. We still have them.”
To a 2016 audience, Baker is succumbing to the quicksand of obsolescence, at least as a fiction writer. The way he thinks—his ability and need to analyze, to interrogate—has a shrinking place in the contemporary fiction landscape. Most people don’t want to read about an escalator ride. But like fossils and artifacts, Baker’s novels remind us of a different way of seeing the world. They remind us that even the most insignificant things, under a microscope, are intricate, unique, and sometimes even beautiful. Baker’s novels are to us what old relics were to him: encaustic tiles from an impossibly great train station that was torn down. Lucky for us, we still have them.