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SOURCE: Harris, Michael. Review of Room Temperature, by Nicholson Baker. Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 April 1990): 6.
[In the following review, Harris praises the details and intricate observations recorded in Room Temperature.]
Many look but few observe, as Sherlock Holmes noted to Dr. Watson, and a technical writer named Mike, the narrator of [Room Temperature, a] short second novel by Nicholson Baker (the first was Mezzanine) is definitely one of the observers. Bottle-feeding his six-month-old daughter, nicknamed “the Bug,” on a fall afternoon in Quincy, Mass., in the apartment he shares with his working wife, Patty, he asserts that “with a little concentration one's whole life could be reconstructed from any single 20-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.” He then proceeds to prove it.
Without leaving his rocking chair, Mike shuttles back and forth between his past as a precocious kid and college-dorm Romeo and his present as an awed new parent. His mode of travel is the long, intricate sentence, which he views as indispensable for the “careful interpretation and weighing” of “novelties of social and technological life.” His fuel consists of details so fine, and so finely observed (whether of nose-picking or model airplanes, the taste of Bic pens or the mutual sounding-out talk of newlyweds, the clucking noises the Bug makes or the shape of a spoonful of peanut butter, which leads him to imagine impishly what his wife, when pregnant, would have looked like in a wind tunnel), that they give off propulsive heat and spurt the reader along with delicious little jolts of recognition.
True, Mike's life is a sheltered one, and Baker is blatantly showing off (like a teen-ager solving quadratic equations while winning a bubble-gum-blowing contest). Room Temperature has a smug, tour de force-y quality to it. But it also includes some of the tenderest, most delicate interaction between husband and wife, adult and infant, in modern fiction, demonstrating what John Updike, no mean observer himself, meant when he wrote of artists who imitate God. “Details are the giant's fingers. He seizes the stick and strips the bark and shows, burning beneath, the moist white wood of joy.”
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SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Odd Couple.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 147 (19 April 1991): 34.
[In the following review, Loose commends the comedy and complex ruminations in U and I, noting its examination of the rivalry between Baker and author John Updike.]
U and I, an idiosyncratic essay on John Updike (the “U” of the title), is a creepy piece of madness, and its author, Nicholson Baker, an enragingly irreverent smart-ass. If this sounds a little severe, I should explain that these comments come from U and I itself. To anticipate criticism is often to disarm it, as Baker knows well (“Who will sort out the self-servingness of self-effacement?”). Yet this is a peculiarly risky book, and some readers may agree with Baker's assessment of himself as an “enthusiastic, slightly crazed, fringe, no-bullshit idiot-savant”.
For well over a decade, Baker has been obsessed with Updike. U and I starts as a kind of elaborate IOU, a tribute to the older author's protean genius. Baker jokingly terms his impressionistic approach a “closed book examination”, for he draws exclusively on his existing knowledge of Updike's work (rather less than half of an extensive output). In Baker's short, hugely enjoyable novels, characters' thoughts spiral out from some small-scale object (a shoelace, a baby's bottle) to form self-portraits of unexpected complexity. In U and I, his ruminations begin with his feelings about Updike, and the result is an autobiography as anguished as it is amusing. Quite simply, Baker discovers in himself that decidedly non-U emotion—envy.
One awful, bitter realisation fuels U and I: “He writes better than I do and he is smarter than I am.” This difficult truth provokes jealous awe (“Clever bastard!”, “He's a fucking maestro!”), pointed stylistic criticism, and some very funny confrontations, both real and imaginary.
Baker fantasises about engaging his maître in literary conversation during a round of golf (although he can't actually play). Updike appears to him in a dream as a drunk train conductor, and, back in excruciating reality, Baker button-holes the great man at a Harvard party (Updike politely advises him to keep writing).
Driven throughout by “some grinding gear of self-betrayal”, Baker plays manic court jester to Updike's unassailable majesty. Inevitably, Baker's anxieties over literary belatedness are less entertaining than the everyday worries of his fictional protagonists, who fret about nose-picking, using the office loo, and marital intimacy. There is also something exhausting about his insistence on showing us more of himself than we want to see—for example, his welcoming of psoriasis as one more testimony to his likeness to Updike.
But U and I appears less of an oddity in the context of American confessionalism, especially when set against Updike's own autobiography, Self-Consciousness. Here, Updike also discloses an early “frantic ambition and insecurity”, a sense of “the self-serving corruptions of fiction”, and, strikingly, describes his own memoirs as “shabby” and “scab-picking”. Baker, elsewhere so alert to self-deception, apparently overlooks how U and I strives to outdo its precursor in relentless truth-dealing. In the end, though, it is hard not to warm to such candour. The tragicomedy of literary rivalry has never been expressed so nakedly, or so well.
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SOURCE: Strawson, Galen. “Writing under the Influence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4594 (19 April 1991): 20-1.
[In the following review of U and I, Strawson objects to Baker's egocentric view of literary interpretation and his erroneous assessment of John Updike.]
U is for Updike, and U and I records Nicholson Baker's admiration for the man and his writing. The psychopathology of his relation to Updike is fairly remarkable, and the book raises some familiar questions about the phenomenon of literary influence. It is written in free fantasia form, and it may be an act of love. But it is also highly ambivalent, and it is astoundingly egocentric. This explains some of its insights as well as its remarkable implausibilities: both are the products of an intense narrowness in the beam of Baker's attention.
Early on in U and I he announces that he has read considerably less than half of Updike's writings, and declares his intention not to read any more until he has finished the book. He proposes a new critical genre which he calls “memory criticism”: he will respond only to what he remembers (or usually misremembers) of Updike without any refreshment. In this way, he believes, he will discover the true trace that Updike has left in him, undistorted by scholarship; for he wants “to represent as accurately as I can what I think of Updike when he comes to mind not when I summon him to mind.”
This is a very attractive project, especially since Baker has a promisingly imperfect memory (in the printed text he follows misremembered quotations with the correct version in square brackets). But he doesn't really carry it through; the I engulfs the U. In the end, U and I is almost all about Baker. He has very little of interest to say about Updike, over and above a number of routine and carefully styled remarks about his adjectival resourcefulness and his part in the completion of the “sexual revolution” (Updike being the “first to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose”, and to bring “a serious, Prousto-Nabokovian, morally sensitive, National-Book-Award-winning prose style to bear on the micromechanics of physical lovemaking”.) For the rest, the book is nearly all Baker—his likes and dislikes, his treasured limitations, his microfastidiousness, his sense of his own creepiness, his amazing ambition (naked doesn't convey it; it is flayed) and his terror of originality-impugning influences, of contagion by other people's adjectives and images.
So Updike is not really Baker's subject. But he is still his vehicle. Baker doesn't really believe in (male) friendship, still less in friendship between writers. Nevertheless he likes and admires this “senior living writer”. He does so because he thinks Updike is a genius, but also because Updike is alive, male, heterosexual and a sufferer from psoriasis—in short because he has a lot in common with Baker. Baker finds he prefers to read what Updike wrote when he was Baker's age or younger, for then he was even more like Baker than he is now, and therefore more interesting to Baker.
This is perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this book. Baker suggests that he cannot really hope to understand anyone who is not pretty much like himself (alive, male, heterosexual, etc). He insists on this constriction in his powers of sympathetic and imaginative identification, and then assumes that it is universal—rather as people assume that their experience of sexual matters is universally shared (at least by members of their own sex). It is tempting to suppose that he is influenced here by his knowledge of the philosophy of science, and of the Kuhn-Feyerabend doctrine of the radical “incommensurability” (or mutual unintelligibility) of succeeding scientific theories. For such a doctrine easily encourages a general scepticism about our capacities to understand people different from ourselves. Be that as it may, his conviction that this is our shared predicament resounds through the book.
The problem shows right at the beginning. Baker wants to write about a living writer because he thinks we can't really take dead ones seriously. We patronize them; when we write about them we reveal how “alien and childlike the shades now are to us”, however recently they have died. “Posthumously their motives become ludicrously simple … all their emotions wear stage makeup. … We can't really understand them anymore.” And, as for humour, all we can generally do is “laugh politely whenever we sense … that a dead person is trying to be funny”.
Perhaps Baker should sit down and laugh with some millennially defunct author like Aristophanes. But this might not work for him, because he is truly strange. Once a remark of Samuel Johnson's made him laugh out loud, and he became confused: he was sure that “Johnson had to be alive somewhere, right then, in seclusion, forgotten by reporters, in order for his words to have made so direct a connection with me.”
Why can we only understand the living? Baker says it is because the living “are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church”. And this makes it seem that his central point is simply that the general surroundings of the living may be very familiar to us, so that their experience is truly comprehensible to us. But in fact this is not his point. For one can find this familiarity equally in the writings of the recently dead, and they are already lost in alienation and childishness just by being dead. It is mere aliveness that matters to Baker, the awareness that the author is travelling through time together with Nicholson Baker, now and now and now. Only on these terms can he really understand the author, or so he says.
This looks like another bizarre manifestation of Baker's ego. For most have no sense that their understanding of a work is predicated on the continuing heartbeat of its author. Nor do they find that their understanding of the dead is restricted to the recently dead. They read Ovid or Jane Austen with an understanding grounded in a common humanity. Baker obviously has some sort of emotional intelligibility in mind when he talks about understanding, for when it comes to other sorts the author of Genesis seems pretty accessible; but so far as emotional understanding is concerned, many find no deep difference between John Updike and Saint Augustine—some connecting more easily with the latter than with the former.
It is true that there is a kind of Quaintness Effect that can interfere with one's reading of someone like Chaucer, and emotional understanding of long-dead authors may be partial simply because they are culturally remote. But it may also be total in parts, given the great constants in human life and nature. When Malory's Guinevere gets angry with Lancelot, there is nothing we do not understand. Bakerian “incommensurabilists” may dismiss this as illusion, but they will be wrong. Nowhere does the line between the living and the dead seem of less importance than in literature. Baker may be right that critics tend to write differently (he thinks “patronizingly”) about the dead. But the principal explanation of this is not that the dead are infantilized by death. It is simply that when one writes about the living one writes with the awareness that one's subject may read what one writes. And this is a significant constraint for some, whether or not it affects their critical judgment.
Baker is weird about aliveness, then (it isn't as if he feels anything as simple as Gorky, who said that he was not an orphan on the earth so long as Tolstoy was alive). The fact remains that he wants to write about living Updike, Updike vivax (he would like him to be immortal). And of course this is a reasonable project. But why Updike? Well, it isn't just that you have to be alive in order for Baker to appreciate what you write. You have to be Baker-like, Baker-friendly, for he is incapable of being truly persuaded by anything anyone else says unless he feels that the person in question has some special connection with himself. If he is to be convinced by a proposition, he has first to feel “that someone like me, and someone I like … and who is at least notionally in the same room with me, does or can possibly hold it to be compellingly true. … Before you can accept it as true, you need to have the sensation, the illusion, that something is said directly to you, or that the idea has occurred to someone who resembles you enough to serve as your emotional plenipotentiary.” Baker's own book provides a direct counter-example to this, however; for the emotional distance and distaste which many will feel on reading U and I will not prevent them, if they have any sense, from acknowledging that he can be exceptionally acute.
As for the case which Baker considers—the case in which feelings of spiritual affinity do occur: here it seems that Baker has things exactly the wrong way round. For normally it is the sense that what is said is true that comes first: it is this that may lead one to feel that one is in emotional affinity with the author. But Baker's ego problem blocks this possibility. He has to have a prior sense that the author, X, is speaking directly to him, and resembles him enough to serve as his emotional plenipotentiary, before he can really make contact with X or take anything that X says as compellingly true. It follows that it must be other features of X that confer emotional plenipotentiary status on X—eg, X's being male, heterosexual, middle-class, psoriatic, and so on. It is not clear how much is needed, but without a sufficiency, Baker non capisce.
What can one say? Kant pointed out that “the dear self is always turning up”, but this is not accurate in Baker's case, because a thing can't be said to turn up unless it can be at least momentarily occluded. He does sometimes try to talk about non-Bakerians, for example when he makes some uneasy remarks about the pre-eminence of women and male homosexuals among novelists, and expresses his relief that Updike is heterosexual, since it proves that male heterosexuals can do it too. But when he ventures out of the Bakery he relapses into overstrenuous, hortatory, adolescent essay form. Proposing that Angus Wilson's Hemlock and After was an influence on Lolita, he goes on:
Nabokov must have noticed how the undisguisedly gay angle of attack lit the old, overnovelized mores from new angles, and that a similarly reawakened sense of nanomanners might result from a fictional situation whose raking unthinkableness stirred his own endocrines more.
Of course, Edmund White's apostrophe to the narrator's boyfriend's bottom … would not have been possible without Updike's wide screen description of a neighbor's pussy; but nonetheless it is the homosexual novel right now, perhaps to an unusual degree, that seems to be driving us all toward advances and improvements.
Baker can do better; he can handle a heavily sub-claused 300-word sentence with some skill, and the lumpishness of much of the writing is probably intentional (it seems designed to give a sense of conversational spontaneity). There are good phrases among the writerly duds (where he has been too assiduous in his I-never-use-Roget's-Thesaurus pursuit of some “refulgent dinglebolly of an adjective”), and there are moments of humour, as when he imagines playing golf with Updike. He has some good remarks about what happens when “constitutionally ungross people” try to be gross, and sometimes he is even winning in his admiration for Updike, his exhibitionistic fealty, his quasi-comic self-abasement. But—and Baker, who has quite a lot to say about reviewers and reviewing, knows the limited-praise-followed-by-“but” device, and has probably anticipated the whole set of possible reviews of this book in some detail—it is rare to find a book in which the complicitous, as-you-know-and-I-know tone is adopted so often, and with so many “of courses”, in cases where what is said seems to be so plainly false. Even his literary judgments in passing seem startlingly off-beam. Updike's routine use of the routine phrase “consorts with” makes him despair of writing as well as him, and the sentence he offers as an example of Updike's “terrifying mastery” (“In its residue of bliss experienced, in its charge of bliss conveyed, Glory, measures up as, though the last to arrive, far from the least of this happy man's Russian novels”) just seems unfortunate.
Baker's main subject is being a writer, and his chillingly cosy “we writers” manner is hard to stomach. His clubby nudging is unrelenting as he moves among the authors (the heroes, the hypocrites écrivains, the friends who cannot really be friends because they are rivals, and the rest of the “frumpy gathering of professional scribes”). He knows his manner is unattractive, and comments on his “oddly smartass tone”, but his self-awareness does not redeem him. At the same time, he has quite a lot to say about the littlenesses of the writing life (in passages that are somehow of a piece with his rhapsody on nose-picking in his novel Room Temperature), and he is interesting on the choice between a simple and a mannered style, and on the way in which excessive commitment to the one may later propel a writer into the other.
But it is his terror of influence and self-repetition that rises to dominate his discussion of writing (he can't bring himself to read The Anxiety of Influence). Although he is still young, he is already worrying about the “management” problems posed by his past vocabulary. How do you keep track? How do you deal with the “overfertile sump of your past usages”? Baker's own novels are on computer disk, so that he can run a word-search to see if he has been overusing a word like “armature” or “florilegia”. But how can he be sure that he has remembered to check all the words he needs to check? At this point—such are the ways of “memory criticism”—the therapist in Updike's story “The Fairy Godfathers” fails to come to his mind: “You spend so much of your own energy—he smiled—avoiding repeating yourself.”
Baker is also on permanent alert for the influence of others. His image-detection systems are constantly scanning for surreptitious incoming. Most of his miscellaneous reading is prompted by the need to check that what he has written doesn't overlap with what he has read. One of his fundamental principles is apparently resumed in the phrase “Updike already used it and … it is [therefore] off-limits”. But it doesn't have to be Updike, it could be anyone, and it is an interesting question where the word ban begins. “Now” and “because” are presumably safe from Updike-appropriation—together with “go”, “ball”, “see”. Adjectives are potentially more vulnerable, although “big” and “green” seem reasonably uncontaminable. But nothing—is really safe: at one point Baker is possessed by the idea that the phrase “seem to remember” is now peculiarly Updikean. And then he confesses that the word “‘seem’ is even on its own so treacherously alluring an Updikeanism … that I always feel a twinge of derivativeness when I resort to it”.
Although he is devoted to Updike, Baker attacks him on one main count: he accuses him of cruelty as a writer of fiction and as a critic. As an example of fictional cruelty he cites a short story in which the narrator, speaking of his wife, says “In the morning, to my relief, you are ugly … the skin between your breasts is a sad yellow.” Baker considers this to be “inexcusably brutal”. “How can Updike have the whatever, the disempathy … to put in print that his wife appeared ugly to him that morning, especially in so vivid a way? It just oughtn't to be done!”
As one example of critical cruelty he takes Updike's remark that Nabokov's Glory “never really awakens to its condition as a novel, its obligation to generate suspense”. He then puts the view (attributed to Auden by Cyril Connolly)
that you should not speak ill of any writer, living or dead, to anyone but your closest friends, and absolutely not in print. Simply don't talk about, don't give space to, things you don't like. I think I agree with that, except in cases where the writer has invited criticism by being intemperately critical himself. Thus I was wrong to gripe about Updike's queasy adolescent heroes …, but I was justified in slamming him for slamming Nabokov as not supplying suspense or for calling his fictional wife yellow-skinned in the morning. We don't want the sum of pain or dissatisfaction to be increased by a writer's printed passage through the world. His task is simply to delight and to instruct as well as he can.
Baker's main objection is “hey, why do that to people?” But he confuses this suspect moral position with an error about aesthetics when he implies that accurate description and harsh criticism cannot delight or instruct whatever their subject. He probably knows that ugliness is a complex matter, and that lovers attach to each other's moments of ugliness as much as to their moments of beauty. And yet he holds that one should not write about such things even in fiction, in case one's sources think they recognize themselves and get hurt. When one writes, one should cut life in half; if one wants to be daring, one should stick to nose-picking and “big jobs”. Baker goes on about this until it begins to look as if he has a limited understanding of the concept of fiction; one's suspicions are confirmed by his inability to grasp the (provocatively expressed) truth in Updike's remark that the capacity to lie is the most important attribute of the novelist. As for his ban on criticism of the living, his desire for universal blandness seems destructive and miserable. Most books are bad, and this ought to remain a public fact. The refusal to criticize is a form of insult. It seems as if Baker wants us to patronize and infantilize the living, having argued that we can't help doing it to the dead. His case deteriorates further when he claims that Updike has “the defining quality of a major writer: he exists above the threshold of assent, that faint magenta line over which nothing he can do can possibly be felt as a mistake”; for there is surely no such line.
There are many more problems with this extremely interesting, enjoyable and consistently implausible book; but the main problem is this. Baker thinks he is like Updike but he is not. They differ like earth and air. Updike is raptor quartering middle-class America; Baker is a mole who stays at home. Baker writes because he wants to be a “major writer”. Updike (whatever his failures and desires) writes because that is what he was put on earth to do. Updike has the religious temperament in the largest sense (which need not imply belief in any religious dogma). Baker appears to lack it to an unusual degree.
This is part of what makes his fiction interesting, and when he is not behaving like a mole who thinks he is an eagle, he is very good indeed. But a great gap remains between U and I. It is not a gap that heterosexuality and psoriasis can close. When he is on form Updike seems to have serendipity on tap, however efficient and calculating he may also be. His gift is always outrunning his application. By contrast, Baker's gift is his application. Both at their best are beautifully observant, but even at their most precise Updike's factual acquisitions are always going beyond themselves, and serving some (large) emotional or other symbolic purpose, whereas Baker's descriptions tend to be tightly geared down and done for their own sake (or else they tend to be merely sentimental). His interest in objects is essentially in objects en soi, whereas in Updike's hands things always seem to be turning into expressions of human feeling.
One wants both sorts of writer, but it is puzzling to see the first claiming deep affinity with the second. As U and I continues, one begins to wonder whether Baker really understands Updike; and realizes that, on his own principles, he does not.
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Psoriasis and All.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1991): 3, 9.
[In the following review, Eder discusses U and I, commenting that the work seems to be a plea directed at John Updike for acknowledgment.]
In The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker extracted a whole personal cosmology out of a lunch hour, much of it spent on the escalator returning to his office. In Room Temperature, he harvested another crop of autobiography and musings from an hour spent giving his baby a bottle and putting her to sleep.
Miniaturist of time and experience, one of our most original and gifted new writers, Baker is the supreme literary string-saver. His books, all short and, in the case of this new one [U and I], bound roughly the size of Winnie the Pooh, are friends to trees; ecological microcosms.
The grain of sand he sees the world in is actually a microdot volcano; his angels tussle furiously on their pinhead. Baker writes with appealing charm—sometimes almost too charmingly—but the appeal is clamorous and just short of desperate. See me, he tells the reader; move in with me.
In U and I, he turns the table. This account of his long literary attachment to John Updike—true enough but also, in its strut and dazzle, a fiction—gives us a reader all but literally moving in on a writer. Not just on his writing, but on everything he knows or imagines about him: Updike's career, his habits, his pleasures, his family and his notably self-described psoriasis.
And since Baker is a writer, it is, of course, a reciprocal plea to Updike to see him, to move in with him, to consider his psoriasis. He shares the skin condition, and he inveigles the reader into believing—all three different ways at once—that it is a matter of coincidence, of effrontery and of literary destiny.
