Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nicholson Baker 1957-

American novelist, nonfiction writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Baker's career through 2001.

With the publication of his debut novel, The Mezzanine (1988), Baker earned critical appreciation for imbuing the minute trivialities of a modern lunch break with unseen philosophical and personal significance. In subsequent novels, including Room Temperature (1990), Vox (1992), The Fermata (1994), and The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998), Baker similarly turned his obsessive, microscopic vision to dissections of parenthood, sexual fantasy, and childhood. Baker has also published an idiosyncratic, self-deprecating homage to author John Updike, U and I (1991), for whom Baker harbors a special fascination. During the mid-1990s Baker generated considerable controversy through his condemnation of library policies that dictate the disposal of card catalogs and the wholesale destruction of valuable newspaper collections, as detailed in Double Fold (2001).

Biographical Information

Born in Rochester, New York, Baker displayed an early interest in mechanical inventions and the arts, a creative disposition encouraged by his parents, who met each other while attending the Parson's School of Design in New York City. Baker began playing the bassoon as a fourth-grader, and his love for music later became evident in his writing. He spent his first year of college at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where he enrolled with the intention of becoming a composer. However, he changed his major to English and transferred to Haverford College, earning his undergraduate degree in 1980. Baker then went to work on Wall Street, first as an oil analyst, then briefly as a stockbroker. After more than a year in New York City, Baker moved to Berkeley, California, to be with Margaret Brentano, whom he married in 1985. While living in Berkeley, he attended a two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California. After successfully publishing several pieces of short fiction in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, Baker moved his family back to the East Coast, where they settled in Boston. He worked at various temporary jobs as a technical writer and word processor, while continuing to develop his fiction writing skills. Baker's literary experiments prompted him to consider that his peculiar approach to storytelling would be better served by abandoning traditional plot structure. This culminated in the publication of his first major work, The Mezzanine, in 1988. Baker continued to build his literary reputation with his novels as well as his collected essays in The Size of Thoughts (1996). During the 1998 Bill Clinton presidential scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, interest in Baker's novel Vox soared when it was revealed that Lewinsky had apparently purchased a copy of the book—which centers around a phone sex relationship—for President Clinton. In a 1994 article published in the New Yorker, titled “Discards,” Baker admonished library administrators for destroying card catalogs, a bibliographic format that Baker views as invaluable accretions of unique, specialized knowledge. Baker has asserted that this knowledge and data is lost in the conversion to electronic databases. Baker subsequently became an ardent advocate for the preservation of deaccessioned library copies of original late nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century American newspapers. In 1999 he purchased a segment of a large newspaper collection auctioned off by the British Library, a sale that he was unable to prevent despite his public activism. He subsequently founded the American Newspaper Repository in a New Hampshire warehouse, over which he presides in an effort to save other newspapers of historical value from destruction.

Major Works

Exhibiting an affinity for minutiae and ponderous disquisition, Baker is noted for transforming otherwise banal human activities into finely wrought descriptions of thought and serious consideration. His technique of extreme magnification and loitering contemplation is described as creating a “clogging” effect in his fiction, thus slowing narrative time to a near standstill while retraining the reader's attention on otherwise overlooked objects and minor events, all presented through Baker's scrupulous authorial subjectivity. The Mezzanine, an essentially plotless, stream-of-consciousness novel, examines in great detail the lunch-hour activities of a young office worker named Howie. His simple lunch—a hot dog, cookie, and milk—and purchase of a new pair of shoelaces are juxtaposed against his reading of a paperback edition of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Baker's digressive novel contains copious footnotes, some of which are several pages long, while following the ruminations of Howie as he contemplates a variety of everyday objects and occurrences, including how paper milk cartons replaced glass milk bottles, the miracle of perforation, and the nature of plastic straws, vending machines, paper towel dispensers, and popcorn poppers. Room Temperature, like The Mezzanine, is structured around an isolated segment of time, in this case a period of twenty minutes during which the protagonist, Mike, feeds his infant daughter her bottle. In this compressed time frame, Mike reflects upon his life, moving randomly through his childhood, college days, and tender moments with his wife and their new baby. Baker's next book, U and I, is a genre-defying departure from his previous novels. Ostensibly a paean to John Updike, whom Baker considers his literary mentor though the two have hardly met, U and I chronicles Baker's sincere—and somewhat pathological—admiration of Updike as well as his peevish envy of the gifted older author. In addition to celebrating Updike's genius and inventing fantasies of meaningful interactions with the author, Baker employs a self-styled form of “memory criticism,” in which he relies on his own—often faulty—memory of Updike's writings, rather than rereading or studying them in preparation. This method is intended to reveal the essence of the author's influence without the distorting effects of scholarship.

