Narrated in the first person, ROOM TEMPERATURE recounts a father’s thoughts as he gives his six-month-old daughter (nicknamed Bug) her “late afternoon bottle.” Even for a short book (116 pages, and they are small pages), that may sound like a self-defeating project, the sort of notion that gets aired in a creative-writing-class brainstorming session but is never actually put into practice. Worse yet, it may bring to mind one of those tediously programmatic avant-garde novels in which the author has set himself an arbitrary technical task (“write a chapter without using the letter ’e’”).
In fact, ROOM TEMPERATURE is nothing of the kind. Though Baker’s book is indeed short, the range of experience it encompasses is much wider than that of most novels three times its length. The narrator’s thoughts about his daughter and his wife Patty; his memories of childhood and adolescence and marriage; his reading and music and television-watching and eating--all this is rendered in a narrative that accommodates both high-flying intellectual speculation and the satisfactions of nose picking, both Pierre Monteux’s 78-rpm recording of THE RITE OF SPRING and the theme from “Sea Hunt.”
What Baker is doing in the novel has affinities with the work of poets such as Frank O’Hara and, more distantly, Ezra Pound in THE CANTOS: Whatever comes into the ken of the poem’s “I” belongs in the poem, given unity by the sensibility that informs it. There are hazards to this poetry of the everyday (one of the principal ones is narcissism, and Baker does not entirely avoid it), but for readers who find much contemporary fiction (both “literary” and “popular”) all to predictable, ROOM TEMPERATURE will provide a welcome change.