Baker clowns and shows off, sometimes with the foolishness of a boy walking atop a picket fence to capture a girl's attention. He rambles and pounces hard; he says acute things, extravagant things, terribly funny things. The reader is as off-balance as the writer, never sure whether the next paragraph will captivate, irritate or convulse.
Baker casts Updike as mentor, to be emulated and argued with; as father, to be loved and surpassed, and, hesitantly, as literary buddy. Out of it comes his writer's and reader's serious message about reading and writing. It appears and whisks off; Baker feints towards his thoughts as a squirrel advances toward a proffered and possibly dangerous nut. It is the notion of human mediation as agent of our engagement with literature and art.
“Friends are the only real means for foreign ideas to enter your brain,” he writes. It was his mother laughing at an Updike phrase, that caught his attention, when he was 17 and wanted to be a musician. The laugh, deeper and more personal than most, embedded Updike in him, along with the notion of being a writer.
His impressionistic ramble around Updike the writer and Updike the personage, his decision to reread nothing and to cite only what floated up into his memory, “to represent as accurately as I can what I think of him when he comes to mind, not when I summon him to mind”; this idiosyncratic method, which he names “memory criticism”—remembering and forgetting being supremely spontaneous critical acts—has its weakness, he tells us.
It is not just inaccuracy. (He quotes Updike just as he remembers him, avoiding the temptation to check; and appends in brackets the accurate version, researched only after he finished writing. The effect is like a library in argument with a writer.) The real weakness of the method, he says, is that “it depends to an unusual extent on whether you like me.”
U and I evolves in an apparently artless sequence of thoughts and associations. It is, in fact, astonishingly patterned, with only an occasional digression to a dead end or through more mud than we may want. Baker's digressions have an uncanny way of doubling back and landing us exhilaratingly right in the heart of things.
For example, he reads in the local paper just after Halloween that the police had made available a metal detector to screen candy. Updike, he broods, would have known about it beforehand, would have gone to watch, would have written a beguiling Talk of the Town piece about it in The New Yorker. And he would have done it at 25, when he was just starting out. And here Baker is in his 30s, and too late, anyway; and furthermore, just thinking about it and not actually doing it.
It is a sample of the comically brooding rivalry that he gives us throughout the book, but it is more. Because at the end, he describes the entire passage as “a little trick-or-treating of my own on Updike's big white front porch.”
Here we have the essence of his book. It is a reaching out to Updike—“see me, see me”; admiration for the grace with which the older man writes even his minor pieces—“the haberdashery of genius”; and his own semi-despair and occasional hatred. Finally, it puts aside all these things, and his fear of being an imitator—comically alluded to over and over. And, with that “trick-or-treating,” using a phrase as expansive and deadly as one of Updike's own: and that, for all its kinship, is Baker's alone. And he accepts the kinship, finally, and moves on.
Baker's ingenious and teeming mind makes a reviewer want to forget about scenes and simply quote him. There is, for example, his account of deciding to start this book about what Updike has meant to him. Donald Barthelme had died; Baker's first thought was to write a letter to The New Yorker, which had published one or two of his pieces, and say something so graceful that it would be used in the magazine's invariably graceful tributes to its dead contributors.
He recalls his envy and admiration over Updike's New Yorker tribute to Nabokov. And then he thought that Updike was getting older, and that he seemed to be writing about it more and more. There was a feeling of closure. He thought of losing someone who, more than a writer of fiction, was in every sense a man of letters, his own generation's “personal connection to literature.” Without that literary mentorship, he would be “confronted at last with the terrifying unmediated immensity of the cast-concrete university library whose anti-theft gates go click, click, click, click as we leave; dry laughter at how few books we … have with us.”
There are some wonderfully, ruefully comic passages, involving his hopes of meeting Updike, whom he only met, in fact, twice and briefly. Updike visits Rochester to talk about Melville. Baker, with his mother, goes up afterwards to get Rabbit Is Rich signed. (He dithers, of course, about whether he should present some less obvious choice.)
When he reaches the table, he tells the writer that, visiting The New Yorker office, he'd noticed that an Updike story was about to appear. Politely, Updike asks what he'd been doing there, thus allowing Baker to say that the magazine was about to publish one of his own stories.
“So we're fellow contributors,” he adds with ghastly blitheness. “And I'm his mother,” his mother calls out from behind, waving. Updike is kind; we are shattered with embarrassment; Baker, having survived his own shattering, gives us a moment of hilarious, terrible truth.
There are languors in U and I and a few side trips we may just as soon not take. There is Baker's picket-fence-dancing absurdity in claiming that most great novelists have been women or gay (most?), and in remarking that Shakespeare is great but not when performed on the stage. Perhaps, so splendidly cultivating his own garden, he has not traveled to see English, Italian, French, Polish, German, Swedish … oh, never mind … Shakespeare. What does a temperate-zone homebody gardener know of bananas?
But he has written a funny, passionate and moving book about the complex tremors of the young creator before the older one, of his sense of anguish, jealousy, admiration, and shining company in a solitary universe.
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SOURCE: Scammell, William. “Sorry It's Late, Will This Do?” Spectator 266, no. 8458 (25 May 1991): 32.
[In the following review, Scammell offers a negative assessment of U and I.]
First I made the usual phone call, to a man I've never met, sitting in a building I've never visited, presiding over the literary half of a magazine I seldom read and whose politics I disapprove of. ‘Anything to review?’, I said. For some perverse reason I like reviewing. It brings in a little money, it flushes out the opposition (those with erroneous attachments), it keeps my name vaguely afloat in the public prints, it allows me to sound off or let fall a quotation (my overnight bag of wisdoms), it keeps my shelves occupied, my right hand busy, and my brain nicely pickled in ink. ‘There's Nicholson Baker’, he said. ‘How do you feel about Nicholson Baker?’ ‘Never heard of him’. ‘He's written two novels. Miniature cult figure. Decidedly literary’. When the jiffy-bag landed I took in the cool cover, author's photo (a James Fenton look-alike, scaled down a little), and a bit of the text [in U and I]. Think Julian Barnes, think Nabokov, think Updike—putative hero of the entire exercise—think navel, think fluff, think reflexive postmodernist, think nano-seconds and Nebraskan highways of pure idiom divorced from anything so vulgar as happenings.
It gave off an odour of sawdust and pastiche, as does Updike himself, probably the most overrated figure in American letters since Wallace Stevens, stuff to floss your teeth with when they're already brushed. The benevolent unknown commissioner only wanted a few hundred words, but could I write them? I could not. The book accompanied me up and down the motorway to Nottingham, where I am, temporarily, for the first time in my life, an official Writer (in Res, cogitans or no). It came on an Arvon course, breathing the purest north Devon air, which freshened its unwholesome lungs not one whit. It moved around my study and occasionally my mind, provoking various opening ploys and paras (at one stage I fancied an extended analogy with sub-atomic physics, hunting the snark of the smallest conceivable units of matter/meaning).
Then I picked up the Independent on Sunday and found Craig Raine closeted with this self-same artyfact, cartwheeling on pinheads, and that decided me, that sent a rush of blood to the biro. Who are these guys, I thought, in the spirit of Newman and Redford being tracked by indefatigable sign-readers (Butch Cassidy, remember?). How do they slide into Granta and Cape and the public purse? Am I the last of the Four Just Readers, the only man left on earth who can smell a rot? Of course not. It just feels that way, sometimes, often.
U is Updike, you see; Nicholson Baker is Nicholson Baker, a man with two surnames and a fixation on Updike which he'd like to turn into a book. ‘The arrogance of engineering your appearance of humility was itself fluorescently vile’, that sort of thing. Brilliant, d'you see, self-flagellatingly top-hole, rebarbativeness reified. What's more, and just to spoil my peroration, it has a good new (to me) word, ‘plasmodium’, which the author, now I've looked it up, can be seen to have used with the utmost precision, appropriateness and aplomb. But no, I'm not going out on a U-turn or as a Mr-facing-both-ways. It festers, mightily, and no amount of Baker's vigorous agreement lessens the pong.
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SOURCE: McFadden, Cyra. “All the Right Buttons.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 February 1992): 2, 9.
[In the following review, McFadden examines the plot, style, and characters in Vox, noting the clever humor and wordplay.]
Reader, would you pick up the phone? Thank you.
Nicholson Baker's novel Vox is cast in the form of a telephone conversation. I thought that we ought to discuss it the same way, except that our chat will be cheaper. In the book, Jim and Abby meet on an adult party line, VOX2, with a ＄2-per-minute charge.
Their conversation is explicit, often funny and, above all, erotic. Talk about “reach out and touch someone.” It's difficult to discuss the book in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, though. Only last week, Queen Victoria was on the cover. Believe me, Vox couldn't be more of a departure, although Abby does have a taste for Victorian pornography. In fact, Baker's creation will remind you of that old Q&A, “Is sex dirty?” “It is if you do it right.”
Beginning with Jim's question, “What are you wearing?,” he and Abby feed each other's fantasies, describe their intimate histories, and finally, reach simultaneous climax. You'd think that the thought of what this call is costing would cool their ardor somewhat (I almost wrote “put a damper on things,” but I'm determined to avoid the double-entendre). Not so; while you can't describe theirs as a love match, the two are instantly compatible. Jim's never made a better investment, he tells Abby. “Really I think two dollars a minute is cheap for this. I need this. I'd spend twenty dollars a minute for this.
And there you have it, the '90s version of “I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles.” Or as Abby wryly puts it, earlier in the conversation, “The things we do for love.” She then tells Jim about a sexual technique called a Valsalva, “which is where you take a breath and you clamp your throat shut and push hard, and if you do it right; you're supposed to have a mind-blowing orgasm—tingling extremities, tingling roots of your hair, tingling teeth, I don't know, the whole business.”
For the record, I don't know, either. Tingling teeth? And to think that some people don't read fiction because they think it gives you no practical information.
Excuse me for a minute. I'll put you on hold—may I?—while I turn down the thermostat. There. That's better.
Anyway, Jim found the ad for VOX2 in a magazine called Juggs and Abby found it in Forum. You get the feeling that he does this kind of thing often, while she cleaned her apartment that afternoon and is giving herself a reward. At first, before we got to listen in, there were other callers on the line. Then Jim and Abby went off to an electronic “back room” where they could stretch out on their beds and converse “one-on-one.” It's early evening, and in Jim's part of the country, just beginning to get dark.
He lives somewhere in the west. She lives in an eastern city. Gradually, through the steam of their sex talk, their personalities emerge, although never their physical descriptions. Neither wants a concrete image of the person on the other end of the line, except that Abby wants the specs on what she calls Jim's Delgado, in homage to a high school boyfriend, and he likes to imagine her Frans, one of his words for breasts (another is Kleins). It's the anonymous voice that's the turn-on, the empty screen on which each can project his or her X-rated movie.
Their sexual tastes are similar in that they're both voyeurs and avid do-it-yourselfers. And listen, don't tell me you don't want to hear this; nobody's holding you down with a foot on your collarbone, are they? You're talking to the wrong reviewer anyway. I liked Jim and Abby. I also envy their total lack of self-consciousness.
You just know that Jim is a secure personality. How else could he admit that he finds Tinkerbell sexy in the Disney version of Peter Pan? Abby is equally self-possessed, one of those confident talkers who assume that anything they say is worth saying. Here she is on the subject of her stereo system. “I bought it from someone who was buying an even fancier system. It was true insanity. I had a crush on this person. He liked the Thompson Twins and the S.O.S. Band, and, gee, what were the other groups he liked so much? … All of the songs he liked faded out, or most of them did. And so I became a connoisseur of fade-outs. I bought cassettes. I used to turn them up very loud—with the head-phones on—and listen very closely, trying to catch that precise moment when the person in the recording studio had begun to turn my volume dial down, or whatever it was he did.”
And so on, for another page. Fade-out, except to mention, in fairness to Nicholson Baker, that this monologue ends on a comic note. “Oh! Don't cry!” Jim begs Abby when she finally shuts up. “I'm not equipped … I mean my comforting skills don't have that kind of range.”
The better anecdotist of the pair, Jim takes Abby's mention of a damaged silver fork, one that got caught in the dishwasher, and spins out a lengthy sexual reverie in which she's a jeweler who, at the request of a male customer, models bare-breasted a necklace that she's made. The tale is an erotically charged, skewed version of Cinderella.
In another story, Jim recalls scanning a shelf full of romance novels in a used book shop—Love's Hurry, Love's Eager Trial, Love's Tender Fender Bender—and realizing giddily that “They looked handled! All of their pages were turned. And turned by whom? Turned by women. … I took a historical romance off the shelf, and I felt as if I were lifting a towel that was still damp from a woman's shower. The intimacy of it!”
Baker's first novel was about a man who goes to buy shoelaces. Somehow I think that Vox will reach a wider audience than that highly praised book The Mezzanine, or his last one, U and I, a meditation on his relationship with John Updike (he has none). Baker specializes in the risky and playful, but sex is more interesting than shoelaces … What's that? You want to know what I'm wearing?
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SOURCE: Kemp, Peter. “Answering Machines.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4640 (6 March 1992): 20.
[In the following review, Kemp criticizes Vox, noting that its intended erotically-charged prose ultimately is more boring than arousing.]
In U and I (1991), Nicholson Baker expresses an especial admiration for John Updike's Self-Consciousness. It is a predictable preference. For self-consciousness, it's increasingly apparent, is Baker's mainstay as a writer. Immersed in circumstances close to his own, the narrators of his first two novels, The Mezzanine (1989) and Room Temperature (1990), characteristically alternate between nerviness and narcissism. That Baker shares this trait is made very clear by U and I, his account of his adulatory-cum-emulatory obsession with Updike. The personality that emanates from its pages is at once self-abasing and self-advertising: Baker doesn't so much back into the limelight as slither himself into it, virtually prostrate.
In fiction and autobiography alike, the Baker persona is regularly exercised by unease. Memories of past gaffes and gaucheries knot him into ecstasies of mortification. Recall of snubs and put-downs from VIPs “understandably revolted” by his squirmy approaches turns him “fuchsia” with embarrassment. Fingering his own goose-pimples, centre stage, is a favourite posture.
Oddly, none of this super-sensitivity ever causes Baker or his fictional stand-ins to flinch from intimate disclosure. His books compulsively confide anxieties about bad breath or nose-picking. The narrator of Room Temperature makes you privy to the lavatorial patterns and patter prevailing in the marital home: “we preannounced our big jobs more and more; and if Patty rattled the bathroom door and I called warningly out from outside, ‘Um! I'm in the middle of something very “big”, Baby,’ she would mock-casually ask ‘Jobbing, eh?’ and I would reply, mock-sheepishly, ‘I'm afraid I am.’” The officer-worker hero of The Mezzanine is shy, he lets you know, about urinating when anyone else is in the corporate men's room.
Elsewhere in Baker's writing, though, there's no inhibition about releasing the gush. One of the things that makes U and I so toe-curling a read is its splattery effusiveness about Updike's “terrifying mastery”, “beautiful, beautiful” phrases, “admirably quilled eyebrows”, and the like. In an epitomizing digression, Baker recounts how he “shot off” a letter of condolence to Iris Murdoch after spotting a review that unfavourably compared her The Message to the Planet to his The Mezzanine. To this missive, of which a sample is supplied (“you don't need a philistine schmuck like me to tell you how good you are, but I assure you that not one sentence in the narrow miscellany of mine … would have been conceivable without your superb and unequallable flights of intellect”), Murdoch sends “a prompt and gracious response: she said she hadn't seen the review anyway”.
Given all this, Baker's new novel, Vox, could be seen as an attempt to tap his own oscillations. For someone both bashful and exhibitionistic, its subject—telephone sex—has an obvious attraction. Likewise, it accords with his already copiously documented fondness for coupling the technological and the idiosyncratic.
As Baker's first try at a book not dominated by one voice, Vox is something of an innovation. But, in other respects, it conforms to what's gone before. Just as The Mezzanine was penned into a single lunch-hour and Room Temperature into the period of a baby's bottle-feed, so here there's a firm time delimitation: the book is confined to a single, if prolonged, phone conversation. Linked up by a sex-chat service, a man calling himself Jim and a woman calling herself Abby enjoy several hours of telephone titillation.
Readers of previous books by Baker (who announced in U and I, “I myself have never successfully masturbated to Updike's writing, though I have to certain remembered scenes in Iris Murdoch”) will rightly anticipate that some of the sexual stimuli on offer are likely to be more recherché than raunchy. But even so, what gets transmitted can be surprising.
For Baker's vocal sex partners, it quickly emerges, size does matter. To provoke thrills, things must be minute. Quizzed as to what has recently aroused him, Jim reveals that it was a glimpse of Walt Disney's Tinker Bell: “she's tiny … she's got quite small breasts but quite large little hips … she's wearing this tiny little outfit that's torn or jaggedly cut and barely covers her”. He has also, he later divulges, much appreciated “a half-inch-high ad” of a masturbating woman spotted in men's magazines. For Abby, too, the tiny is a turn-on. One fantasy she revels in is that decorators are rubbing paint on to her with “the darlingest little rollers”.
A lust for the Lilliputian has always, of course, been discernible in Baker's work. In previous book, his pièce de résistance was imaginative poring over the minuscule: eyelash curlers, commas, the cross-section of a stuffed olive. Dinky disquisitions on the significance of such minutiae were drolly attached. Compounding the scaled-down feel of it all was a taste for diminutives (“tuftlets”, “mazelet”) and terms like “nanomanners”, “metascruple” and “microbiologies”.
While applying an unusual amount of attention to details, though, Baker disregarded overall structure. Despite the neat time-spans inside which they are packed, his narratives untidily spill into heaps of brittle fragments. Even in his paean of praise to Updike, bittiness was paramount: Baker had, it turned out, read hardly any of the novels in full; what occupied his mind was a jumble of—usually misremembered—images and phrases.
In Vox, where two people are supposedly involved in a scenario of swelling excitement this tendency to meander and mull over the microscopic constitutes a considerable barrier to credibility. So does the fact that Jim and Abby sound vocally interchangeable. Both share the same line in whimsicality: for him, breasts are “frans” or “nans”; she thinks of an erect penis as “a Delgado”. Throughout their session, an unexpectedly precious note keeps making itself audible: he tweely jests about “nastybation” or gasps out ejaculations like “My gracious” and “God of mercy”; she enquires about what happens when he's “at the very top of your relevé”. Mutual climax is finally achieved via a roguish bit of fancifying about a “Bionic Mmmm-Detector” that homes in on the sexy turbulence beamed out by masturbators.
A worked-up blurb burbles excitably about this being a “dangerous” and “highly erotic book”. But the sole sexual charge it makes you conscious of is the huge phone bill that has mounted up. Vox, you're told, is “certain to be a classic of bed-side reading”. Only for those who want an early night, for, though Jim in his cute word-mongering style describes the novel's talk as “yorny”, it's really never more than yawny.
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SOURCE: Buchan, James. “It Makes You Go Blind.” Spectator 268, no. 8540 (14 March 1992): 31-2.
[In the following review, Buchan comments on Vox and U and I, acknowledging that Baker is a talented writer, but panning the works for their descriptions of common, everyday events in minute detail.]
Anybody who has travelled on public transportation in the United States will know that many Americans delight in telling their intimate histories: it is part of their notion of Liberty.
Nicholson Baker is an artist of this confession compulsion. His people plump themselves down, pale and atwitch from long study and self-abuse, and quite soon you've heard about their career ambitions, medical problems, reading programmes, upstate New York childhoods, deodorants; how they put on their socks in the morning; their failure to win or even be entered for the National Book Award; their sexual fantasies and anxieties about bad breath; why they didn't go to Harvard; their mothers, wives, babies, bowels. Once there was some irony in this, but the wind seems to have changed: Baker's last book, U and I, was a nervous and half-hearted assault on the writer John Updike; his latest, Vox, is pretentious amateur pornography in an expensive wrapping. Baker remains a maddeningly talented writer.
Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, was published in Britain in 1989. It is an account, more or less, of an office-worker's lunch hour:
Chance found me that day having worked for a living all morning, broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated successfully in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half of a dog and a cookie with some milk; and chance found me now sitting in the sun on a green bench, with a paperback on my lap. What, philosophically, was I supposed to do with that?
It is a book in which a small corner of an adult world is reconstructed on the scale of early childhood. Shoelaces and lavatories loom like mountains. The US is a kind of capitalist Sparta and American children are largely reared by corporations: Baker writes affectingly about branded foods, the mechanical and electro-mechanical innovations that America used to produce effortlessly and the lost security of corporate bureaucracies. His style is a triumph of affectation: earnest-cretinous, in the manner of a prose Warhol, with the periphrastic precision of Updike and Nabokov thrown in. It shouldn't work but it does.
In an ideal literary biography, Nicholson Baker would, in his second novel, have quit the literary coterie of New York, broken decisively with his masters and applied the technical self-confidence gained from writing about shoelaces and escalators to something much, much bigger: maybe even opened up the theme of The Mezzanine in all its magnificent oddity, a generation of Americans dwarfed or arrested in permanent infancy by the unrepeatable inventions of their parents! Baker goes in the opposite direction. Room Temperature, which came out in 1990, is smaller than The Mezzanine: the lunch hour is now half an hour and the body being fed is now a baby's. It is a beautiful book. Immobilised by the baby on his lap, Baker's narrator must keep his thought in narrower compass and under discipline. Nothing happens; but there are elegant variations of theme and modulations of key, as in music. And with a baby on his hero's lap, Baker at last has some adult responsibilities. Warhol's albino ghost has receded, though Updike is still in there, metaphoring away.