Baker's next two novels, Vox and The Fermata, are provocative forays into literary pornography. Vox revolves around an extended phone sex call between two single adults, Jim and Abby, who exchange highly explicit sexual fantasies. As in Baker's earlier novels, time in Vox is compressed, in this case limited to the duration of an actual telephone conversation. The Fermata, presented as the autobiography of a man named Arno Strine, takes as its premise the protagonist's ability to stop time for everyone in the world except himself—the book's title refers to the musical notation for a pause or hold. Rather than use this suspended period, which he calls the “Fold,” to steal money or possessions, Arno uses it to fondle and sexually exploit women or to write pornography and then masturbate. Though adamant that he is harmless—because he refrains from raping the women outright and because he is clean-cut, conscientious, neat, and well educated—Arno is still a chilling voyeur and stalker. Eventually he finds true love and returns to graduate school, relinquishing his supernatural power over time. In The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays, Baker delves deeply into his preoccupation with triviality, including model airplane kits, nail clippers, and a recipe for a chocolate confection. The volume includes two major essays, “Discards,” Baker's previously published exposé on the destruction of library card catalogs, and “Lumber,” a lengthy etymological study of the word “lumber.” Together, these essays reaffirm Baker's belief that the sum of tiny details, often overlooked or ignored by most, is what makes the objects we see and use every day both relevant and meaningful. As Baker suggests, by exploring the connections that form the histories of words, manufacturing processes, or the accumulated knowledge contained in card catalogs, people build understanding and knowledge and thus honor the wisdom of the past. The Everlasting Story of Nory describes one year in the life of a nine-year-old girl whose family has moved from California to a small town in England. In company with Baker's other novels, there is no actual plot but instead the work is formatted as a record of Nory's thoughts and observations during her fourth grade year. Double Fold is a philippic written against the practice in libraries of destroying original documents in order to make them accessible in other ways, such as microfilm or microfiche. A major departure from Baker's usual work, the book describes his personal and costly crusade to save as many bound, original, complete runs of major United States newspapers as possible. Unfortunately, in the name of creating space on library shelves, many have been pulped or sold to dealers who supply pages for personal birthdays, anniversaries, or other events. Baker singles out the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the British Library, and the libraries of Yale University and the University of Chicago for special criticism and traces the funding for the debacle to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford and Mellon foundations. Baker makes a number of recommendations—portions of which are now being implemented in major research libraries in the United States—and calls into question the current trend of creating digital images of print originals, suggesting that this new technology may lead to the wholesale pulping of the actual books and periodicals.

Critical Reception

Baker's approach to fiction, particularly in The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, has been critically acclaimed for its originality and linguistic virtuosity. As critics have noted, these novels showcase Baker's trademark style: highly descriptive, focused prose; fierce attention to detail; and delight in the odd, the mundane, and discrete slices of time. However, reviewers have been sharply divided regarding the literary merit of his subsequent work. While many commentators have disapproved of Vox and The Fermata due to their perceived vulgarity, others have found them fascinating, erotic explorations of contemporary, post-AIDS sexual mores. The Fermata has been strongly criticized as chauvinistic and dull at best, and insidiously misogynistic at worst, even leading some reviewers to demand a reevaluation of Baker's previous work. Even more sympathetic critics have conceded that, at three hundred pages, Baker's longest work of fiction, the masturbation fantasies of The Fermata exceed the reader's patience and interest. Baker's literary experiment in The Everlasting Story of Nory has met with mixed reviews. While some found his effort to convey the inner life and experiences of a nine-year-old year girl perceptive and touching, others viewed Baker's project as ill-conceived and tiresomely sentimental. Likewise, Baker's eccentric perspective and unorthodox approach have led to uneven assessments of his essays and nonfiction works. His homage to Updike in U and I has been viewed as an engaging and innovative literary autobiography by some, though others have found Baker's use of Updike as a foil for himself egotistical and disingenuous. The Size of Lumber has been generally praised for its two major essays, despite the suggested inferiority of the collection's slighter pieces. As with his essay “Discards,” Baker's attack on library policy in Double Fold has attracted heated debate among librarians, bibliophiles, and scholars. Though undoubtedly winning sympathy and a measure of publicity for his cause, Baker has been criticized for undermining his case by arguing polemically and ignoring the realities of historical inquiry. His fiction has been favorably compared to that of Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Powers, and Steven Millhauser.