Son of an advertising executive, Nicholson Baker initially chose music as a profession, starting in the fourth grade rather improbably with the bassoon. He became so proficient on that notoriously unwieldy instrument that he enrolled in 1974 in the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and performed as a substitute bassoonist with the Rochester Philharmonic. Subsequently he dropped his plans for a musical profession and majored in English at Haverford College, from which he graduated in 1980.
Perhaps it was the gadgety aspect of the instrument that appealed to the future anatomist of nail clippers, light switches, the “knuckly orthopedic quality” observable in the operation of the tumblers of a faceted glass doorknob manifesting a “rare combination of solidity and laxness,” model airplanes, the platter system of commercial film projectors, the miracle of perforation, and the all-consuming question of why inked designs printed on flannel pajamas do not make the nap less fluffy.
This list may give a small indication of the quality of this writer’s eye and mind, his lovingly detailed and precisely recorded observation of a world few notice and even fewer find important. He puts one in mind of an observation attributed to the famous Irish writer James Joyce: “How a man ties his shoelaces or eats his egg in the morning gives a better clue to his differentation than how he goes to war.”
In his fascination with how things work, Baker is very American. In his first novel, The Mezzanine, however, his hero Howie is preoccupied with Marcus Aurelius, which suggests that Baker is a fox who knows many things, rather than a hedgehog who knows well only one. Indeed, that is the pleasure of traveling in Baker’s mind. It is a good thing, too, that his mind is so well-stocked, as his novels, especially the first two, dismiss narrative and action in favor of digression.
The Mezzanine describes the lunch break of an office worker: He goes up the escalator to work, goes down for lunch, buys shoelaces, popcorn, a hot dog and sauerkraut, and a chocolate chip cookie and milk, then goes back up. Room Temperature’s action—half an hour in real time—consists of a young father...
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