As an act of emancipation from a literary influence, U and I, published last year, was less than ideal. In this essay on Updike and his influence, Baker pretends—quite unconvincingly—to be quoting his master only from memory. The notion, and the specious arguments for it, come from Borges's famous story Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote: but whereas Borges's purpose was satire and fantasy, Baker's is to mitigate his timid insolence. I'm not against beating up on older authors (rather the contrary), and especially if they make a thing about sport or home improvements as Baker seems to claim, but why come like a thief in the night? False naivety, faint praise and feeble digs:
I am drawn to Updike's honest picture of himself in ‘Getting the Words Out’ as ‘paw[ing]’ through dictionaries and thesauruses
are followed by apology, self-abasement and special pleading. There are interesting things in it but, sympathising with Updike, I felt as if my leg had been humped by a Pekinese. The Atlantic, which commissioned the essay, spiked it. (I should add, in fairness to Nicholson Baker, that no less a critic than Craig Raine thought U and I good.)
And so, alas, inescapably, unpostponably, to the book I was paid to read, Vox. It is the story of a young man and young woman who meet on a telephone chat-line, masturbate noisily, exchange numbers and hang up. The chat-line is an emerging social arena and Baker will no doubt be praised—perhaps more in this country than in the US, because of our more complete commitment to tawdry literary novelty—for colonising this new space for high-brow fiction. In truth, Baker doesn't do anything with it: even so restricted a human relationship bores or overtaxes him, and the ending is teeth-achingly sentimental. The bulk of the book is more childhood, some pieces of descriptive whimsy that have evidently been lying around the yard since The Mezzanine, and dreary masturbation fantasies that are merely eccentric versions of the fantasy letters in men's magazines.
What is it with American literary fiction and masturbation? It seems but yesterday that I—one of the very few British finishers—was breasting the tape at the end of the Brodkeian wankathon! I can see why literary masturbation is fashionable: HIV, the inhibitions wrought in men by feminism—Vox contains many embarrassing pieties about women's sexuality—the example of Portnoy's Complaint, etc. But masturbation, while harmless or even benign in life, makes novelists go blind. Whole passages in Vox seem designed pre-eminently for authorial auto-stimulation. I coughed loudly, Britishly, once, twice, but to no avail: bent over his work, he did not hear me; the reader has no place in this book. I hate to see such a talent dribble away in literary onanism. And if Onan is too remote and biblical a minatory figure, is not Harold Brodkey sufficient warning?
It may be that Baker genuinely wanted to write a new sort of male literary pornography that is not offensive to women. If he did intend such a thing, he has not succeeded. And what if he had?
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SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Keep Talking.” London Review of Books (26 March 1992): 18-19.
[In the following review, Loose provides a favorable assessment of Vox and an extended discussion of Baker's previous writings.]
Howard Rheingold, in his recent Virtual Reality, explained the idea of ‘cyber-sex’: how someday we will be able to don sensor suits, plug into the telecommunications network and ‘reach out and touch someone’ in ways entirely unforeseen by Alexander Graham Bell. Speculating about the impact of such artificial erotic experience, Rheingold turned to an already up-and-running technology—to ‘telephone sex’, the adult party lines where you pay to make conversation with a member of the preferred gender. While the UK attempts to shut down such hi-tech services, in America they are already writing academic papers on ‘Sex and Death among the Disembodied’.
And as the gold-embossed cover helpfully explains, Nicholson Baker's new novel Vox is also ‘about Telephone Sex’, about getting turned on by tuning in. Jim and Abby meet on the phone-sex party line ‘2VOX’. By the time the book starts, they have punched in their private code numbers and transferred to the ‘fiber-optical back room’, where conversation is one on one and charged at 95 cents per half minute. Undaunted by these rates or by the strangeness of their encounter, the two ‘click’ almost at once. Vox consists of their voices in extended conversation as they exchange memories and confessions, anxieties and fantasies.
They talk about the telephone itself: the pleasure of calling in sick, the ‘companionable hiss’ when chatting long distance, how the mouthpiece is like a sieve down which you could pour yourself. Mostly though they talk about sex: her fantasies about a trio of imaginative house painters, his memories of masturbation alongside a female workmate. The telephone sometimes features here too. Abby called the chatline excited by the idea that a half-dozen men would ‘hear me come, as if my voice was this thing, this disembodied body, out there, and as they moaned they would be overlaying their moans onto it’. Jim, Vox's dominant voice, is something of a ‘telephone clitician’: he excites his ‘Werner Heisenberg’ by phoning up an unsuspecting assistant at Deliques Intimates and ordering a pair of ‘pointelle tights in faun’.
Delightful, charming, a little odd, Vox is also profoundly erotic. For Baker, an author fantastically alert to ‘the whole problem of self-repetition and self-influence’, both form and content are a departure. His three previous books had approached ever nearer to autobiography, as though taking literally Nabokov's dictum that writing is ‘a gradually evolving effort to be more accurate about life’. Born in 1957, Baker grew up in Rochester, Upstate New York (coincidentally the birthplace of another sui generis writer, John Ashbery). Abandoning an early ambition to become a composer, he graduated from Haverford College, and then worked for a year on Wall Street. Attracted by ‘the prosperous-seeming world of books', he had short stories and ‘quasi-philosophical essays’ published in the Atlantic and the New Yorker. He also worked as a technical writer specialising in computer-network management software manuals, a detail which helps explain the extensive outreach of his ‘information rich’ vocabulary. In the knowledge that his idol, John Updike, had written The Poorhouse Fair in six months, Baker quit work and set himself the same amount of time to complete his first novel.
Although The Mezzanine (1988) describes itself as a mere ‘opusculum’, there is nothing slight or insignificant about its impact. Baker's half-believable intention was to write a novel about the business world, ‘filled with plot, intrigue, wheeling and dealing’; he soon discovered he could not get his chronically digressive narrator beyond a single lunch hour. The Mezzanine charts the thoughts that circulate through the mind of Howie, archetypal penpusher, during his sixty-minute odyssey from his office desk and back again. By the end of the novel he has done no more than ‘broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated successfully in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half a bag of popcorn, bought a new set of shoelaces, eaten a hot dog and a cookie with some milk’. Yet these activities are transformed by up-beat, near-mystical reflections on such matters as the utility of ear-plugs, how people stand like Easter Island monuments when riding up escalators, and the ‘almost sonic whoosh of receptionists’ staggering and misguided perfumes’. We learn little about what Howie does, but explore instead his world of ‘mechanical enthusiasms’: his childlike (but not childish) excitement at airport luggage conveyor belts, at innovations in the design of plastic straws, at the fact that someone has thought through the need for horseshoe-shaped toilet seats.
Howie's non-narrative is interrupted by numerous footnotes, a ‘gray silt of further example and qualification’ which recalls the works of his heroes Boswell, Gibbon and Lecky. Like an Arden Shakespeare, these marginalia often crowd out the main text: rather as Howie describes the topsy-turvy working of memory, ‘what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed’. Howie elaborates this principle of reversal into what he calls microscopy, which like chaos theory discovers that very small perturbations can have very large effects. Microscopy allows for descriptions of objects usually beneath our notice, but also for a kind of precise whimsy, as in the sublime footnote description of walking along the hushed black asphalt valley of a LP record groove, like one of the micronauts in the film The Fantastic Voyage, ‘your feet sparking static with each step’ as you observe ‘big obsidian chunks of cigarette smoke … lodged here and there in the oddly echoless surface’.
The introspective, macro-lens vision of The Mezzanine has been likened to the atomising gaze of the nouveau roman, with Howie representing alienated corporate man. There are certainly elements of sadness in the book: Howie feels for the ‘great men’ who invent popcorn-makers, vending-machines and hi-fi systems yet go as unremarked as the passing of their products; and he himself has a moment of poignant self-recognition (‘I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I hoped to be’). Yet the dominant tone is one of celebration:
Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped wood-fibre.
Baker does not need to transform the familiar into something rich and strange, because he can convince us that the everyday is quite exhilarating enough.
Room Temperature (1990) contracts the workplace lunch hour to the short span it takes Mike to feed Bug, his baby, in the ‘lulling domestic setting’ of home. A part-time technical writer and reviewer of TV commercials, Mike (like Howie) is possessed of an active inner life, is always ‘primed for awe’. As the baby sucks at her bottle, looking ‘like a screech trumpet player', he free-associates: on the rubber air hoses used by traffic engineers to monitor passing cars, Robert Boyle's General History of the Air, the vacuum in an unopened jar of peanut butter, playing the French horn, personal ventilation jets on planes (‘a participatory jet engine for each passenger’); he ruminates, too, on the paedomorphosis of pet names, and contemplates writing a monograph history of the comma to demonstrate that this mark of punctuation is nothing less than ‘the embodiment of civilisation’.
Even more than its predecessor, Room Temperature is a work of brilliant, seemingly impromptu synthesis. There are no footnotes, so each outsize digression eventually loops back, with unexpected pertinence, to the main theme:
As with the man in the joke who when given a glass of snot to drink drains it dry, and when asked why, says, ‘What could I do?—It was all one strand,’ everything in my life seemed to enjamb splicelessly into everything else.
Mike's starting-point is the Bug, and his comfortably room-temperature thoughts consequently tend to the benign and sentimental, to ‘not quite complacence yet but approaching it’; as Baker will later argue, ‘when it is believable, sentiment is not a liability.’ The snot joke exemplifies the book's seamless quality, for the one low-key moment of crisis turns on the act of nose-picking. When Mike finally confesses his ‘abject, charmless, filthy stealth’ to his wife, the thrilling intimacy of the moment—sparked by her earlier revelation that she searches for reading material (‘often a specialised work of reference’) to take to the bathroom—is cherished by them both as ‘one of those powerful, marriage-reinforcing confidences’. Mike wonders whether he might one day overstep the mark, but then ‘this unease in fact was part of the exciting risk of our mutual revelations. Was there a limit between us? Would disgust ever outweigh love?’ Baker would next try for himself the anxious delights of the confessional mode.
A compelling and often uncomfortable read, U and I (1991) owns up to an ‘intense, rivalrous, touchy admiration’ for Updike. It also reveals an unexpectedly large gap between narrators Howie and Mike, who both feel they are ‘doing all right', and their creator, who portrays himself cruelly racked by literary ambition. The Mezzanine had provided a glimpse of this competitive literary streak, when the Proustian associations of childhood sparked by the smell of a Band Aid were dismissed as a mere olfactory trick, ‘mistakenly exalted by some writers as something realer and purer and more sacredly significant than intellective memory’. U and I, nonetheless, is deliberately impressionistic: Baker terms his approach a ‘closed book examination', and relies excessively on his existing knowledge of Updike's works (less than half of a prolific output). He performs a series of close readings on his memory-board of Updike phrases, engages his maître in conversation during an imaginary round of golf, and discovers half convincing traces of himself in Updike's work, both as a writer and as an ‘overeager, technotalkative, slack-but-smart’ character type. Ironically, despite Baker's incredulity at the way none of his critics has spotted his indebtedness, he never persuades us that he and Updike have much in common: yet, post-Baker, in the kind of twist elaborated in Harold Bloom's topology of influence, the reader of Updike's Self-Consciousness finds a series of footnotes and enthusiastic descriptions of commonplace objects (‘Stacked squarish things excited me … I was a devotee of packaging’) which—impossibly but unmistakably—seem to imitate the upstart ‘writer on the make', Nicholson Baker.
Baker wonders whether he should proclaim so unreservedly that Updike is a genius: ‘He doesn't want to hear me say that. How embarrassing!’ What is really embarrassing, of course, is Baker's relentless self-revelation, the way his naked ‘I’ shamelessly shoves aside the ‘U’. As Updike has himself commented, ‘I realised that U and I wasn't about me and my work at all, or hardly at all—it was about the way we construct writers in our minds, to serve our own purposes.’ Measuring himself against Updike turns Baker into his own best critic. He describes his precise yet goofy vocabulary as a ‘touch-me-anywhere-and-I'll-secrete-a-mot-juste kind of thing’, characterises The Mezzanine as ‘a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers', and notes that a ‘flea-grooming visual acuity’ is typical of early novels, something he hopes to replace by ‘a finer social attunedness’. But driven always by some grinding gear of self-betrayal', he also takes a masochistic delight in showing himself pinned and wriggling on the wall, recalling for example how he buttonholed U himself at a Harvard party and lied about where he went to college, or how he welcomed the spread of psoriasis as testimony to his Updikeness. With a risky, at times enraging knowingness that even he calls ‘creepy', Baker savours the peculiar. ‘thrill that the writer himself shivers gleefully with as he writes: “Ooh boy, I'm really going to catch it this time!”’
At one point in U and I Baker attributes the present thriving state of gay fiction to a frankness about sex which has fortuitously led writers ‘back toward subtler revelations in the novel's traditional arena of social behaviour’. The same truth-telling urge has taken Baker in the opposite direction, from office life and domestic nose-picking to the sex and ‘nastybation’ of Vox. And this, of course, is Updike territory. Baker has championed the older author as ‘the man who, by bringing a serious, Prousto-Nabokovian, morally sensitive, National Book Award-winning prose style to bear on the micromechanics of physical love-making’ has helped ensure that ‘the sexual revolution is complete.’ Even if Baker has ‘never successfully masturbated to Updike's writing', it is that very writing which makes such an outré admission conceivable.
Baker's distance from Updike is apparent in the way he always focuses in on lust's more private manifestations, on sex in the head. Visiting the pharmacy to buy his new shoelaces, the hyper-acute Howie had detected a low level luridness (‘You slip by a woman reading the fine print on a disposable vinegar douche kit. She feels you pass. Frisson!’); a pre-adolescent Mike found his pornography in the pictures of birth-giving in The Family of Man, ‘the incredible full-lipped ugly powerful arousing frown of the woman pushing amid the hospital sheets’. Jim's tastes are only slightly more orthodox. The cartoon character Tinker Bell may drive him ‘absolutely nutso’ but primarily, as Abby points out, he's ‘interested in women masturbating’. ‘Any woman masturbates anywhere, I want to know about it,’ agrees Jim.
Jim may be all talk, but at least he gives good phone. Another mechanically-minded microscopist, he describes the beauty of a photo-activated street-lamp, pictures the display on his radio tuner as a skyline (‘The FM markings were all the buildings, and the AM markings were their reflection in water’), and conjures up a ‘Bionic-Mmmmm Detector’ which senses the presence of ‘intelligent masturbating women’. In The Mezzanine Howie had complained that there is ‘no good word for stomach; just as there is no good word for girlfriend’; a delight of Vox is the way Jim inventively sets about tackling the even greater problems of sexual language: ‘fiddlin' yourself off? The dropped g is kind of racy. No, no. Strum … That's it’; ‘I get so fricking horny … now there's another inadequate word … so porny, so gorny, so yorny … I get so yorny.’ Abby responds in kind, talking of his ‘Delgado’ or ‘pale Ramone', of ‘dithering herself off’ and of her ‘Opulent Opal tockhole’.
Both see the phone line advertised in magazines, although Abby sees a discreet advert in her ‘bravely bought’ Forum, while the ‘enthusiastically pro-pornography’ Jim spots it in the more down-market Juggs, purchased that night along with three x-rated videotapes. He and Abby embody the classic opposition: she'd prefer a book, he needs the images. But Jim is certainly no Keith Talent, the unlovable character in Martin Amis's London Fields who Fast Forwards and ‘SloMos’ through his nightly video, scanning for digitised images of sex, ‘astronomies of breast and belly, of shank and haunch’. Jim, by contrast, is conscience-stricken and easily put off his stroke: a photospread is ruined because the girl's hair is in pigtails, ‘and it just seemed so awful somehow, the age-old thing of men wanting to pretend that 28-year-old women are little girls’; his arousal easily tips over into self-loathing—‘the sound of the VCR as it fast-forwards, that industrial robot sound, and I suddenly thought, no, no’. Voyeurism proves no solution: ‘I'm a man and a man is a watcher and a watcher disturbs the purity of the event, so I don't want to exist, I want to be faded away to almost nothing.’
The fact that such new-man anxieties are expressed at all sets Vox apart from mere pornography. This is a novel which undeniably sets out to arouse, but it is also about arousal, about the nature of sexual fantasy. Yet some may feel that Jim's hopeful description of himself as one of the ‘nonviolent normal intelligent men’ who happen to use pornography is, well, problematic. It's a forgivable failing of Vox that Jim and Abby sound so alike, not only in what they say, but in how they say it: for the most part we can accept this as a precondition for their headlong intimacy. But Abby's silence here—the lack of any contrasting voice to provide a distancing perspective—seems a more serious flaw. It is as if for once Baker hasn't followed his own precept, his belief that the novel is the greatest literary form so long as it fulfils its capacity for ‘letting the pursuit of truth pull it forward’.
Baker's real achievement is in making this conversation, for all its explicitness, seem genuinely fragile, a ‘miraculous once-in-a-life-time thing’ which is sustained through larger and larger helpings of candour. As compulsive a confessor as any of Baker's characters, Jim also needs to be charged up with truths: ‘I need to know secrets and have secrets and keep secrets. I need to be confided in.’ The plot stems from the way he and Abby improvise to prolong their exchange, to deflect moments of crisis and build to a timely climax. At one point, having succeeded in weaving an elaborate fantasy, Jim dries up, complaining: ‘I feel that any second I'm going to misstep in telling this. It's very stressful.’ Abby has to collaborate, to enter his fantasy and help him continue. At other times, even as they confess to being turned on and get further turned on by the act of confessing, the two circle cautiously around personal details. She will only tell him she lives ‘in an eastern city', while he won't give her his home number so that they can talk direct: what if ‘we're suddenly awkward with each other, and we're never quite able to resume the intimacy that we seemed to hit so easily the first time?’ The urgency with which they encourage one another to ‘keep talking’ suggests a loneliness as deep as any desire.
In Virtual Reality Howard Rheingold asks: ‘If technology enables you to experience erotic frissons, or deep physical, social, emotional communion with another person with no possibility of pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases, what then of conventional morality?’ What too, we might ask, does technosex mean for fiction's traditional territory, the love story? Baker's answer seems to be that the old forms are surprisingly accommodating. Jim describes discovering in a second-hand bookstore a series of women's romances, all with titles like Love's Eager Trial: seriously excited by their residual charge of female arousal, he purchases one of the more hardcore volumes, in which the heroine woos and finally wins a ‘klutzy scientist’. Jim is impressed: ‘when you read some of the stuff that passes for highbrow these days, you've got to admire it for hanging back so humbly in the genre category.’ No one could accuse Baker of hanging back in any category, but in a sense Vox, too, is nothing but a courtship romance, which proceeds through hesitation and growing intimacy to an unashamedly torrid climax. The story-spinning Jim is a more obvious figure of the novelist than either Mike or Howie, perhaps because in Abby—to whom he exclaims, ‘you get it, you understand, you have a complicated response to things'—he has found his ideal reader. Nicholson Baker, we realise, has been similarly seducing the reader all along. As Hazlitt said of Coleridge, ‘he talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on for ever’: provoking, insistent and uniquely beguiling, endlessly digressive and yet always to the point, his is the unmistakable music of vox humana.
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SOURCE: Towers, Robert. “Secret Histories.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 7 (9 April 1992): 35-6.
[In the following excerpt, Towers discusses the dialogue, characters, and storyline in Vox, noting that the work is an amusing read.]
Nicholson Baker is a fiction writer of great charm who may or may not be a novelist. Certainly narrative is the least of his concerns. In The Mezzanine (1988) the “action” begins with the narrator's entrance into the office building where he works and concludes with his ascent of the escalator to the mezzanine floor. The interval between these two events occupies almost as many pages (135) as Laurence Sterne devoted to the digression-filled gap between the conception and the birth of Tristram Shandy. For Baker, like Sterne, the soul, and indeed the body, of the novel consists of digressions—digressions which in Baker's case are augmented by footnotes that can run for as many as four pages at a time of dense type. In The Mezzanine and in his next book, Room Temperature (1990), in which the “plot” consists of the narrator's giving a bottle to his six-month-old daughter, the digressions are largely devoted to an examination, under high magnification, of the trivia of ordinary life: the abrasion-rate of shoelaces; the switch from paper to plastic drinking straws and the disconcerting buoyancy of the latter; the superiority, economic and otherwise, of paper-towel dispensers over warm-air blowers in the office men's room; the matching and mixing of paint colors; the shape, function, and history of the comma; the limits of marital intimacy as they apply to such matters as nose-picking and defecation.
To these examinations Baker brings an almost Proustian intensity of analysis, together with much lively and often erudite detail, an abundance of far-ranging literary and technological allusions, and an ingratiating mix of the narrator's own memories, foibles, and emotions. One reads his very short books not as fiction but as meditations on a variety of odd topics—tiny personal essays linked by a whimsical association of ideas and warmed by the singularly appealing voice of the first-person narrator.
