Nicholson Baker

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

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.

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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 warming a bottle for his infant daughter, the Bug. Both novels are short, perforce, like several of Baker’s other books.

In the next novels, however, Baker abandons his sideways narratives. Vox consists of an extended phone sex conversation between two strangers, Abby on the East Coast and Jim on the West. The novel’s 150-odd pages take as long to read in real time as the pair’s dialogue (at $l.90 per minute). The novel was a slightly scandalous success and became a best-seller, as did its successor, The Fermata, in which a nebbish named Arno Strine learns that he can freeze time and uses this ability to have his way with women, though this consists largely of undressing and fondling them. (A fermata, or “stop” in Italian, is a musical symbol calling for a pause.) Predictably, Baker took heat for this novel; equally predictably, it sold hugely. Like all Baker’s books, it is witty and unpredictable within its self-imposed limits.

Baker’s novel The Everlasting Story of Nory turns 180 degrees from its predecessors. Clearly based on Baker’s precocious daughter—he also has a son with Margaret Brentano, whom he married in 1985—describes a year in an English school of a dauntingly self-possessed, commonsensical, rational, and humane American girl. It was preceded by perhaps the quirkiest of this quirky writer’s books, U and I, a short, intense, witty, digressive, demanding account of Baker’s relation to one of his literary heroes, John Updike, a brilliantly innovative work combining memoir and criticism. Baker calls it “memory criticism,” because he makes a point of not rereading the master’s numerous works, a number of which he has read “most or all of,” but, as he confesses disarmingly, he has read “fewer than five pages” of several others, “fewer than twenty pages” of still others, though “less than” or “more than half” of ten more.

In addition to U and I, Baker published two other nonfiction works. The Size of Thoughts contains a wonderfully varied collection of essays on, among other subjects, nail clippers, epistemology, the abandonment of card catalogs, model airplanes, and books as furniture. It concludes with a tour de force of more than one hundred pages on the etymology of the word “lumber.” Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper continues the meticulous near-obsessive scholarship of which Baker is capable. Its three hundred pages contain seventy-five pages of notes and references. It is a sustained attack on libraries’ increasing tendencies to abandon paper for microfilm or electronic storage, an insensate and hopelessly wrong-headed position, in Baker’s view. He feels so strongly about this subject that he has spent $26,000 to buy discarded newspaper files from libraries and is seeking appropriate storage facilities near his two-hundred-year-old doorknob-less Maine house. (He lived previously in New York and Berkeley.)

Before becoming a full-time writer in 1987, Baker worked as an oil analyst, word processor, and technical writer. In his own words, he is shy, bearded, wire-spectacled, and six feet, four inches tall. He might seem the quintessential nerd, but if he fits this stereotype to a degree, he in fact transmogrifies it. Far from shy, he is fearless, unpredictable, innovative, and risk-taking as a writer. He also manifests a generous, warm, and humane spirit, this man on whom absolutely nothing is lost.

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