A Box of Matches Summary
by Nicholson Baker

Start Your Free Trial

Download A Box of Matches Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Box of Matches Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The Buzzing is columnist and memoirist Jim Knipfel’s first novel. A longtime writer of a column titledSlackjaw for The New York Press, Knipfel wrote two highly personal books, memoirs about going blind (1999’s Slackjaw) and his time in a psychiatric ward (2000’s Quitting the Nairobi Trio), that in some ways lay the groundwork for the main themes of The Buzzing. Painted in broad strokes, The Buzzing is a purposefully ambiguous, satirical novel about the press, urban society and the people who fall through its cracks, conspiracy theory, paranoia, and Godzilla movies.

The Buzzing‘s protagonist, Roscoe Baragon, is an overweight, middle-aged, once-important reporter for the New York Sentinel. He has been reduced—mostly through his own devising—to covering the “kook beat” for his tabloid newspaper, writing stories about alien abductions, convoluted governmental conspiracies, and voodoo curses. Knipfel clearly draws upon his own experiences with tabloid newspapers in his portrayal of Baragon and the New York Sentinel. What is less clear is how much Knipfel’s struggles with mental illness are reflected in Baragon’s frustrated quest to winnow the truth from the confusing array of theories thrust upon him by disenfranchised paranoiacs. The novel continuously deconstructs its own plot as it develops; is the reader to regard Baragon as a reporter on the fringe of society, working against the system to find the elusive, hidden truth, like his television hero, the reporter in Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975), or as a paranoid slowly sliding into madness?

As the novel begins, Baragon had once been a respected investigative reporter, covering stories like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the student riots in Beijing. Over recent years, however, his status and reputation have faded as he has spent more and more time covering the “kook beat,” and at forty-two he has lost all ambition to further his career as a reporter. Instead, he regards his right to smoke at his desk—perhaps the last place he would be allowed to do so in New York—as the most important facet of his career. His lack of ambition and his interest in unverifiable stories like “Voodoo Curse Haunts Natural History Museum” have earned the enmity of his editor, Ed Montgomery.

Baragon’s reduced status becomes most clear after he interviews sequestered arsonist Abraham Campbell. Writing about his interview, Baragon concentrates on Campbell’s belief that ocean-dwelling “Seatopians” will soon be invading the surface world. Frustrated, Montgomery has twenty-three-year-old journalism school graduate Livingston Biddle rewrite the story; Baragon is not even given a byline. Instead of fighting for better stories, Baragon spends his nights at a neighborhood dive, getting drunk with his friend Emily Roschen, a pathologist for the city morgue, and calling his friend Eel to discuss their shared obsession with Japanese monster movies.

The reader learns that Baragon has had little taste for the world because it has never engaged or entertained him in the way that movies have:

When he was younger, the theaters were his cathedrals. Ornate ceilings, heavy velvet curtains rippling down the walls, the reverent hush as the lights began to dim. That first electric crackle of the sound system kicking in became his call to service, the warm smell of buttered popcorn his incense, the closing credits his benediction.

He never had close friends as a child because they would have interfered with the films that were so important to him.

Baragon’s cynicism and weariness with his occupation are revealed in his own first two rules of journalism, posted on a sign above his desk: “1) There are some stories that, for whatever reason, simply cannot be told,” and “2) Everyone’s a liar.” Baragon has so little faith in people or in the world at large that he sees the delusional people he speaks with daily as symptoms of the entire world’s malaise. Where once...

(The entire section is 1,720 words.)