Still odder than Baker's non-novels is his third book, U and I (1991), called a “true story,” which is nothing less than an account of the author's infatuation with the writing and the character (as Baker imagines it) of “U,” John Updike. Once again, the book's subject serves as a base for any number of autobiographical recollections and fantasies, together with disquisitions on writing and on favorite writers ranging from Sir Thomas Browne to James, Proust, Nabokov, and Murdoch. The adulation of Updike is—as one might expect—tempered by a self-mocking but nonetheless fervent competitiveness. Baker loves to blurt out startling things with disarming aplomb, as when he announces that “most good novelists have been women or homosexuals” and then, as a fellow male, heterosexual writer, expresses gratitude to Updike for serving as a model “of a man who has in his art successfully moved outside the limitations of his carnal circuitry.” Even more surprising is this parenthetical confession: “I myself have never successfully masturbated to Updike's writing, though I have to certain remembered scenes in Iris Murdoch; but someone I know says that she achieved a number of quality orgasms from Couples when she first read it at age thirteen.”
Thus, circuitously, we arrive at Nicholson Baker's most recent work, Vox, in which he applies his inexhaustible attention to the subject of telephonic masturbation conducted over what is called an adult party line. Vox, I suppose, comes a bit closer than his earlier books to the conventional notion of a novel; it does, after all, contain two characters who speak to each other—there is indeed nothing but dialogue—and the “story” does move, albeit with numerous detours and diversions, toward a climax at the end. The speakers are two pleasant young people, female and male, whose names, we eventually learn, are Abby and Jim. They live in different cities, are single, have apartments equipped with stereos and VCRs, and she owns three different but incomplete patterns of inherited silver. What else do we know about these rather generically presented characters? They seem well-spoken, in a rather hip way, and reasonably well-educated, considerate of each other, and eager to please. Like the narrator of Baker's previous books, they would appear to be upper-middle-class and probably WASP.
Abby and Jim are both readers of a catalog of sexy clothing called Deliques Intimates; and they read pornographic magazines and watch videos to stimulate their several fantasies. Both prefer masturbation (“dithering” in her private vocabulary, “strumming” in his) to sexual intercourse, though neither exactly scorns the latter if the proper occasion for it arises. One could, I suppose, read into this preference Baker's oblique comment on the contemporary sexual scene, with its much-talked-about narcissism, AIDS-induced wariness, and reluctance to make or accept commitments. But perhaps not. As the young man puts it:
It's not like I haven't done normal stuff here and there. But I don't know, you slip inside, and that first moment is paradise, incomparable, but then you're working away … you're distracted, your brain is moving your hips, moving your torso, holding her soft hips—hey, it sounds good! But you know? When I come inside it feels mystical but muffled. … I lose a sense of outer boundaries. You know?
The young woman agrees:
That first moment is great, but then my whole area becomes, as you say, distracted … and I'm out of the loop. … Also, yeah, I do unfortunately tend to get yeast complications from real sex, inside sex, the friction seems to cause them.
There does not seem to be a mean streak in either of these young people and not the slightest tendency toward sadistic or masochistic excitation. Enthusiasts of The Story of O will be disappointed. Other readers may be pleased to learn that before they hang up (all passion spent), Jim gives Abby his own phone number and she agrees to call him soon. Meanwhile she has a load of towels to put in the laundry.
The originality of Vox lies not in the sexual passages, which are as explicit as any reader of pornography could wish, but in the elaborations of the fantasies which the speakers offer to each other—elaborations as fancifully and amusingly detailed as any of the digressions in Baker's earlier work. The young man, taking his cue from the young woman's mention of a silver fork that was damaged in a dishwasher, invents for her a whole career as a creator of silver jewelry. Her masterpiece, according to him, is a necklace:
a very simple necklace, but with three stones … a tiny chrysolite in the center, and then, on either side, two lovely lustrous pieces of unpolished strumulite, which are, as you know, fossilized drops of dinosaur ejaculate. Nothing could be more tasteful.
She in turn invents for him a scene involving the painting of her apartment. While supervising this operation, she receives the attentions of the painters, who stripe her nude body with tiny rollers laden with semi-gloss Paper Lantern and Opulent Opal—the names of actual Sherwin Williams paints, she assures the young man.
Though it was carefully announced for publication on St. Valentine's day and self-consciously marketed in a brown paper wrapper as if it were pornography, Vox deserves to be read with full attention to what surrounds and lies between the sexually explicit moments. While it may not be Baker's best book, as he is alleged to claim, it certainly reveals this young writer's curious and idiosyncratic art—as well as providing an amuse-gueule for the good saint's anniversary feast.
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SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Tradition and Some Individual Talents.” Hudson Review 45, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 481-90.
[In the following excerpt, Pritchard offers a favorable review of Vox, praising the “finely-tuned conversational sentences” and “inventive words.”]
The most original and ambitious novel published earlier this year was Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach, about which I've had my say in another place. After Stone, the two novels that seemed to me most fully realized and distinct are Nicholson Baker's Vox and Caryl Phillips' Cambridge. Baker is thirty-five, Phillips thirty-four; Baker is a WASP and Phillips is a West Indian educated in Britain. It would be hard to name two novelists who, except for their youth and the fact that they've each published three previous novels, have absolutely nothing in common except a way with writing. Compared to these works, the other novels and stories considered here, intelligent and engaging as to various degrees they all are, feel a bit subsidiary. Not a masterpiece in the lot—which is surprising, since someone in the New York Times Book Review manages to find a new one each week. But the variety and entertaining liveliness of their different styles and subjects reminds us again that contemporary fiction—a lot of it, anyway—is still written for adults and provides satisfactions not to be disdained.
Reference to “adults” seems to have gotten me into Nicholson Baker's little tour de force about phone sex. Until some months ago I'd never heard of Baker but then was teased into reading his U and I because of its subject: the novelist's obsession with the work and character of John Updike. U and I is a gem of a book, wonderfully rereadable, containing something verbally interesting in just about every sentence. Here is an instance: Baker is admiring Updike's aplomb during a Dick Cavett television interview, comparing it with his own (Baker's) relative ineptitude. Updike's performance was one in which “he spoke in swerving, rich, complex paragraphs of unhesitating intelligence that he finally allowed to glide to rest at the curb with a little downward swallowing smile of closure, as if he almost felt that he ought to apologize for his inability even to fake the need to grope for his expression.” Then Baker remembers a documentary about Updike in which
as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother's house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!
If you warm immediately to this you'll want to read Baker, all of him. His first two novels are The Mezzanine and Room Temperature; all four books are short, published within the last four years, and yielding a high intensity rate per page.
As Deborah Garrison pointed out in her fine review of Vox in The New Yorker (“Phoning It In,” March 9), Baker's “obsessive thoroughness,” his fascination with every nuance of human desire and response, is “intrinsically seductive”—sexy, even; thus in hindsight the explicit treatment of phone sex could have been predicted. As everyone knows by now, this is a novel in which a man and a woman talk each other off, long-distance. At one point the man, speculating on the difference between written and visual porn decides that “I guess insofar as verbal pornography records thoughts rather than exclusively images, or at least surrounds all images with thoughts, or something, it can be the hottest medium of all.” Vox is a hot medium full of art: finely-tuned conversational sentences; inventive words for private parts (“frans” for breasts, “crank” and “Delgado” for penis); some quite impressive sexual fantasies, and, as it were, a potent conclusion. (Since this is a family magazine I desist from quoting further.) It's an art that manages to be sexy enough so that one is just slightly embarrassed to be caught listening in on the proceedings. Would John Crowe Ransom or Yvor Winters or F. R. Leavis approve? Perhaps not. The only novel I can remember feeling in this double art-sex way about is Terry Southern's Blue Movie (more about Southern later). So although I'm aware that a number of good readers, both here and in England, have been unamused and unimpressed by Vox, I put myself firmly in the yes I will, Yes, column.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17067
SOURCE: Chambers, Ross. “Meditation and the Escalator Principle (on Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine).” Modern Fiction Studies 40, no. 4 (winter 1994): 765-806.
[In the following essay, Chambers explores the narratological and philosophical significance of open-ended digressions and subjective contemplation in The Mezzanine. Contrasting Baker's novel with Descartes's Meditations, Chambers contends that the discontinuous narrative and trivial private preoccupations of The Mezzanine serve to shift the narrative structure of the novel in favor of “progressive extenuation” and “paradigmatic lingering” rather than closure.]
So essential to the productive economy are the small pleasures of “fugue”—napping in class, calling in sick, walking the dog—that time out is sometimes actually institutionalized and scheduled into the regulated hours of work. We take annual vacations at predetermined dates and go to lunch each day at the appointed hour. To the extent that it tells a story, Nicholson Baker's novel, The Mezzanine, tells the story of such a period of scheduled time out. A young office worker on lunch break leaves his place of employment on the mezzanine, takes the escalator down to the street, walks around a bit, buys some lunch and a pair of shoelaces to replace those that have just broken on him, sits in the sun with a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in his lap—and takes the escalator back up to work.
This, from the point of view of conventional literary expectations, is an impoverished and trivial scenario. But the poverty of narrative interest is an indicator, perhaps, that Baker's text seeks ways to give pleasure and earn authority other than those that are characteristic of narrative. What are these ways? How do they relate to the requirements of narrative interest? Can we understand them as something like a narrative equivalent of time out, providing a break from the goal-orientedness of story in the way that lunch hour provides a break from the requirements of economic productivity?
The triviality of Baker's narrative suggests, in turn, a hypothesis that has more to do with philosophical questions than with narrative as such. What kind of text treats the trivial as significant? How does it go about establishing the importance of the (supposedly) trivial? What modifications does this suppose in conceptions of knowledge, and in the evaluations on which our recognition of knowledge rests? Is there something like an epistemological “time out” that might have philosophical, educational or critical interest?
The essay that follows attempts to find a passage between these two sets of questions: the question of textual pleasure as a counternarrative practice, and the question of the transvaluation of the trivial and its consequences for knowledge. In so doing, it will be led to explore a thematics of passage in Baker's own work, which, I will contend, substitutes for the principle of narrative, which inevitably tends toward closure, the principle of meditative genres of thought and writing, which is the idea that one thing leads, not to an end, but to another. The escalator, as we shall see, is the text's figure for this meditative principle, which is also the principle of mediation.
But the escalator is also the means of transport that takes us down from our orderly offices into the relatively unconstrained world of the street, where we walk around a bit before taking the escalator back up again to work. What forms of connectedness does it imply, then, what to-and-fro passages does it authorize, between counternarrative practices and narrative constraints? Between philosophizing the insignificant and more majestic modes of thought? Between arts of fugue and the world of productive work? That is the question (the set of questions) that underlies this essay as a whole.
THE ESCALATOR PRINCIPLE
In U and I, an essay on John Updike that bears the motto: “It may be us they wish to meet but it's themselves they want to talk about” (Cyril Connolly), Nicholson Baker—talking about himself, then—takes issue with Updike for a remark about a descriptive passage that “would clog any narrative”:
What he meant to say, I thought, I hoped, was that Edmund Wilson's passage was simply no good, not that one's aim was to avoid clogging narratives with description. The only thing I like are the clogs. … I wanted my first novel [The Mezzanine] to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers; the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked for seepage-points of passage.
(I've omitted from the second sentence a long descriptive clog about the signs of impatience Baker gives “when, late in most novels, there are no more [clogs] in the pipeline to slow things down”—a clog that is further clogged by a parenthesis that compares picking at the price-sticker on the back of a book as one reads with the delight shared by Updike and Baker, of “picking a psoriasis lesion.” Welcome to Nicholson Baker's world, and let us note immediately that unclogged narratives, going straight to the point, have no time for the trivial whereas Baker might have said of the trivial what he says of clogs, that it is the only thing he likes. His work effortlessly realizes the potential for aesthetic and philosophical transvaluation that lies within the trivial, and hence implies a positive valuation of “having time.”)
Linked associatively (not narratively or logically) to this passage, the following paragraph digresses, or appears to digress, into the description of a clogged sewer-pipe that turned out to be obstructed by tampons: “their strings caught on a tufty invading root and expanded to the full extent of their puff, about thirty of them. Earthworms took up residence in them [producing] an Edenic scene in the lower garden near the standpipe: around the probe … was a roil of roots and black tampon-fruits and pinkly prosperous earthworms” (74). “And why shouldn't this clog clog some narrative of mine?” Baker asks rhetorically, omitting to specify that it has just done so. “To the worms it was not obstructive, it wasn't revolting, it was life itself. It is life itself.” And he goes on, in another parenthesis, to compare their owner's use of tampons to Elvis Presley's profligacy with scarves in his decline, “barely touching them to his neck before flinging them mechanically out to the audience as souvenirs.”
Rhetorical appeals, especially to “life itself,” are pretty dubious, but it's worth noticing that, if narrative clogging is Baker's pleasure, his intent has something to do with representing an alternative, worm's eye view of what life is—a complex “roil” that resists narrative and can only be approached descriptively, with the aid of connections and associations that are essentially metaphoric in kind (Wilson's clogged narrative and the blocked sewer; a price-sticker and a psoriasis lesion; Presley's scarves and an excessive consumption of tampons). My problem is how to approach such luxuriant writing critically, especially when criticism is habitually so invested in narrative, with its speed and selectivity. Loiterly writing, of which Baker's is exemplary, is anticritical in its very principle (that is its own critical function): it blocks critical gestures with the same glee that it delights in clogging narrative structures. The temptation is therefore simply to quote Baker's prose in extenso, transmitting the pleasure his sentences give. But criticism is by definition discriminatory; it works—like narrative—by hierarchizing (this is significant, that is secondary), and its aim is not to be comprehensive but to comprehend. As Roland Barthes points out in The Pleasure of the Text, a theory of pleasure is inevitably inadequate with respect to pleasure itself, and it is in part a theory of the pleasure that Baker's text gives, not pleasure itself, that my essay aims to deliver. You have been warned.
What is at issue in Baker's clogging of narrative is, then, to use the vocabulary of some of my recent work (“Etcetera”), a certain reversal of proportion and emphasis between narrative structure, with its reliance on story and its beginning-middle-end grammar of closure, and the paradigmatic dimension of discourse that spins out a narrative enunciation in time, employing devices like description, parenthesis, asyndeton, digression, so that the supposedly secondary comes to occupy the foreground of attention and the hierarchizing distinction between the relevant and the pointless, on which story depends, begins to lose its own cogency Baker, he says (73), gets “that fidgety feeling” in reading novels and starts to pick at the price-sticker as the fiction moves toward closure and allows less occasion for clogs. It isn't delay in getting to the point but the failure to delay, too hasty point-making, that makes him itchy. Barthes's theory of textual (really readerly) pleasure has been unfairly reduced to the sentence that describes the erotic site in text as comparable to the place at which a garment “gapes” (and we will come in due course to the matter of textual gaping). Of more immediate relevance here, both to Baker's writing practice and to his readerly fidgets as closure approaches, is the passage in The Pleasure of the Text in which text is described as a kind of “time out” in what Barthes calls “the war fare of ideologies” (whereby Barthes means something like instrumental uses of language). Textual pleasure is like the relaxed moments that are so precious to the combatants in warfare proper when there is time to linger over a beer or a quiet conversation; one does not want such moments to end. And Barthes goes on to account for this “withdrawn” position of texts with respect to ideological discourse by referring, precisely, to their paradigmatic dimension. In them, discourse undergoes a process of “progressive extenuation”; the story is spun out and language is stretched—and a stretched text will eventually come to gape.
Like Barthes's dichotomies (the readerly and the writerly, the text of pleasure and the text of jouissance, etc.) this one—between closed, point-making, ideological discourse and extenuated or spun out, pleasurable text—should be understood as merely heuristic, and it is certainly not part of my own intention to absolve loiterly texts of an ideological function. Pleasure, too, has its place in the “polemological space” (de Certeau 121) of culture. It's evident, too, that story-structure, headed for closure, and paradigmatic lingering, enacting the etcetera principle, are mutually dependent and inevitably co-occur. But in texts of pleasure it's nevertheless paradigmatic extension that predominates: in them time, constructed in narrative configurations as end-oriented, becomes more episodic and extendable, as the vehicle of a readerly pleasure that might, ideally, never end. Baker puts it this way, in a later passage in which Updike is again upbraided for a hasty judgment, this time of Nabokov (accused by Updike of failing to generate narrative suspense): “[R]eally, the only suspense a book needs, as Updike by now must know, having tolerantly motored through dozens of much more experimental bad novels [than Glory] for our benefit, is not ‘What will happen next?’ but simply ‘Will I ever want to stop reading?’” (121).
Let's not forget, though, that the defense of clogging with which I started had a point of its own, which was the revelation of an alternative view of things. “[T]he trick,” Baker said, “[is] to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up” until it reveals “unlooked-for seepage-points of passage.” The submerged pun, here, suggests that the trick of clogging is so to “blow up”—distend or extenuate—narrative discourse that its end-oriented linearity is “blown up” in the sense of exploded. But the point of the explosion is to substitute for linear narrative syntax a “roil” of other connections, like the tangle of worms and tampons in the sewer, connections made possible by the discovery of unexpected “seepage-points.” What is an “infarct” to the narrative is “life itself” to those worms. To obstruct the unidirectionality of narrative opens it up, then, to the unlimited potentialities of textual multidirectionality, such that, through unlooked-for seepage-points, it can move, at any moment, in any number of possible directions (which are “digressive” with respect to the narrative but not necessarily, for that reason, incoherent or irrelevant). And because the points of passage are “unlooked for,” the alternative view of things that emerges contrasts pleasurably with the predictability of conventional narrative structures.
In The Mezzanine, this exploded aspect of clogged narrative is simulated on the page by a riot of footnotes that divide the reader's attention at various seepage-points and induce the exquisite pleasure—and anxiety—of hesitation. One can't quite decide whether to continue following the text (and miss the relevant material in the note) or to plunge into a luxuriant note (and risk “losing track” of the text's direction). These notes, in other words, enact both the pleasure and the frustration that digression induces because they stage as an actual alternative a certain nexus between a simplifying sense of order and a dehierarchizing disorder, between simply following a given direction and the “pathlessness” (aporia) that is a product of multiple options. Or so it would be if “text” could be straightforwardly identified with narrative in this novel and “footnotes” viewed as departures from a simple story line. But Baker's narrative, such as it is, is already thoroughly clogged and his footnotes are themselves expansive and subject to digressions of their own, having the same “Will I ever want to stop reading?” quality as the text “proper.” The option they stage is therefore not between linear “narrative” and disjunctive “digression,” but between something like the continuity of an already extenuated, distended narrative text and supposed discontinuities that are in fact scarcely distinguishable from the extenuations that are the natural product of the spinning out process itself. The supposed alternative—an ultimately false one—is between a text that is “blown up” in the sense of extended and a text that is “blown up” in the sense of exploded. This is exactly the difference (that does not admit of distinction) between Barthes's text of pleasure and his text of jouissance; and Baker's footnotes are points of seepage that have the particular quality of enacting the erotic moment of Barthesian “gape.” But points of seepage are everywhere in his text and the gape corresponds only to the moment when the continuities of seepage have become so stretched that they are perceived as discontinuities.
Digression, as the “seepage” of thought that disturbs its linear progression, enacting textual extenuation as a phenomenon that baffles the distinction between continuity and discontinuity, is, then, the pleasure that Baker's writing luxuriously explores, in the text, in the footnotes, and in the relation between the two. As in Perec (Chambers 1994) or Proust, digression's “counternarrative” affinity with the paradigmatic dimension, the dimension of lists and listing, is itself associated with memory, as the faculty that both realizes mental continuities and, on occasion, interrupts them with sudden disjunctions, or “second messages.” (In ordinary conversation, “Oh, that reminds me of …” is both a way of keeping the discourse flowing and a device for changing the subject.) Just so, washing the face is described in The Mezzanine as a pleasurable moment of memory-induced gape, in which “sudden signals of warmth flooding your brain from the nerves of the face, especially the eyelids, unmoor your thinking for an instant, dislodging your attention from any thought that had been in progress and causing it to slide back randomly to the first fixed spot in memory that it finds” (95). But the gape itself, “dislodging” and “unmooring” as it is, nevertheless becomes an experience of continuity here; it is a “slide” of the mind into randomness that is halted when one hits on a “fixed spot” and commences another “progress”—a progress that is, of course, liable to interruption in due course from further slides.
Whereas some digressive writers tend to explore the implications of the disjunctiveness and pathlessness inherent in digression and its power to “change the subject,” Baker is generally more concerned with the continuity digression also implies, a continuity-in-disjunction that induces metaphors like “seepage” or the “slide” of memory and derives from the fact that digression is not a random occurrence but a mediated, and so motivated, phenomenon whose dislodgings, unmoorings, interruptions and disjunctures can therefore never be absolute. If metaphor is Baker's characteristic mode and the principle vehicle of his digressive style, it is because metaphor inevitably implies similarity in difference and difference in similarity, since the terms of metaphor are by definition unlike each other yet assimilable to each other. Indeed, the more apparently unlike they are, the more vivid and effective is the perception of their similarity.
But both memory and metaphor thus pose the problem of mediation as the slide through “randomness” that connects two fixed points. The mediations are so fine, subtle or complex that language, a differential system, cannot represent them, and their multiplicity is experienced as chaos a kind of swoon of the analytic consciousness as it slides “randomly” between the points that it is able to grasp or fix on. The multidirectionality of pathlessness that is prized in a clogged or blown up text such as Baker's is thus ideally realized in those between moments of slide that the text itself can't represent because they elude the descriptive powers of language. To speak of a “roil” of earthworms in a sewer-pipe is both to designate, and to give up on, a problem of description: “‘I found your problem,’” the rooter called up nonchalantly, and beckoned me down to an idyllic scene in the lower garden near the standpipe: (…) ‘Best cut the strings off,’ he advised, and wrote “sanetery napkins” on the invoice—our vocabulary always lags reality” (U and I 74). Baker has no intention of “cutting the strings off” his writing, which aims rather to be all strings, and his vocabulary, fortunately, does not lag reality quite as egregiously as the rooter's. Indeed, the characteristic quality of his writing lies most obviously in the precision and close detail, the manic myopia and brilliant accuracy of his descriptive style, which borders on something that could be called descriptivitis, (or perhaps paradigmomania). But, as the rooter says, there's the problem. For no description can ever be complete; it is always obliged to imply an “etcetera,” corresponding to what memory forgets and language can't, or doesn't, say. Baker's prodigiously precise descriptions, characteristically adduced in support of a metaphoric relation between two terms, thus function, in the end, as mere gestures—gestures in the direction of making explicit all those mediations that can't be said—and hence as signs that the descriptions themselves require supplementation. It is, in other words, for the reader to supply the slides of memory, the leap between the metaphoric terms, without which the text is incomplete but which description itself, however, comprehensive it seeks to be, can never fully furnish. The instance of reading is thus an enactment of the textual “etcetera,” and the site of all the mediations on which the text depends but which it can't provide, and without which it fails as a vehicle of pleasure.
“Metaphor,” it is frequently pointed out, is etymologically cognate with “transport”: it gets us smoothly from point A to point B, a mediator of distance. In modern Greece, “metaphor” designates a literal means of transportation, say a bus or a shuttle. Reading, as the site where textual mediation is realized, might therefore be appropriately described as a vehicle of local transport, of travel without leaving home, in which one moves, metaphorically, on the spot. As the flâneur reads the life of the streets, making the connections that attempt to make sense of urban experience, the reader is a flâneur of texts, and the reader's pleasure is that of the mediating slide, the experience of continuity in discontinuity and discontinuity in continuity. As a child, the narrator of The Mezzanine informs us, he was fond as children are of boats, cars, trains and planes but was “more interested in systems of local transport” (35) such as (and here a long, carefully detailed, descriptive list intervenes, which I can only summarize) airport luggage-handling systems, conveyor-belts at the supermarket check-out, those connecting the store's interior to the parking lot, milk-bottling machines, marble chutes, Olympic bobsled or luge tracks, the “hanger-management systems” at the dry cleaner's, laundry lines, the barbecue-chicken display at Woolworth's and rotating Timex watch displays, or finally the cylindrical roller-cookers on which hot dogs slowly turn. But one further system of local transport—something like the list's “etcetera,” similar to the other items although already their other—remains as the one from which the adult narrator still derives pleasure. It is the escalator, which “shared qualities with all of these systems, with one difference: it was the only one I could get on and ride” (36). As the best metaphor of metaphor of them all, then, it is the escalator that furnishes the governing figure of The Mezzanine, which is framed by an account of an escalator ride and also uses the escalator as the vehicle of its own metaphoric self-definition, the figure en abyme of textuality as it is conceived in this text. So I will say that The Mezzanine exemplifies a particular variant of the etcetera principle that can be called the “escalator principle.”
Where the etcetera principle is a principle of open-endedness, its maxim being that there is always an etcetera, the maxim of the escalator principle is that one thing leads to another, and it is a principle of mediation as seepage—one thing leads to another, as the escalator takes us from one floor to the next, by slow and gradual intervening “steps.” But in the principle of seepage, as we have already seen, there also lies a potential for escalation: “blown up” incrementally—sufficiently slowed down and delayed, clogged in their movement toward a goal or destination—the steps of discourse are capable of exploding narrative linearity into pathlessness and multidirectionality. The “long hypotenuse” that is an escalator (59) seems at first blush an unlikely candidate as a figure for the multidirectionality of an exploded text: it is more obviously suggestive of narrative as a linear progression from a beginning to an end via a succession of intervening steps. But Baker's ingenuity as a master of metaphor is more than adequate to the task of suggesting, via a single image—that of the escalator—that there is a continuity between mediation as the vehicle of a smooth ride from point to point and mediation as the instrument of an explosion of linearity.
The crucial point in this respect is that the escalator is a set of gradually moving steps or graduations. Although there's no engineering reason why it shouldn't be a simple inclined conveyor belt, historical and cultural reasons have caused it to imitate a staircase (and Baker discusses his youthful belief that one should therefore advance on an escalator “at the normal rate you climbed stairs at home,” 100). In spite of its step-by-step structure, its motion however is conveyor-belt smooth: one can glide locally on an escalator from point to point, “in the pose of George Washington crossing the Potomac” (99), even though one is in fact advancing by degrees. But as a visual phenomenon—and again because it is made of steps that move—the escalator is not the vehicle of a smooth ride so much as it is an object that dazzles the eye, which is unable to maintain the distinction between successive steps on which linearity depends:
Grooved surfaces slid out from underneath the lobby floor and with an almost botanical gradualness segmented themselves into separate steps. As each step arose, it seemed individual and easily distinguished from the others, but after a few feet of escalation, it became difficult to track, because the eye moves in little hops when it is following a slow-moving pattern, and sometimes a hop lands the gaze on a step that is one above or below the one you had fixed on; you find yourself skipping back down to the early, emergent part of the climb, where things are clearer. It's like trying to follow the curve on a slowly rotating drill bit, or trying to magnify in with your eye to enter the first groove of a record and track the spiral visually as the record turns, getting lost in the gray anfractuosities almost immediately.
This effect of dazzle, it is clear, is for Baker a pleasurable one (cf. “I love the constancy of shine on the edges of moving objects,” ; and, in U and I, “[t]he only thing I like are the clogs”). But it arises here, on the one hand, from an effect of “escalation,” and on the other from the fact that the eye shares a deficiency with language in that it can only view differentially (it moves in “little hops”) what is nevertheless experienced as a continuum, whether it be the slide of memory between two fixed points in the progress of thought, or the slow upward climb of an escalator. The escalator blows up (magnifies) the mediating slide of metaphor or memory, and slows it down; but it still blows up (explodes) the sense of linearity by making it impossible to track its moving steps.
So the confusion of the eye that seeks to track the steps of the escalator in linear fashion is a figure for the “randomness” associated with mediating slides and imitated—in similarly blown up, slowed down fashion—by the multidirectional text. The eye hops here like that of the reader encountering a footnote and unsure whether to follow the textual continuity or to skip to the foot of the page, where disjunction is more clearly (but still deceptively) signalled. If the escalator is a “climb,” a gradus (as in Gradus ad Parnassum, the title of old handbooks of rhetoric), the movement of escalation nevertheless reveals how it is that linear progression, from point to point, is not incompatible with, and in fact can be seen to generate, clogging, seepage and blowing up—the delights of digression and multidirectionality. And the principle of escalation, it emerges, is the gradual which functions here like the pun on blowing up in the passage from U and I with which I began, in that “an almost botanical gradualness” is on the one hand the secret of the smoothness of the escalator's step-by-step ride, and on the other what baffles the eye, confronted with this “slow-moving pattern.”
If an escalator ride is therefore, as Baker puts it, failing to resist the obvious pun, “the vehicle of my memoir” (37), it is because memoirs necessarily invoke memory as the mediating principle that holds things together and simultaneously disjoins them, and with it metaphor as the mediating principle of continuity in discontinuity and discontinuity in continuity that governs the associative working of memory as it produces a clogged and blown up text. The Mezzanine isn't completely bereft of narrative structure, but its adherence to the escalator principle means that it coheres loosely, in the extenuated manner of the paradigmatic dimension, rather than tightly or syntagmatically (or metonymically), in the linear fashion of story structure or logical argument. Like lists and collections, it groups within the limits of a text a set of different items that are linked by perceptions of similarity and are themselves subject therefore to the etcetera principle. The list we just encountered of systems of local transport, in which the escalator functioned as an etcetera, might serve, therefore, as the text's structural emblem; and lists are indeed vital to this text's discursive texture. But metaphor is in turn the principle of lists, not because all lists group items that are specifically related by the figure of metaphor, but because the metaphoric phenomenon of continuity/discontinuity underlies the associative structure of the paradigmatic, which is why no inventory of paradigmatic relations can be securely closed. The “that reminds me” of memory can always intervene.
But, to repeat, The Mezzanine is not particularly preoccupied with the open-endedness of the inventorizing process. It even assigns quite significant limits to its own escalatory potential by limiting its narrative to a period of time out, the “fixed interval” (102) of absence, or at least withdrawal, from the workaday world that corresponds to lunch break and is enjoyed on other occasions by commuter-train passengers, or escalator riders. Its concern is less with the etcetera principle as such and more with connections, points of passage or seepage, that is with the baffling question of mediation as the escalator principle phrases it: how is it that one thing leads to another? Because of this preoccupation with passage, I want to describe Baker's “memoir” as a meditation, taking advantage of the etymology that links the words mezzanine and meditation—from the Latin medius, half-way, middle—with mediation itself, and understanding meditation as the genre of thought/discourse that is defined by the gradual, a genre in which step-by-step progress is consequently capable of exploding into multidirectionality.
WRITES OF PASSAGE
I entered a bookstore and asked, already thinking of writing this essay: “Do you have the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Meditations of Descartes?” “Depends,” said the clerk. “Do you know who the author is?” It was a difficult question to answer tactfully, but I realized on reflection that it is not an irrelevant question to ask about meditations, which seem to be generically concerned with the possibility of self-knowledge on their author's part. “Who am I?” is, always implicitly and sometimes explicitly, their preoccupation; and a single meditation, however long drawn out, is rarely adequate to answering that question, so true is it that self-knowledge is subject to a law of limitless supplementation, whether in the linear sense of “One thing leads to another” or in the more escalatory sense that any given step may explode, and lead in any number of possible directions. It's symptomatic, therefore, that the texts grouped under the generic heading of “the meditation” (singular) most often bear a title in the plural: Meditations. And it's because of this potential for explosion of the meditative process that the classical tradition of meditation has been a tradition of discipline. Whether the meditation is conceived as an “imitation of Christ” (Thomas à Kempis) or as an application of the “method of rightly conducting the reason” (to coopt the long title of Descartes's Discourse on Method), the problem of meditators and their advisers has been to prevent the mind—like the eye attempting to track the grooves of a record or the steps of a moving escalator—from getting “off track.” Following an exemplary guide, keeping to the highway (“method” is from meta-hodos, a direct route or main road), are the standard precepts for meditators.
A reason why the question “Who am I?” tends to arise is, however, that meditating is a “time out” activity, when one is typically reduced to “one's own resources.” Marcus Aurelius meditated at night, after heavy days spent administering the Empire or combatting Germanic tribes in the region of the Danube. Descartes had his famous poêle, the warm room in which he withdrew from the distractions of the world. I get reflective myself, or I start to woolgather, on long journeys when I've run out of reading matter, there's no one to talk to and nothing to look at, or the in-flight movie is more than usually vapid. “One's own resources,” of course, are not in fact one's own, and thinking is a cultural, not an individual, matter; but the phrase “one's own resources” does describe a certain freeing of the mind from its habitual constraints that occurs when one finds oneself “at a loose end” and one thing begins, consequently, to lead to another. Religious or philosophical attempts to discipline the meditating mind are, in essence, attempts to take advantage of this freeing of the mind from its habitual concerns, without permitting the loose-endedness of the meditative moment (like tampon strings in a sewerpipe) to clog things up, with all the consequent “dangers” of the experience's becoming haphazard, random, multidirectional and open-ended.
French has an expression, de fil en aiguille, which is used, like “one thing leads to another,” when mediating connections are too complex or subtle to be easily tracked (as in the slide of memory). And it has another, avoir de la suite dans les idées, which refers to people who are unusually single-minded or dogged in their pursuit of a goal. One might say that disciplined meditations attempt to channel the de fil en aiguille, multidirectional potential of “one thing leads to another” into a single-minded “one things leads to another” that has de la suite dans les idées. We don't know how Marcus Aurelius conducted his nightly meditations—presumably with considerable consequentiality—but what we have inherited, in the “book” of private jottings he left whose original “title” (more like a filing label) was, symptomatically enough, To Myself, is a jumble of sententiae; and these can easily be taken to emblematize the potential randomness of meditative rambling to which reduction of the mind to its “own resources” can lead, by virtue of the “that reminds me” slide. Descartes's Meditations, by contrast, are the prime example of the logically controlled if not end-oriented philosophic meditation; their full title, Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the Existence of God, and the Real Distinction of Mind and Body, Are Demonstrated, clearly indicates both the directionality of the argument and the ease with which it lends itself to summary, always a key indicator of systematic as opposed to comprehensive thinking. But it is in Descartes also that one finds the emblematic sentence: “I who know that I exist inquire into what I am” (Meditation 1).
My hypothesis, of course, is that the two extremes of meditative reflection are never absolutely separable, and that the most haphazard of rambles show some degree of suite dans les idées (Aurelius's recurring stoic themes, for instance), while the most logical of meditative progressions can have moments of (acknowledged or unacknowledged) de fil en aiguille looseness. If that's so, the meditation can be described as the genre of non-narrative writing (“argument”) that demonstrates a nexus, between carefully controlled linear order and the looseness of paradigmatic cohesion that looks like disorder, that corresponds to the nexus of story-structure and textual “extenuation” or “escalation” in narrative. The Mezzanine situates itself intertextually as much closer to the “Marcus Aurelius” end of my hypothesized spectrum than to the “Descartes” end, since it is the Emperor's Meditations in the Penguin Classics edition that the narrator takes with him to read on his lunch break. But it does so in a way that's highly characteristic of the loiterly tradition, by positioning the intertextual other as classically noble or sublime, and itself, therefore, as modern and trivial. (Similarly Nerval alludes to Dante in “October Nights,” and Barthes to Chateaubriand in “Soirées de Paris,” as magnificent foils to their own unpretentious jottings.) Baker's narrator finds Aurelius alienating: “I was nearly ready to abandon it entirely, tired of Aurelius's unrelenting and morbid self-denial” (124). And if my hypothesis of a meditative continuum between randomness and discipline is correct, this distancing from Aurelius and his “self-denial” may also hint at a way in which The Mezzanine is closer to the modern and self-affirmative writer par excellence, Descartes, in spite of the latter's insistence on method.
The link with Descartes has to do crucially, I think, with a connection between meditation and the process of growing up that exercizes both the philosopher and Baker's narrator. “Today,” Descartes writes calmly in a programmatic sentence of the First Meditation, “since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares and am happily disturbed by no passions, and since I am in secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly to the general overthrow of all my former opinions” (79-80). It's not just Descartes' undisguised enjoyment of “time out” then that links him to the narrator of The Mezzanine, nor is it merely his clear linking of the meditative process with a project of self knowledge. It's also the fact that, in Descartes, self-knowledge is so clearly linked in turn with a procedure of discarding “opinions” that have outlived their usefulness—a process, that is, of maturation or coming of age that also informs The Mezzanine.
This kind of preoccupation refers us again to the close connections between the religious and the philosophic traditions of meditation, the way in which the imitation of Christ and the right conduct of reason can be oddly related, both through the religious and pedagogical concept of discipleship and through the initiatory theme of becoming “a man.” The meditation (meditations) is a capacious genre and its history, because of the crisscrossing of religious and philosophical traditions in the story of its emergence, is a tangled one. It was Aurelius' “philosophic” example that furnished a model for the Christian practices of meditation, which proceeded to develop the imitative scenario, or set of scenario, of discipleship. But these in turn, as Amélie Rorty in particular has shown, structure the Cartesian meditation, which straddles philosophy, theology and even religious mysticism, reconciling them through its mind/body dualism. An epistemology that depends on a demonstration of the existence of God grounded the scientific revolution. But the demonstration itself depends on self-knowledge (a methodical, step-by-step examination of “what I am” who know that I exist) and is simultaneously addressed to a reader positioned as a disciple whose own coming of age, as emancipation from prejudice, is also at issue: “I would advise none to read this work, except such as are able and willing to meditate with me in earnest, to detach their minds from commerce with the senses, and likewise to deliver themselves from all prejudice; and individuals of this character are, I well know, remarkably rare” (Descartes 73). That there is consequently some preoccupation in the Meditations with a problematics of passage is indicated, further, by the explicitly mystic moment, at the heart of the book, in which meditation—the step-by-step progress of “clear and distinct” ideas—yields to mute contemplation, the contemplation of an infinite divinity whose existence mediates the two parts of the Meditations' overall structure, the step from uncertainty and systematic doubt to the possibility of epistemological certainty (see Kosman). For example, Descartes writes: “But before I examine this with more attention, and pass on to the consideration of other truths that may be evolved out of it, I think it proper to remain here for some time in the contemplation of God himself … as far, at least, as the strength of my mind, which is to some degree dazzled by the sight, will permit” (110). Readers of Baker may recognize in this moment of “looseness” that has been so deliberately structured into the firm progress of the Meditations, not only a thematics of “blowing up” (examining “with more attention”) and of seepage (“other truths that may be evolved out of it”), but also and more particularly of the dazzle induced by the inexhaustible mystery, the de fil en aiguille “untrackableness” of mediation. But they may sense further that the problematics of passage that's defined here by the question of a partially unknowable God as mediator of the “steps” of thought mimes a question of maturation that underlies the “Who am I?” of meditation, a question that takes the form: “How and when do I become an ‘I’ worthy of philosophical and religious examination?” For it's a concern of Descartes that he choose, to write the Meditations, the precise moment of maturity that makes him worthy to give an account of the steps of thought that have led him, via self-knowledge and the knowledge of God, from the virtualities of doubt to their mature realization in epistemological certainty. The continuous process known as maturation needs to be marked, in other words, by a coming of age that divides the process into steps, a before and after.
In social life, the ceremonies of coming of age are called rites of passage; and what I'm proposing, therefore, is that Descartes' Meditations and Baker's The Mezzanine (and here is the place to mention also the endlessly proliferating autobiographical writing of Michel Leiris) have in common the fact that they are not so much rites as “writes” of passage. I mean by this that in them the fact of writing itself celebrates a coming of age, a point of passage into maturity that justifies self-examination and sanctions it as worthwhile. But such self-examination is itself necessarily an ongoing process, and it's the act of writing that furnishes the modality of this further coming of age. Writing in this second sense is the instrument of a meditation that is itself a rite of passage, whether it be conducted in linear, step-by-step fashion and, as Descartes puts it, “by degrees” or whether it be carried out, as in Baker, according to the principles of “escalation.”
Accordingly, Descartes writes in Meditation III, “holding converse only with myself, and closely examining my nature, I will endeavour to obtain by degrees a more intimate and familiar knowledge of myself” (95). I don't know whether the title of Baker's second novel, Room Temperature, refers quietly to the poêle in which, the Discourse tells us, Descartes liked to “remain the whole day … with full opportunity to occupy my attention with my own thoughts” (10), but it is in this text, whose meditative character is even stronger and whose narrative interest is even further reduced than that of The Mezzanine, that the interest of Baker's writing in self-exploration becomes fully explicit. “I certainly believed, rocking my baby on this Wednesday afternoon, that with a little concentration one's whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.” (41) Here too it is specified that such a reconstruction involves a backward slide of memory: it is a matter of making “connections … that would proliferate backward” (41) in such a way that “everything in my life [might seem] to enjamb splicelessly with everything else” (92), a procedure that is significantly different, as the narrator points out, from proceeding “serially, beginning with ‘I was born on January 5, 1957,’ and letting each moment give birth naturally to the next” (41). The Mezzanine, in its own counter-narrative deployment of proliferating enjambments generated, in the perspective of memory, from the account of a brief period of relaxation in the narrator's day, does not proceed differently from what is outlined in Room Temperature. But where, in the second novel, it is paternity, I suppose, that figures the passage to maturity, The Mezzanine situates itself explicitly, as does Descartes, in relation to the general issue of coming of age.
Meditation, for Descartes, is indeed a matter too serious and its stakes are too high (given the sensitivity of the post-Reformation Church to departures from strict orthodoxy) for it to be undertaken lightly. Although he has been aware for several years, he writes, of the necessity of ridding his mind of false opinions, he has consequently waited to fulfil this task “until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design” (79). As a getting of wisdom, meditation, it turns out, is dialectically related to experience, through which one achieves a maturity sufficient to guarantee the validity and success of the meditative enterprise. But this indispensable prior experience without which there is no maturity is simultaneously, and by definition, a matter of living in error, so that while the fact of embarking on meditation marks the moment of passage from immaturity to maturity, it remains for the act of meditation still to realize this crucial passage, by achieving the displacement of error in favor of truth. The alternation in Descartes' biography of periods of travel with time out for quiet reflection (in Germany and later in Holland), as if travel in the world and meditation, as a form of travel without leaving home, were each other's natural complements, clearly enacts this Cartesian dialectic of error and its correction, experience and meditation. But meditation, in its textual embodiment, is itself dialectical in that it both celebrates and enacts the achievement of a maturity that is simultaneously already attained and still to be reached when meditation begins.
In a not dissimilar way, maturity in The Mezzanine is already achieved, justifying the “memoir,” and yet still in abeyance, continually in process through meditation. The narrator situates at age 23 the moment of his having achieved adulthood, and calculates that up to that moment he had spent seventeen years accumulating childish opinions. It follows, he thinks, that the moment of his coming of age inaugurates another period of seventeen years during which he can hope to accumulate enough adult opinions for these to outweigh eventually his old, immature views. That moment, which I calculate he will reach at age 40, will be the moment of his true Majority (47). The problem, though, is that we don't learn the age of the narrator when he undertakes his memoir; it is specified only that the events of the lunch hour he is remembering took place two years after the crucial moment when, at 23, “[his] life as an adult began” (47). Whether the narrative perspective is that of Majority attained, or of Majority still to be reached, is—as I suppose a general perception of the nature of maturity requires—strictly undecidable. If the autobiographical “pact” holds, identifying narrator with author, one can calculate from the author's biography on the back cover, which conveniently does conform to the conventional narrative order of “Nicholson Baker was born in 1957,” etc., that Baker himself will not turn 40 until 1997, which confirms, in contradistinction to the Cartesian case, the incompleteness at the time of writing of the process of maturation that would put the stamp of Majority on the text.
The closure of Cartesian meditation, its completedness as opposed to the open-endedness of meditation in Baker, is thus a significant difference between the two coming of age texts. So too is the treatment in each text of what coming of age itself implies as a measure of human potential. For Descartes it means nothing less than the achievement of epistemological certainty, the assured knowledge that “man” can know himself and his world, and have some knowledge of God. But Baker's narrator, who is repelled by the high-mindedness of Marcus Aurelius, similarly situates his own coming of age at a considerable distance from Descartes. To begin with, the moment one achieves maturity isn't necessarily discernible, although “luckily, I can remember the very day my life as an adult began” (47). The event, furthermore, had nothing obviously momentous about it. At 23, the narrator discovered, not a method, but a trick, specifically a way to apply deodorant when one is fully dressed. Delighted with this achievement, he then took the subway and spent his commute reflecting on the advantages of slicing toast diagonally rather than straight across and on the many styles of buttering that exist. A short while later, he has his revelation:
I realized that as of that minute … I had finished with whatever large-scale growth I was going to have as a human being, and that I was now permanently arrested at an intermediate stage of personal development. … I was set: I was the sort of person who said “actually” too much. I was the sort of person who stood in a subway car and thought about buttering toast. … I was the sort of person whose biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. I was a man, but not the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be.
Becoming “a man,” in short, does not necessarily signify achieving the exalted status Descartes attributes to humanity as the site of a mind capable of thought, and hence, in the chain of argumentative steps, of establishing the existence of God and therefore of knowing truth with certainty. The self-knowledge that marks maturity may be something like knowledge of arrested growth, that is, of permanent immaturity. In that case, becoming a “man” means discovering that one is not the “magnitude of man” one had hoped.
The historical difference between early modern “man” and the human subject of later modernity and postmodernity is demonstrated here. Let's hypothesize that, at least since Descartes, the meditation has functioned generically as a means of mediating transformations in the nature of knowledge. What meditation mediates, then, is epistemological mutation, the passage by which new knowledge comes to replace old, so that the personal coming of age it celebrates counts, from one angle, as the successful achievement of one's “education,” the getting of wisdom, while from another meditation functions as a teaching device through which disciples are created and the new knowledge one has achieved can be disseminated and replace old “prejudices.” In order to get wisdom and complete one's education, one needs to reject what one has been taught (Descartes has a long passage in The Discourse of Method that is critical of what he learned from the Jesuits at La Flèche) and to fall back on “one's own resources,” working “by degrees” from there to new certainties that then justify publication, as a step in the education of others. Thus it comes about that the forms of knowledge Descartes achieved through meditation are now part and parcel of what is taught, as a matter of course, to moderns; and it is these that post-Cartesian meditators like Baker are implicitly resisting, therefore, in the process of their own coming of age—a coming of age which, of course, in turn entails publication of the new results attained through meditation. The process of achieving knowledge only to make of it a teachable doctrine continues, although what counts as knowledge may thus undergo severe modification over the course of time.
If meditation in Descartes is a linear, goal-oriented “method,” it is because at its end (and hence presupposed from the beginning) lies the (fore)knowledge that new knowledge is attainable. If in Baker it becomes a pathless and apparently random inventorizing, however, it is because the (fore-)knowledge that controls the enterprise is that knowledge is beyond humanity's reach and that arrested growth is the best we can hope for. We can manage some cute tricks, but the highway of method is no longer for us. What has most crucially changed in this historical process is the understanding of the “self” itself, to whose resources the meditator is reduced as a rule of the genre. For Descartes, the self is self-contained, individual and knowable because it both exists as the site of thought and is distinct from everything else in the world, except God with whom it is linked through its defining faculty, the power of thought. It follows that the cogito must be an exercise in mental detachment: “corporal objects” being difficult to know with certainty, whereas “we know much more of the human mind, and still more of God himself” through the powers of cogitation, it is evident that in the pursuit of truth one should “abstract the mind from the contemplation of sensible or imaginable objects, and apply it to those which, as disengaged from all matter, are purely intelligible” (Descartes, 111). And Descartes' readers in turn, as we've seen, are invited to “detach their minds from all commerce with the senses, and likewise to deliver themselves from all prejudices” (73).
If the self is no longer knowable, though, the Cartesian follow-through from self-knowledge to a state of epistemological certitude about God and the world is no longer possible and the meditative process, still pursued as fact, is short-circuited as an act—it can no longer achieve the maturity that is its goal and becomes, instead, the process that confirms us in the knowledge that we are “not the magnitude of man” we might have hoped. Historically, it's the emergence of what could be called the “theoretical subject” that transforms Cartesian meditation in this way from a royal road to truth into a prejudice that, in turn, needs to be corrected through a meditative return to the self and its now diminished possibilities of “knowledge.” At about the time of Rousseau, the modern subject emerges in Europe, not as a self-contained and individual self but as a mobile and multiple consciousness constituted by alterity. Such a subject can believe itself to be autonomous, self-controlling, present to itself and capable of self-knowledge only as a consequence of suppressing what will come to be called the “unconscious,” the site in which constitutive alterity lodges. This is the “split” subject; otherness for it cannot be a matter of absolute alterity, but is rather a product of difference, the implication of which is that neither the “subject” nor its “other”—conceived in a mutual relationship such that each is the other's other—can lay claim to the Cartesian ideal of full selfhood, as that which would be individual and immediately present to itself. For, instead of enjoying self-presence, its existence is “subject” to mediation by alterity. But mediation in turn implies temporality—nothing that is dependent on an intermediary “step” can exist as a timeless “essence”—and the mediated self is consequently, not only incapable of self-possession because constituted by alterity, but also time-bound and historical. It has a temporal existence that is, like its ontological structure, “split” and experienced, therefore, as a matter of continuity/discontinuity, or of “enjambment.”
Where the Cartesian self is figurable as an island, the mediated subject, therefore, has the temporal structure of, say, an escalator or a toilet roll, whose apparent continuity is split (but not interrupted) by grooves or perforations, but whose discontinuity doesn't permit of “clear and distinct” separations such as those on which Cartesian step-by-step thinking depends. Furthermore, for the mediated subject, digression from linearity is always a possibility, for the reason that discontinuity is always inscribed in its continuity. The linear consequentiality of which the Cartesian self is assured by virtue of its unmediated self-presence being no longer either guaranteed or easily achieved, the split that constitutes the subject can become a gape, and escalate into multidirectional multiplicity. Perhaps Rousseau is the figure who historically dramatizes the moment when the Cartesian self begins to yield its sway to the theoretical subject, and it's symptomatic that as an autobiographer Rousseau, whose Confessions begin as a more or less orderly chronological narrative in the “I was born on January 5, 1957” mode but finally disintegrate into obsessive and paranoid ruminations about the power of others, was led to devise, in the Dialogues and the Rêveries, more episodic and open-ended modes of self-exploration. Soon thereafter, Xavier de Maistre's meditative Voyage autour de ma chambre begins to develop an early theory of the digressive subject not as an individual but a “dividual,” a divided “self.”
A subject whose existence is mediated cannot expect to know itself through philosophizing in abstracto, far from the cares, passions, involvements and prejudices of the historical world. To the extent that such a subject can achieve a degree of self-knowledge, it can only be through an exploration of its own connectedness. Thus, the one sentence in Marcus Aurelius that comes as a stunning revelation to the narrator of The Mezzanine is one in which, in absolutely anti-Cartesian fashion, a necessary connection between philosophizing and historical contingency is casually implied. “Manifestly,” Aurelius writes (and it is the “manifestly” that is so magnificent), “no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!” (168). And the narrator comments:
Wo! I loved the slight awkwardness and archaism of the sentence … as well as the unexpected but apt rush to an exclamation point at the end. But mainly I thought that the statement was extraordinarily true and that if I bought the book and learned how to act upon that single sentence I would be led into elaborate realms of understanding, even as I continued to do, outwardly, exactly as I had done, going to work, going to lunch, going home, talking to L. on the phone or having her over for the night.
Thus is defined the mode of philosophizing, grounded in the triviality of the merely contingent (“merely,” that is, from a Cartesian point of view), that characterizes meditation in The Mezzanine as a radically anti-Cartesian pursuit. The assumption is not that thought is grounded in detachment from everyday life, but that there can “manifestly” be no point of departure for philosophy other than the “condition of life … in which chance finds you today!”.
There is a problem, though. The book, once bought on the strength of this crucial sentence, turns out to be disappointing because it gives no answer to the question of how to make the practice of philosophy responsive to the chance circumstances of life, how to enter “elaborate realms of understanding” while getting on with the business, or the busyness, of going to work, going to lunch, going home, talking on the phone and having a lover over for the night.
Chance found me that day having worked for a living all morning, broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half a bag of popcorn, bought a new set of shoelaces, eaten a hot dog and a cookie with some milk; and chance found me now sitting in the sun on a green bench, with a paperback on my lap. What, philosophically, was I supposed to do with that?
This sentence, which—incidentally—offers a good account of the narrative content of The Mezzanine, defines the narrator's problem as that of the transvaluation of the trivial, a problem to which Aurelius' high-minded sententiae offer no solution. This is also, for what it is worth, a crucial problem in, and perhaps the defining problem of, contemporary cultural studies, faced as it is with the question of what it means for intellectuals to take seriously, as an object of knowledge, the ephemera and the banalities of everyday or popular culture. But already to pose the problem itself implies a criticism of the traditional practice of philosophy, the grandeur of whose concerns it is that defines the trivial as synonymous with the insignificant. That is, perhaps, why the narrator sunning himself on his green bench recalls Diogenes, who made sunning himself on the agora itself a philosophical practice, critical of the belief in more “elaborate realms of significance.” The answer to the question of transvaluing the trivial may lie, then, less in rethinking the allegedly trivial than in a revaluation of the practice of philosophy, a revaluation that itself depends on a criticism of conventional understandings of the status of knowledge.
Such a redefined philosophy, in other words, would have to be something more modest than the pursuit of “elaborate realms of understanding” and less portentous than Aurelius' “thing about mortal life's being no more than sperm and ashes” (124). Reflecting on and finding meaning in a broken shoelace, it can be familiar and approachable. Rather than driving relentlessly forward, like a systematic argument of the Cartesian type, it might be more like what U and I calls a “veracious stochasticism” (99), governed more by chance than by method, and more subject to the loiterly etcetera principle than inclined to hasten toward closure. Such a philosophy might be a philosophy adapted to the limitations of modern humanity, “not the magnitude of man I had hoped,” a humanity subject to historical contingency whose modernity consists of being “up to the minutiae” (U and I, 110) as much as up to the minute. Its narrating subject can therefore be something as apparently simple, if in fact inexhaustibly complex, as a young man sunning himself on a bench and whose only degree of maturity lies in the discovery of his permanent arrest “at an intermediate stage of human development.” Unlike Aurelius' grim pronouncements, such a philosophy might even be a source of pleasure. But it remains in the long tradition of the meditation, of which Aurelius was the distant ancestor.
PHILOSOPHIZING THE CONTINGENT
That philosophizing the contingent is a possible function of writing—indeed “the function of art”—was the view of Walter Benjamin. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, he wrote that the object of “philosophical criticism” is to demonstrate this function, “to make historical content, such as provides the basis of every important work of art, into a philosophical truth” (182). This is an important sentence because it locates “truth” in a mediating function—for Benjamin, that of the critical reading as the means by which philosophical “truth” emerges from history—and because it depends, therefore, on an understanding of the incompleteness of the work of art “in itself,” that is, its subjection to a version of the etcetera principle, its connectedness to a form of alterity figured by the reader. For Benjamin, therefore, temporality is of the essence: indeed, for him an actual time lag must intervene, causing a “decrease in effectiveness” of the work's initial historical embeddedness, so that it becomes a “ruin,” for it is only this entropic ruination of the work, making it into a readable allegory, that enables its philosophical “truth content” to be restored by the critical reader.
But supposing the work is always already a “ruin,” as Blanchot's concept of désoeuvrement implies? Its philosophical readability, in that case, would be a given from the start, or at least would not depend on a long historical time-lapse. Nothing resembles a ruin more than a would-be “work” that remains incomplete, condemned to a state of arrested growth; and some writing—that, for example, of the loiterly tradition to which Baker's belongs—does not even aspire to the status of work but seems to have no ambition other than to be a kind of ruin, already marked by temporality from inception. In either case, the function of “discipleship,” if it is understood as the reading of the ruins that are, in short or long term, by default or by profession, what writing is, acquires an emphasis and a significance that differs markedly from the construction of the disciple as an imitator—a mere follower—that is familiar from the philosophical and religious tradition of the classical meditation. The disciple as reader—an agent of signification—becomes the indispensable supplement called for by the work's own inadequacy to its task.
If, as I suggested, Baker's writing has some affinities with contemporary cultural studies in its concern with the problematics of philosophizing the contingent, its general adherence to the meditative tradition (that is, its yoking of the questions of culture and history to the meditative question of “Who am I?”) and its emphasis on the readerly function (as the site of memory's mediating slide as well as of philosophical supplementation) aren't particularly characteristic of academic practices, which haven't typically been prone to acknowledge either the embeddedness of knowledge in subjective positioning or its dependence on phenomena of mediation. I want to reflect a little, therefore, in these final pages, on the ways in which Baker's text seems to understand the conditions of cultural knowledge as a philophizing of the contingent, that is, on the condition of subjectivity and the condition of readability. But I am interested, too, in what this text conveys about the conditions under which meditative knowledge as a philosophizing of the contingent can be regarded as a mode of criticism, and not only of the ambitions of traditional philosophy. It's because the book's writing is both the vehicle of its knowledge construction and the modality of its critical functioning that I'll be led to return at some length, and with some risk of repetition, to the questions of narrative clogging and explosion—those of “escalation”—with which I began. But it's the thread of connectedness—the connectedness of subjectivity and the connectedness of reading, but also that of the critical gesture and its object—that itself links together the various topics I want now to traverse, producing them in their turn as items in a kind of list or paradigmatic chain, linked by a relation of discontinuity but continuity. And such connectedness, I submit, is an escapable theme of modern writing, but more particularly of writing in the loiterly mode that itself explores a paradigmatic or list-like view of things, because at its heart is the connectedness that defines the modern or theoretical subject, the mediated subject as opposed to the detached Cartesian self.
“Patty was at work” is the second sentence in Room Temperature the first of which (“I was in the rocking chair giving our six-month-old Bug her late afternoon bottle” ) establishes the narrator's meditative situation. In The Mezzanine also, the relation of meditation to the world of work is a fundamental preoccupation, since it is the workaday world that defines the historical contingency the narrator would like to philosophize, as well as the object of his critical attention. And the two are inseparably connected, as is suggested both by the way the lunch hour, with its “sunlit noon mood” and its explosive sense of freedom (106) is scheduled into the working day, and by the way the “long hypotenuse” of a mediating escalator triangulates the noonday relaxations of walking in the city (eating popcorn, buying shoelaces, sitting in the sun) with the employments of an office that lies, on the mezzanine floor, but a half-“step” away. In comparable fashion, too, the corporate bathroom, to which three of the novel's fifteen chapters are devoted, blurs the distinction between work and lunch. “Is a lunch hour defined as beginning just as you enter the men's room on your way to lunch, or just as you exit it?” (71). Urinating “in a corporate setting” can have a critical function as well as figuring the connectedness of trivial relaxations and powerful modes of social organization, and I'll return to this bathroom episode in due course (as also to the significance of learning to tie shoelaces, having a shoelace break and going out to buy new ones). But it's enough for now to note that meditative “stochasticism,” however “veracious,” can't be completely divorced from the orderly filing system of the “Pendaflex” world of corporate business, so that the connectedness that distinguishes the modern subject from the Cartesian self is also the connectedness implied by the relation of mutual alterity—the “split”—that holds between work and lunch, criticism and its object. And the model for this kind of connectedness, I suggest, is the inseparability of linear narrative from its explosion into multidirectionality through clogging, of the escalator as the principle of gradus and steady progression and the escalator as principle of “escalation.” The escalator, in short, connects meditation and work, criticism and its object, as well as narrative and the clogged text of meditation.
As a figure of connection, the escalator also quite naturally figures, as we know, memory, the principle of continuity and discontinuity in the temporality of a mediated world. And as we also know, from Perec, it is the problematics of memory that introduces paradigmatic disorder into narrative's syntagmatic ordering structure. “Reconstitut[ing] the events of that noontide for this opusculum,” the narrator of The Mezzanine is, a little like Marcel in A la Recherche du Temps perdu, a man remembering the more immature man of memory that he once was, and he knows that “the determinism of reminding often works obscurely” (60)—that memory is not easily subject to the controls of logical argument or linear narrative. Among the intertextual precedents his writing evokes, an allusion to Proust is consequently inevitable.
Incidentally, if you open a Band-Aid box, it will exhale a smell (as I found out recently, needing a Band-Aid for a surprisingly gruesome little cut1) that will shoot you right back to when you were four2—although I don't trust this olfactory memory trick anymore, because it seems to be a hardware bug in the neural workings of the sense of smell, a low-level sort of tie-in, underneath subtler strata of language and experience, between smell, vision and self-love, which has been mistakenly exalted by some writers as something realer and purer and more sacredly significant than intellective memory, like the bubbles of swamp methane that awed provincials once took for UFOs.
I couldn't bring myself to abbreviate this dense passage (although I have spared my reader the two footnotes that, in attaching to it, themselves enact the “obscure determinism of reminding”). But from it emerges, broadly speaking, both a certain solidarity with Proust—based on a common reliance on the dimension of memory and the shared knowledge that the triggers of memory are trivial, so that it is through memory that the contingent acquires (philosophical) significance—and a certain mistrust of the obscurer workings of what Proust criticism calls “involuntary memory,” but is here characterized as low-level tie-ins. For a writer who loves clogged sewerpipes to refer slightingly to hardware bugs and the bubbling of swamp methane in this connection certainly seems contradictory. But the contradiction is the sign of a certain ambivalence, and the narrator's preference here for “subtler strata of language and experience” that can be captured by intellective memory has much to do with the nature of his philosophical project, which is not conceived, like Proust's, as a quest for individual redemption—the rediscovery of an essential self in the dispersed multiplicity of the subject—or even as a quest for redemption at all. Baker's project could be described (too pretentiously) as something like an exploration of cultural modernity, one to which the personal dimension of memory is indispensable but in which the obscurer reaches of reminiscence, in which the purely personal resonates too strongly like a merely accidental “hardware bug”, are somewhat suspect. For a writer whose private meditation is also, albeit implicitly, a gesture of social criticism, the subjectively personal must also be recognizably “veracious” to the reader whose mediating role in the philosophising of the contingent is no less indispensable than is the writer's personal memory. That is one of the conditions of the embedding of knowledge in subjectivity. Baker's project, in this sense, is in fact more like that of Perec's Je me souviens, which is a random collection of collective memories stored in the privacy of a single remembering mind, the “je” of the title.
The Mezzanine's narrator is, in any case, quite conscious of the fact that his writing is a form of cultural study (although where cultural studies has emerged most obviously from philosophical scrutiny of the commodity, in Benjamin for instance, I would say that Baker's favorite turf is in the area of technological gadgetry and industrial design). It is the narrator's ambivalence about the role played in his study by the personal in the form of “kid-memory”—as if a state of “arrested growth” were not understood to be the condition of knowledge for us moderns—that is curious. His ambivalence about the personal vibrations of memory is not dissimilar, perhaps, from the shyness of academic cultural studies about its own literary origins and affinities, the desire in each case being to distance a certain project of knowledge from the prestige of authorship and from authority claims grounded in exceptional personalities and precious essences. Thus the narrator indicates, for example, that a whole history of social change is readable in the “disorienting” changes that have occurred during and since his childhood in everyday objects, like “gas pumps, ice cube trays, transit buses, or milk containers.” But, he adds:
the only way we can understand the proportion and range and effect of these changes, which constitute the often undocumented daily texture of our lives (a rough, gravelly texture, like the shoulder of a road, which normally passes too fast for microscopy), is to sample early images of the objects in whatever form they take in kid-memory—and once you invoke those kid-memories, you have to live with their constant tendency to screw up your fragmentary historiography with violas of emotion.
In other words, the exploration of self and the recourse to one's own resources that is characteristic of the meditation as a genre is thought by the narrator to interfere, by introducing “subjective” connotations through memory, with a philosophic investigation of everyday culture, an investigation that would not need to be such a “fragmentary historiography” if only impersonal documents were available.
What the narrator admits, slightly grudgingly, as a pis-aller—the fact that personal memory necessarily intervenes as a form of documentation when other documents are unavailable—might however be viewed more positively. If the everyday is that to which official institutions of knowledge, like schools and libraries, pay no attention, because it is “trivial,” then a philosophical approach to the significance of the everyday might not want to deny its personal connotations and investments, but rather to acknowledge and incorporate the “violas of emotion,” as part and parcel of its constitution. Many academic practitioners of cultural studies, aware for example of the degree to which their scholarly interest in popular culture is embedded in childhood interests and enthusiasms (not necessarily outgrown), might cheerfully accede to the proposition that forms of knowledge marked by conditions of immaturity (arrested development) are necessarily part and parcel of a historically modern epistemology. The Mezzanine, in any case, includes an interesting social history conducted through a remembered, child's eye, view of the changes in the delivery of milk to households (including a stirring hymn of praise to the designer of the contemporary milk-carton, 42-43).
It also includes many less developed observations which—childlike as they may be (and precisely because they are childlike in their ability to notice what usually passes unnoticed)—compensate for this “undocumented” character of daily life. Remarks on things like the etiquette of signature placement on office get-well cards (31), the mechanical ingenuity lavished on bathroom gadgets (72-73) or the courtesies of whistling in men's bathrooms, themselves provide raw material for future social historians. Their function in this text is not so much to demonstrate the social significance of trivial phenomena (as in the case of milk delivery) as it is to cause in the reader a certain shock of pleasurable recognition (“Yes, that's true”) combined with awareness that one had never attended to things that, in one's own child-like fashion, one had nevertheless noticed. The realization that one might nevertheless attend seriously to them—that Baker's description furnishes material for a future historiography, for instance—is the first step in the transvaluation of the trivial, or the philosophizing of the contingent. Reflecting, with or without “violas of emotion,” on the potential significance of these previously unremarked details, the reader becomes a disciple of the narrator's teaching. But the teaching itself is not demonstrative (like Descartes') and insistent on imitation, but consists only—somewhat in the mode of Jacques Rancière's “ignorant schoolmaster”—of drawing our attention to matters on which we might profitably reflect for ourselves. After the condition of subjectivity implied by the role of memory, this transfer of responsibility for signification onto the reader is then the second condition for philosophizing the contingent.
An example is the prevalence of perforation in contemporary material culture. The narrator writes that
People watch the news every night like robots thinking they are learning about their lives, never paying attention to the far more immediate developments that arrive unreported, on the zip-lock perforated top of the ice-cream carton, in reply coupons bound in magazines and on the ‘Please Return This Portion’ edging of bill stubs, on sheets of postage stamps and sheets of Publishers Clearing House magazine stamps, on paper towels, in rolls of plastic bags for produce at the supermarket, in strips of hanging-file labels.
(Like the escalator in the list of systems of local transport, toilet rolls go unmentioned, as the etcetera of this list, because they are in fact the point of departure of the narrator's outburst). We look in the wrong direction if we want to learn about our lives; we attend to versions of political—that is, narrative—history rather than to the more “fragmentary historiographies” in which the “rough, gravelly texture” of the everyday becomes visible, a texture, we recall, like that of the shoulder of the road that becomes apparent only when we slow down—when the narrative becomes clogged.
The narrator does not explain why the prevalence of perforation is more important than the events recounted on the TV news, but his text functions as the slowing down mechanism that brings it into view. As readers reflecting on the significance of perforation, we may then be led to see that its prevalence signals, or at least emblematizes, a culture of mediation—less one of ideas “clear and distinct” and progress “by degrees” than of connectedness, enjambment, slides and escalation. Perforation figures perfectly the effect of “split,” or continuity/discontinuity, that is produced by the phenomenon of mediation; and a perforated strip such as a toilet roll is itself in metaphoric relation (that is, a relation of continuity/discontinuity, similarity and difference) with those systems of local transport that work on the principle of the divided conveyor-belt, such as the luggage carrousel in airports and of course the escalator. Furthermore, the list of examples of perforation, from the zip-lock top to strips of hanging-file labels, doesn't merely illustrate the ubiquity of perforation in modern culture but is itself, metaphorically—as a list—an example of perforation, the listed items being in exactly the relation of continuity/discontinuity, of similarity and difference that perforation figures. Lists are like unfolding toilet rolls or forms of local transport on the principle of the conveyor-belt: the reader glides along them somewhat as one rides an escalator, in the stance of Washington crossing the Potomac, entering at zip-lock tops and exiting at strips of hanging-file labels. The implication of the unnoticed ubiquity of perforation is therefore that we live in a culture of mediated connectedness that is “structured” (i.e. unstructured) like a list, or a set (a list) of lists, while our attention is illegitimately solicited by, and given to, the constructions of narrative history.
The Mezzanine, of course, offers no explanation of the significance of this alternative but obfuscated, list-like way of comprehending ourselves and the world, corresponding to the grainy texture of the everyday over which we travel too fast, and unheedingly. But it teaches us, by its narrator's example, to attend to the paradigmatic dimension and to perceive the reality of the world it brings into view, and in its own writing it enacts the characteristics of the world it describes, so that reading it, in the role of disciple, becomes a pedagogical experience, an induction into a world constituted by lists. Here, then, is the philosophizing significance of its loosened narrative texture. The novel lists, for example, the class of events that correspond to the particular form of deceived expectation that makes breaking a shoelace so frustrating (13-14); it lists the events—from learning to tie one's shoelaces to ordering a rubber-stamp with one's address on it so as to pay one's bills and “deciding that brain-cells ought to die”—that count as major events in one's life and constitute the gradual process of coming of age (16); it lists, as we have seen, the systems of local transport that resemble escalators; it lists the items (from escalators to ice grooved by a skater) that make up the class of “grooved surfaces” (76), and the moving surfaces (escalator handrails, turning LPs, propellor and fan blades) that shine, glint and dazzle (3); even the narrator's plot summary, already quoted (125), is a non-narrative listing of events. Several of these lists “enjamb” on one another: the escalator and the shoelace, in particular, make it easy to connect, in a relation of continuity/discontinuity, a list of items that are associated with these objects from one point of view with a list of items that resemble them from another. The text teaches us, in short, that the world is listable as well as narratable—it can be constructed paradigmatically as well as syntagmatically—and we are left to wonder at our relative blindness to the alternative vision the text so convincingly embodies in its own perforated, continuous/discontinuous texture. So let us look a little more closely at how this texture is constructed.
It depends essentially on metaphoric relations, and the principle of the list is metaphor. But associations can arise also, by metonymy for instance, between items without obvious physical or functional resemblance, such as doorknobs and ties—and the father whose habit it was to drape the latter over the former (27). An associative list of this kind—from doorknobs to ties to father—has a greater looseness of texture than a list constructed metaphorically; the list in this case begins to “list” like a boat becoming unmoored (Baker's word for the effect on one's thought processes of washing the face).3 Associative drift of this kind can move a passage from a consideration of milk-containers (themselves part of a list of objects that have undergone disorienting changes in the narrator's lifetime), to a description of making iced coffee and from there to a discussion of the ice-cube tray, which itself “deserves” (and so gets) a “historical note” (445); or, by a combination of metonymic association and metaphor, from the beauty of grooved surfaces via a discussion of record-cleaning systems to a description of street-cleaning machines (65-67). “Listing” in this way, the text becomes what is called digressive, as the escalator or toilet roll-like linearity of the relatively ordered metaphoric list moves in the direction of a more “stochastic veraciousness” and the textual texture begins to gape and, by “unlooked-for seepage points of passage,” to move toward explosion. It becomes apparent, finally, that there is no difference that is absolute, none that cannot be bridged by resemblance or association, metaphor or digression, which merely represent poles of the continuity/discontinuity continuum, so that the writing mimes—not narrative or argumentative selectivity, with its teleologically oriented principle of “strict” relevance that aims at comprehension—but something like a potentially limitless, descriptive comprehensiveness. Between the poles of comprehension and comprehensiveness, of strict textual cohesion and the explosion of linearity, however, there is again only a relation of continuity/discontinuity, of gradual passage and of glide, since a plot summary can take the form of a list, and a list can itself “list,” drifting toward digression in such a way that cohesion is gradually loosened toward breaking point. Loosened, though, without the sense of relevance ever being completely destroyed, with the result that a true disjunction never occurs. Indeed, it cannot occur.
The text's play with footnotes mimes this failure to achieve disjunction. The narrator cannily adopts a classical definition of digression as potentially disjunctive, while defending the digressiveness of “essay-like” footnotes on the grounds of the comprehensiveness they permit:
Digression—a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation of the argument—is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. And yet the MLA style sheet I owned in college warned against lengthy, “essay-like” footnotes. Were they nuts? Where is scholarship going? (They have removed this blemish in later editions.).
His own footnotes, of course, are often spectacularly essay-like, consisting of developments many paragraphs long and containing their own expansive lists and digressive drifts. The distinction between textual gradus and footnoted digression is further subverted by typographical means: “footnote” typography (in smaller font) frequently invades the text proper, not only in indented quotations but also in numbered lists, which consequently look like footnotes incorporated into the text. Finally, it becomes impossible to sustain the apparently clear difference between text and footnotes, so cheerfully digressive is the text “proper” and so substantive and relevant—or alternatively so undistinctively trivial—is much material that is relegated to the notes. There is on the one hand no distinct gradus and on the other no “movement away” from the gradus that might be thought qualitatively different from the movement away from itself that occurs in the text “proper.” The value of footnoting to the text, then, is essentially that, as the only graphic representation of digression “sanctioned by centuries of typesetters,” it makes for a visual representation, on the page, of the explosion of linearity that is achieved, both in the text proper and in the notes, by the narrator's paradigmomania, the desire for comprehensiveness that produces the whole text as a “veritable infarct of narrative cloggers.”
Take, as an example, one double page (14-15). The narrator is in the midst of recounting the episode of his broken shoelace, and there is a perhaps atypically long and uninterrupted stretch of pure story-telling, especially on page 15. But, starting on the previous page (13), this account has been clogged by a list of occasions that resemble breaking one's shoelace, and it is the fourth item on this list (attempting to staple when the stapler is out of staples) that occupies the greater part of the textual space of page 14. It does so because it is itself clogged with carefully detailed descriptive accounts of the act of stapling, of reloading a stapler and of toying with the left-overs from that operation, the first of these accounts being further expanded, in an indented paragraph, by an analytic retailing of the “three phases of the act” of stapling, each described with intense precision. But the mention of staples also gives rise to a footnote that digressively develops a metaphor relating staplers, locomotives and phonograph tonearms by comparing the three stages of their design history, from “cast-iron and upright” through “streamlined” to “the great era of squareness.” Note that description here is functional rather than merely amplificatory to the extent that the metaphoric point would be obscure without it; but this passage also contains a lengthy parenthesis which begins by comparing each device in terms of their relation to “their respective media of information storage,” and it proceeds with another list, this time of the kinds of documents that get stapled (the “kinds” being themselves specified in further lists) before comparing, over five lines of print, old staple marks in paper to the traces of TB vaccination on arms. The whole comparison collapses, moreover, with the remark that locomotive design in France and Japan is reverting to aerodynamic forms, the hopeful prediction that staplers are about to follow suit, and the regretful observation that CDs have made the “inspirational era” of the tonearm a thing of the past. (Another of Baker's footnotes, on page 82, is completely self-erasing, ending with the comment that “it is irresponsible of me to bring [the matter] up.”)
By the time one has read one's way through the long illustrative list of happenings, A through D, that resemble a shoelace-break, interrupting oneself at the footnote in order to digest the design history of staplers, locomotives and tonearms, returning to the list only to embark on an interpolated description of the three phases of the act of stapling, one returns to the narrative with a mind multiply distracted and ready to understand the narrator's later comparison of his own head to an exploded popcorn, “composed of exfoliations that in bursting beyond their outer carapace were nevertheless guided into paisleys and baobabs and related white Fibonaccia (… etc.)” (106). Reading has become an exercise in learning to redirect one's attention from the linear requirements of narrative, and to do so in a way that does not exclude narrative constructions but attempts to take into account all the fascinating paisleys and baobabs, the trailing “strings” that narrative tidiness ordinarily has no time for, cutting them off or hastily clearing them out of sight.
Baker's exploded text thus stands in relation to narrative as the messiness of everyday life to the artificially and expensively ordered paradise of the office: this is in each case a relation of continuity in discontinuity. “We came to work every day and were treated like popes—a new manila folder for every task, expensive courier services; taxi vouchers” (I abridge a long list of examples of corporate excess). “What were we participating in here?” asks the narrator (92-3), drawing attention in the first instance to the high profit rates of corporations that make such extravagance possible. But this luxurious “every day” of the work week nevertheless has within it a more ordinary everyday, the interest and value of which become evident in memory, that is, when one has left the job and its “problems, although they once obsessed you … turn out to have been hollow. … But coterminously, … the nod of the security guard, his sign-in book, the escalator ride, the things on your desk, the sight of colleagues' offices, their faces, … the features of the corporate bathroom, all miraculously expand; and in this way what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed.” (92).
In a similar way, the “lived workweek” itself has a syncopated, “Hungarian 5/2 rhythm” (92) that organizes the relation of work to time off, and of the respective values that attach to each. For finally, the orderliness of the office contrasts with the homelife of its workers who
return … and stand sweating in front of the chest of drawers, some hanging open, no ball bearings at all, and put the briefcase and the bag from the convenience store down on the floor and begin to pull handfulls of change and stubs of Velamint packs out of our pockets (… etc.). We walk around in our underpants and T-shirt waiting for the Ronzoni shells to boil. Can this disorganized, do-it-yourself evening life really be the same life as the clean, noble Pendaflex life we lead in office buildings?
Everything tells us that yes, as linear narrative is not discontinuous with exploded textuality, so the “everyday” of work and the messiness of the everyday combine in a single, albeit unevenly accented, rhythm. Pendaflex files (which themselves exemplify the continuity/discontinuity of toilet rolls and escalators) are not therefore fully remote from—they might belong in the same list of classificatory devices as—a chest of drawers with its drawers hanging open (and perhaps a few socks draped over them like ties over a doorknob). The philosophic genre of the meditation, itself “disorganized” in this case and generically “do-it-yourself,” exists here to teach us to attend to that relation, and perhaps to question the disproportion of the 5/2 ratio the disciplined, organized and anti-“do-it-yourself” working economy imposes, with its values of efficiency, productivity and progress.
The critical function of The Mezzanine as a philosophical meditation is not limited to the questioning it encourages, however. Clogging the linearity of narrative so that those 5/2 proportions are reversed, much as memory reverses the relative importance of the official values of the office and its everyday realities, meditative writing takes a kind of explosive revenge that is figured graphically by the device employed by the narrator when, attempting to “urinat[e] in a corporate setting,” he finds himself intimidated into retention by the proximity of a colleague. The trick consists, like that of the escalated text, in converting the blockage in plumbing into a liberating explosion. “When someone takes his position next to you … imagine yourself turning and dispassionately urinating onto the side of his head. Imagine your voluminous stream making fleeting parts in his hair. … Imagine drawing an X over his face (… etc.).” (84-85). It always works, the narrator comments, and in this particular case it works explosively. “I gave [the urine] a secondary boost from my diaphragm, and it blasted out.” (85)
It's in the bathroom, too—the liminal space, as we recall, between work and lunch—that he recommends another, parallel form of revenge. Angered by the cynicism of managements that allege self-serving and hypocritical reasons for economizing on paper towels by installing hot air machines, claiming greater hygiene and efficiency and forgetting that one doesn't wash only one's hands at the sink, he advises a tactic that combines the explosive pleasure of face-washing, generous use of the perforated toilet roll in lieu of the absent towels, and the satisfaction of clogging the plumbing.
You go into a stall and pull yourself a huge handful … and return to the sink with it. As soon as you dampen it with water, it wilts to a semi-transparent purse in your fingers. You move this dripping plasma over your face; little pieces of it adhere to your cheek or brow; then you must assemble another big wad to dry off with—but ah! now your fingers are wet, so that when you try to pull more toilet paper from the hundred-thousand-sheet roll, the leading end simply dissolves in your fingers, tearing prematurely [like a broken shoelace]. Deciding to let your face air-dry, you look around for a place to throw out the initial macerated flapjack, and discover that the wastebasket is gone. So you drop it in the corner with other miscellaneous trash, or flip it vengefully into the already clogged toilet.
Two things are worth noticing here. One, the frustration produced by managerial parsimony and the revenge that consists of clogging the toilet are coterminous; their meeting place is in the toilet roll. Two, managerial economy provides the means, through its own (false) economy, as well as the motivation, by the frustrations it induces, for the vengeful pleasure of making a satisfying mess in the hygienically clean and tidy corporate bathroom, in the same way that narrative economy supplies the means of its own subversion through the simple device of escalation, clogging it with details and blowing up the clogs. In the connected world of mediation, power structures provide the means of their subversion, but the pleasures of oppositionality can in turn, and conversely, only be opportunistic, turning manipulative means into unlooked-for devices of momentary release and revenge.4
Another occasion on which frustration and an experience of release combine is the breaking of a shoelace. I suppose the reason why learning to tie your own shoelaces is so widely regarded as a major step toward adulthood (it is first on the narrator's list of the coming of age events in his own life) is that, under the guise of achieving independence, it rather transparently figures instead the disciplinary principle that self-imposed constraints are more economical than, and achieve the same outcome as, externally imposed training, supervision and punishment. In an economy of production it is much more efficient for me to go to work daily of my own accord than to have to be rounded up each morning by, say, a posse of fellow workers or the police. We are encouraged, then, to learn to tie our own shoelaces. And the fact that shoelaces come undone, and sometimes break under the strains that are imposed on them, furnishes an appropriate metaphor, therefore, for the inevitable weakness in any disciplinary system, the place where untidiness and messiness enter the well-ordered picture, and with them the “noise” that, according to Michel Serres, hints at the possibility of an alternative economy, an economy not of production but of the freely given and of parasitism. The snapping of a lace, frustrating as it may be, also induces a sense of relief—the same sense of relief one's foot experiences when shoelaces come undone: “My left shoelace had snapped just before lunch. At some earlier point in the morning, my left shoe had become untied, and as I had sat at my desk working on a memo, my foot had sensed its potential freedom and stepped out of the sauna of black cordovan to soothe itself with rhythmic movements over an area of wall-to-wall carpeting under my desk” (11). Laces come untied, of course, because, as the narrator points out, the knot that constrains the foot is not a true knot but something more dubious, like an ideological construct or a mystification, “an illusion, a trick that you performed on the lace-string by bending segments of it back on themselves and tightening other temporary bends around them: it looked like a knot and functioned like a knot, but the whole thing was really an amazing interdependent pyramid scheme. …” (17)
So the frustration attendant on breaking a shoelace is not unlike the irritation one feels when some cherished belief or practice one has always held to be natural is suddenly revealed to be ideological. One ought to be relieved, and one is relieved, but one misses a certain order of things and its constraints because they had become familiar and habitual. And so meekly, like the narrator of The Mezzanine, we retie our loose laces (13), and if they break we go out in our lunch hour and buy ourselves a new pair, armed with which we return to our appointed place (at the office, in the factory, in the classroom, in the home), happy to lace ourselves again into the familiar constrictions. The time of the broken shoelace, between the relaxation of constraint and its reimposition, is “time out,” something the system knows how to foresee and provide for, accommodating itself to the inevitability of noise by incorporating the noise into its workings, so that any possibility the disturbance might suggest of an alternative order of things is held in check. The corporation can't foresee broken shoelaces but it can schedule lunch breaks and it can encourage us to use the latter to repair the former. And so, like the narrator returning to the office at the end of his “sunlit noontide hour,” I put down my copy of The Mezzanine, which I've been reading for the nth time with undiminished pleasure, and return dutifully to pounding out laborious sentences in the capacity of a professional critic. My task is to “theorize” pleasure; that is not the same as experiencing it. Lunch break is over.
The Greek word lysis, from which we derive “analysis,” “dialysis” and “paralysis,” refers to a looseness or loosening (as of the straps of a sandal), and it's to this loosening of discipline that the meditation, with its extenuated, step-by-step, spinning out of text, owes both the pleasure it gives and its ability to mediate change. Some meditations are analytic, however: they take things apart, like Descartes, with a view to putting them together again methodically, into a new and improved and possibly tighter system. Already in ancient times, the Greek word “analysis” was associated with disciplinary concepts like examination and investigation (historia, whence of course “story”). Paralysis, though, etymologically suggests a coming unstrung, a relaxing of the nerves such that one goes limp, like a puppet without its strings, and a truly “paralytic” meditation would be one that so explodes the constraints of narrative (or argumentative) ordering that a state of textual inertia ensues, from which there could be no return. In another study (“Changing the Subject”) I have looked at some texts in which the discontinuities inherent in the effect of continuity/discontinuity produced by mediation tend strongly toward actual disjunctiveness, and hence approach (but do not reach) a state of paralysis.
But The Mezzanine might be described as a “dialytic” meditation, in which the loosening of disciplinary constraints serves the function of permitting new and more pleasurable connections to be formed, and an alternative view of things to be glimpsed, without the separation from the world of discipline, here figured by the corporate office, ever becoming absolute. The connection is always there, just an escalator-ride away. Our narrator is a fellow who asks for his half-pint of milk in its zip-lock container to be stapled into a bag so that he can walk with one hand free to do with it slightly childish things, like slapping a mailbox as he passes. “I liked other people to see me as a guy in a tie yet carefree and casual enough to be doing what kids do when they drag a stick over the black uprights of a cast-iron fence” (8). That childish stick against the uprights, recalled by an older but still not fully adult narrator, is playing yet another continuity/discontinuity game, one that is quite comparable to the fun of riding an escalator. But the non-stick wielding hand doesn't only hold milk and one or two other items, including the rest of his lunch and a paperback Marcus Aurelius. It also grasps the new pair of laces the guy in a tie has bought and with which he is returning, up the escalator, to his office. Like blood in a dialysis machine, he remains connected; for a time he has left the constraining environment of the “usual channels,” but now he is returning to them, duly refreshed.5
The etymology of “to list” (of a boat) is obscure. It seems unrelated either to the noun “list” or to the archaic verb “to list,” meaning to desire (as in “The wind bloweth where it listeth”).
See my Room for Maneuver for an elaboration of this.
The etymology of “to list” (of a boat) is obscure. It seems unrelated either to the noun “list” or to the archaic verb “to list,” meaning to desire (as in “The wind bloweth where it listeth”).
See my Room for Maneuver for an elaboration of this.
Warm thanks to Michelle Chilcoat, who first introduced me to The Mezzanine, and to the friends, colleagues and students who were patient with my rambling enthusiasm for this text in Brisbane (Australia), September-October 1992.
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. London: Penguin, 1964.
Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Vintage, 1990.
———. Room Temperature. New York: Vintage, 1990.
———. U and I. A True Story. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of the German Tragic Drama. London: NLB, 1977.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.
de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Chambers, Ross. “Changing the Subject: Digression and the Et Cetera Principle.” Michigan Romance Studies 18 (1993): 103-138.
———. “The Etcetera Principle: Narrative and the Paradigmatic.” FLS 21 (1994): 1-24.
———. Room for Maneuver, Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.
Descartes, René. A Discourse on Method, Meditations and Principles. London: Everyman's, 1987.
Kosman, L. Aryeh. “The Naive Narrator: Meditation in Descartes' Meditations.” In Amélie O. Rorty, ed. Essays on Descartes' Meditations. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 21-43.
de Maistre, Xavier. Voyage autour de ma chambre. Paris: Corti, 1984.
Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.
Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. “The Structure of Descartes' Meditations.” Essays on Descartes' Meditations. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 1-20.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Oeuvres complètes, I (Les Confessions, Dialogues, Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire). Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 1962.
Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1357
SOURCE: Trestail, Joanne. “Riding the Pause Control: What Would We Do, Asks Nicholson Baker, If We Could Step in and out of Time?” Chicago Tribune Books (6 February 1994): 3.
[In the following review, Trestail discusses the plot and style of The Fermata, acknowledging that the work is original, funny, and contains descriptions of precise detail.]
One way to talk about Nicholson Baker's books is in terms of their subject matter, and that's easy. The Mezzanine (1986), Baker's heavily footnoted first novel, follows an office worker through his lunch hour as he buys shoelaces, uses the men's room, rides escalators and ponders his stapler. The second, Room Temperature, tracks a father's thoughts as he sits by a window holding his sleeping 6-month-old daughter.
Those books were called novels only because no one could think of a better word for them. Then came the even more uncategorizable U and I, subtitled “A True Story.” In it, Baker relates, seriously, what he thinks and admires about John Updike—having read many, but not all, of his works, and without referring in advance to the texts to verify his recollections of them. It is a study of reading as much as it is of Updike.
Vox attracted some readers who'd never heard of Baker before because it's about phone sex. People hoping for hot stuff must have been perplexed. Vox is a book with phone sex in it—that is indisputably and graphically true—but basically it's about what the other books were about: thinking your own thoughts and watching how they connect and don't connect up with other people's.
Now comes The Fermata, the supposed autobiography of one Arno Strine, an office temp whose specialty is transcribing microcassette tapes. It's more novelistic than the earlier books in that there's sort of a plot and the main character has a last name. But that's where similarities with conventional fiction end.
In addition to his considerable talents as a transcriber, Arno has an unusual skill: He can stop time, bring the world to a halt while he moves freely through it. Baker explores this Twilight Zonish idea with a zeal and a kind of permissive (some might say indulgent) thoroughness that are all his own.
One of the first things Arno does upon discovering his powers as a child is unbutton his fourth-grade teacher's blouse and check her out. Later, as an adult, though he once steals two huge shrimp out of a hotel kitchen worker's hand (“I was amazed at how good the cocktail sauce tasted”), theft is not really his bag. The main thing he's interested in while in “the Fold,” or the Fermata, is women. He likes to disrobe them, touch them and watch them perform sexual acts. He calls the Fold “primarily … a sexual aid … a direct by-product of my appetite for nakedness.”
He gets better and better at using the Fold—inventing more efficient triggering devices for getting himself into it, learning its mechanical limitations (water pressure is poor; Polaroid photos don't develop properly), dealing with the jet lag it inevitably produces when he stays in one for a long time (he learns to start napping while in the Fold, to even things out). Key to all this is the fact that the rest of the world has no knowledge of what Arno is doing, no awareness that time has stopped or been advanced lurchingly (he sometimes uses the Fold like a pause pedal on a tape-transcribing machine). His actions have no consequences for anyone but himself, though he hopes to give the woman under consideration a flicker of out-of-the-blue, inexplicable pleasure.
He starts small. He sees a woman at Waterstone's looking at a paperback—Paradise Postponed, by John Mortimer. He stops time, takes the book out of her hands, writes a suggestive message in the margin, gives it back to her, restarts time and observes her reaction. (She reads the message but buys Breakfast at Tiffany's instead.)
His schemes quickly become more elaborate. He partially undresses a woman he works with, borrows her keys and investigates her apartment, taking special note of her foam rubber therapeutic mattress pad. Later, he stops time and sits down on the beach next to a sunbathing woman and writes an erotic story for her (the text of which he relates in its entirety), seals it in a plastic bag with a silver twist-tie and buries it in the sand just under her hand.
He calls his actions “indefensible,” and says he “would condemn in the strongest terms anyone else who did what I have done. … But I know myself, I know that I mean no harm, I mean well.” His girlfriend, Rhody, doesn't buy it. When he poses to her, hypothetically, the existence of the Fold, and suggests possible uses for it, she dumps him.
Baker, like Arno, knows he's on thin ice here. He sets out to explore an unattractive impulse in himself, and follow where it leads. And he comes through all right: He stays true to his odd vision.
Baker is like no other writer when it comes to sex. His musings mix conventionally prettified soft-porn images with UPS trucks and riding lawnmowers and Terry Gross on National Public Radio. They are adult in their knowingness, adolescent in their energy and absolute self-centeredness. He's like the most articulate teenage boy you've ever met telling you his most outrageous fantasies. Though he doesn't just propose some impossible situation and then back off, smirking. Comically, he follows it through, exhausts it.
And exhausts the reader, it must be said. To call The Fermata excessive sounds naive (it's supposed to be excessive) but even Baker's fans might wish he would move on, already.
The warmth of this book's reception may well depend on the nature of readers' own fantasies—if they match up with Baker's, they're in for an adventure; if they don't, they're going to get impatient. Still, Baker is a smart guy, and when he gives his imagination free rein, it's fun to go along for the ride.
“Originality” is an overused word, considering how seldom we encounter the real thing in life, but it applies here. Baker's books are all full of quick, apt descriptions of things everyone has seen and done but that go by the rest of us too quickly to record. They are full of words used correctly. They are mostly plotless, yet supremely concrete. Their charm is that of an interesting mind's funny, uncensored, precisely expressed thoughts.
Baker doesn't speak for or like anyone but himself. He has particular insight into the physical universe—and a taste for complication. He plays games with the multiple resonances of words. (Each chapter starts with an image of the musical symbol for a fermata, or pause: It's also an eye, also a breast.)
He is a great examiner of fleeting thoughts. Arno, lying in his backyard, notices how “an almost inaudible airplane comes momentarily between your eyelids and the sun, raising your consciousness of the conical geometry of umbral coincidence.”
Baker is clearly a person who doesn't let go of a thought, for better or worse, until he's through with it. Here is Arno describing microcassettes:
… these stocky, solid, paragraph-shaped material objects, held together with minuscule Phillips-head screws at each corner … their pair of unfixed center sprockets left deliberately loose so that they can comply with slight variations in the spindle distances of different brands of machine—these chunky pieces of geometrical business within which, nonetheless, an elfin wisp of Mylar frisks around any tiny struts or blocks of felt placed in its path, minnowing the ferromagnetic after-sparkle of a voiced personality through whatever Baroque diagonals and Bezier curves it can contort from the givens of its prison.
Baker's observations, whether of a doorknob or of a baby's nose or of his own motives in writing a condolence letter, have always had an uncanny, hyper-real quality, as if his prose were recorded at a slower speed and then played back at a normal one. Perhaps The Fermata is his way of telling us how he did this. It seems he's had the Fold at his command for some time.
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Time in a Bottle.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 February 1994): 3, 8.
[In the following review of The Fermata, Eder finds fault in the novel's distasteful preoccupation with voyeurism and sexual exploitation.]
Poor Achilles. He never could catch that tortoise, not because he was slow or the tortoise speedy but because Zeno wouldn't let him. In the famous paradox, the tortoise gets a 10-meter start, say, and by the time Achilles runs the 10 meters, the tortoise has crept 10 centimeters; when Achilles goes the 10 centimeters, the tortoise has done a millimeter, and so on. But the rules are stacked. Achilles doesn't catch up in the first stage, lasting a few seconds, but he would do it in the next stage if it lasted even one second instead of only a few hundredths of one. Zeno arranges tinier and tinier distances in tinier and tinier intervals that rapidly approach stasis.
Nicholson Baker is becoming his own Zeno, and approaching an equivalent stasis. His is a clever, a comic and a genial spirit. In The Mezzanine and Room Temperature he devised an enticing micro-literature. The first—a lunchtime walk in a department store—and the second—a morning spent holding his baby—explored whole worlds of tactile and temporal associations through two kinds of dailiness. The reader suspends belief, and perhaps the author did too; and both are rewarded. It is as if by musing on the nail in the general's horseshoe and squinting across it toward the horizon, Baker had evoked an entire war.
You might think that Baker's command of sensation's nuances, and his ability to perch far-fetched yet oddly reasonable structures atop them, would work particularly well with the highly sensory, not to say sensational, subject of sex. Yet his last book, Vox, sagged despite some brilliant variations in its story of a man and woman having phone sex. The Fermata, narrated by a man who possesses the power to stop time and uses it to undress women, is a greater letdown. Although it has brio and speculative ingenuity, Baker works them with a mildly ill feverishness.
Arno Strine is a permanent temp in a succession of Boston office. It's not that he's dumb, quite the contrary, but his energies go into his peculiar gift. When he was a child he brought a transformer to school and found that by switching it on he could switch time off for everyone but himself. He used the interval to take off his clothes, go up to his much-loved teacher, investigate her bodily parts and dab her navel with blue chalk.
He has used his developing talent—he steadily simplifies the machinery for switching off time until simply snapping his fingers will do it—to strip hundreds of women, fondle some of them and play ludicrously elaborate sexual tricks with a few. He draws the line at actual intercourse because that would be rape. He usually rearranges whatever he has disarranged so that when he starts time up again, his target, though sometimes hot and bothered, has no sense that anything has been done to her.
He argues that he is doing good as well as having fun because he pays tribute to female body parts, even if they sag or are oddly shaped and thus unused to admiration. He has his code though he admits it has a few holes.
“I would condemn in the strongest terms anyone else who did what I have done,” he tells us. “But the thing is, I did it, I did it, and I know myself. I know that I mean no harm, I mean well.” An outrageous argument, to say the least; especially as we read of the various extremes that he goes to.
Arno stops time in a subway, attaches a vibrating device to a woman passenger and then, alternately restarting time so the device can work and stopping it each time the woman tries to investigate what is happening, brings her to orgasm. He achieves a similar effect on a beach by writing a pornographic story on his portable typewriter, stopping time to slip it into the sand beside a sunbathing woman, restarting, watching her arousal as she reads it and then, in a complex series of temporal starts and stops, hiding in her house for a twin round of masturbation of whose simultaneity only he is aware.
The arrangements for what he punningly calls “chronanism” become ever more elaborate. Placed inside a magnetic resonance chamber, he practices it on a woman doctor who is measuring the carpal tunnel damage to his wrist caused by his temp typing and his single-handed sex life. Spotting an attractive fellow driver on the Massachusetts Turnpike he stops time and traffic, hikes an hour to the nearest town, buys a tape recorder, tapes another pornographic story, gets into the woman's car and slips the cassette into her player to replace her Suzanne Vega. He restarts everything, and follows her car, fantasizing a further adventure of even more absurd complication. Instead, she tosses the cassette out the window.
Finally, thank goodness, a comic chink (after all that work) opens in the cabinet of this consciously comic, preemptively discriminating and suffocatingly creepy Caligari. Does Baker perceive him as such? It is unclear. True, The Fermata—the musical term for a note held beyond its prescribed value—tells Arno's story largely in retrospect with a framing-device that offers the possibility of some chastening perspective. At the start, after a time-stopping peek at a fellow worker, Arno falls in love with her. He writes out his past adventures, which become most of the book. Then he confesses to her before taking things further. It is to be a real relationship instead of Arno's time-gimmick—except that she quickly warms to the gimmick and finds a way to join in.
The Fermata is frequently funny; sometimes in the Monty Pythonesque elaboration of Arno's stratagems, sometimes in the microscopic parsing of his sensations. It is not enough to counteract the chill. Never mind Catherine MacKinnon; the book is enough to blow the fuses on Kant and his categorical imperative. (Treat others as ends and never as means.) Arno's account may satirize today's voyeuristic culture; the trouble is, he acts too comfortable in the telling, whether in the mode of skillful erotica, crude pornographic parody or loopy confessional. What is stickier, beneath the apparent comfort there is a hint of unease as if this kind of outrageousness were not quite in Baker's line of belief but an experiment-gone faintly whiffy.
To see the world in a drop of water, you need to choose your drop. In some drops all you can see is your own eye. The Mezzanine stretched its net across the tide of daily trivia whose small hopes and despairs constitute the wetlands of our lives. Room Temperature did something similar with the mingled awe and tedium of parenthood. The sexual feelings that Baker explores in Vox and The Fermata arise less from real sex than from his characters' masturbatory fantasies. His microscope reveals the color-dots of a printed picture, not the mysterious forms of a living cell.
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SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Clever-Diction.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4742 (18 February 1994): 20.
[In the following review, Broughton provides an unfavorable assessment of The Fermata, faulting the book for its excessive use of puns and euphemisms.]
Arno Strine [in The Fermata] can stop time. Or rather, he can stop time for everyone else while he indulges his passion for interfering with women's clothing, preferably while they are frozen in the act of interfering with themselves. To do this, he has developed elaborate routines in which he stops time to plant dildos in wastepaper bins, or to write raunchy short stories for women to discover by accident. He stops time to sneak through half-open doors. He stops time to hide in laundry baskets. If he is extra careful and neat, and he always is, he can perform his secret “chronanism”, put everything back where he found it, and restart time without anyone being the wiser. It is all very labour-intensive.
The “fermata” is thus the temporal “fold” Arno can enter, more or less at will; and it is while “fermating,” that he writes this, his memoir—his Life and Warped Times. It is just as well he has these secret powers, for Arno Strine's telephone never rings, and he can seldom get up the nerve to ask a woman for a date. Poor Arno: he is a voyeur trapped in his own vice. He is not the kind of man who can sustain a relationship based on deception, but if he comes clean to a potential girlfriend about his sneakings-around, he is abruptly shown the door. His honesty and diffidence with women, Baker implies, are part of his charm, as is his insatiable curiosity about female sexuality. What makes Arno different from an ordinary pervert is that his curiosity has “more love and tolerance in it” than other men's. In practice, this means he has catholic tastes in physical beauty (he doesn't discriminate against the fat or the hairy or the plain), and that he goes out of his way to avoid frightening the objects of his lust (“fear is my least favourite emotion”). It is in recognition of these marks of superiority that Arno has been granted his Time Lordship. The success or failure of the book—its ability to persuade its readers to jettison propriety, integrity and taste—depends on whether Arno's is an adequate definition of “love and tolerance”. For me, it doesn't come close.
It is easy, too easy perhaps, to make the book sound dreary and vicious. Most of one's objections—to Arno's prissiness (“‘Panties’ is a word to be avoided, I feel”); to his one-track mind; to his tiresome knowingness (“I'm humbled by the difficulty of presenting one's life truly without seeming to be a proponent of overfamiliar nonlinear orthodoxies”)—are cannily anticipated and assimilated by the narrative, including the inevitable analogy between writing and masturbation. Baker's inventiveness and wit are let loose on the vocabulary of sex (“outdoorgasm”, “masturwork”, and so on), and Arno Strine has all the childlike delight in wicked puns and coinages we might expect from one whose name is patently an anagram of something. For the connoisseur of punographic euphemasms, The Fermata is a treat. As in The Mezzanine (1986), Baker's superb meditation on the human lunch-hour, the minute is blown up: details are microscoped into monuments, and moments into epochs. Here, though, Baker's disquisitions are less likely to be devoted to the relative advantages of triangular and oblong sandwiches or the finer points of office etiquette. Instead, his prose roams over breast and buttock, dwells on the niceties of the bra-strap, and amplifies the sound of women urinating. This is stream of consciousness for the 1990s: a post-AIDS erotica in which surfaces matter and penetration isn't the point, unless accomplished by a “Royal Welsh Fusilier” or some other wildly-named sex toy. As in Vox (1992), Baker's joyful homage to telephone sex, the obliqueness of fantasy is central, and it is instructive to compare Arno's exploits with the “hands-on” hypno-sex that was Leonard Cohen's Favourite Game back in 1963.
Time, sex and triviality: if a computer could write a Nicholson Baker novel, it might come up with The Fermata. But where The Mezzanine and Vox were bristling with originality, this is a novel of one idea and a thousand jokes. Even the clever-diction becomes wearing. In the end, the pleasures of The Fermata are the pleasures of pornography, and the spectacle of a considerable talent “whaling his bone”, however self-reflexively, has the same disheartening effect as watching a bright child hunched over a Nintendo.
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SOURCE: Parks, Tim. “Time Must Have a Stop.” Spectator 272, no. 8641 (19 February 1994): 28.
[In the following review, Parks criticizes The Fermata, noting that despite “the hilarity of some of the set pieces” and many astute observations, the book quickly becomes overbearing.]
[The Fermata's] Arnold Strine pushes his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and time stops, the world around him stops. But Arnold is free to move. He can walk around and observe his frozen fellow beings, he can, or could, steal anything he wants, go anywhere he wants, or just catch up on his work before starting the world again with a second adjustment of his glasses. But what does Arnold do with this extraordinary power he has? He masturbates. Or rather, he removes women's clothes and masturbates. He fits vibrators between their legs, starts time to observe their surprise and pleasure, then stops it again and masturbates. He writes bizarre pornographic stories whose typewritten pages they will discover as soon as they are returned to motion, then, having found their addresses from their handbags, insinuates himself into their apartments to watch them masturbate, aroused by his fantasies. So that he can masturbate yet again himself. And all the time, or absence of time, that he is engaged in this, he savours and describes the women who obsess him through a language as lavish, and self-consciously literary as it is cheerfully prurient:
Just before a woman takes a bath, as the water is running, her nudity suddenly releases all of its charged ions of lewdness and becomes wholly artistique: she is naked in order to bathe herself, and bathe is such a smooth-surfaced, wide voweled, modest word that you can appreciate the particulars of her beauty without any of your own erectile fierceness getting in the way … This despite her manifest protosexual charms, her softly domey areolae, the Moorish arch her ass made in giving way effortlessly to her thighs …
Plutarch in his On Love suggests a close connection between the development of eloquence and the desire to seduce, to have the beloved concede her (or more likely his) graces willingly. In After Babel George Steiner talks knowingly about the heightened linguistic fluency triggered off (in men) by erotic excitement. In The Fermata Nicholson Baker draws on his remarkable verbal resources to have Arnold Strine achieve interminable solitary orgasms. Such is the modern: inconsequential, amusing, disturbing. ‘What else was there in the world,’ asks Arno, ‘but masturbation?’ The answer obviously is, ‘Nothing’.
But this is not the all-too-fashionable fictional world of the sex monster, nor even, or so the narrator will have us believe, of the pervert or the seriously alienated. Nicholson Baker is nothing if not provocative, and the wit and challenge of The Fermata lies in his presentation of his hero as essentially nice, intelligent, well-read, seriously polite, and, above all, harmless. Before Arnold starts time again after his many ‘chronanisms’ he invariably puts everything back in order, replaces everybody's clothes, makes sure nobody will have the slightest cause to be upset. He even does people tiny kindnesses. ‘The last thing in the world I want is to be seen as a threat.’ And his obsession with women, he claims, is a healthy celebration of their beauty and sexuality:
I would now like to take a moment to say a little prayerlike thing about my life. I am so very fortunate to have been able to see all the naked women's breasts I have seen …
In short, Baker wants us to feel good about reading his porn (he certainly, and sensibly, isn't going to pretend it isn't porn). He wants us to understand that there is no nemesis, no punishment. Or even risk of it. Because such fantasies lie outside time, exist in a world of no consequence, where nothing can happen, no one can be harmed. You can be literary, well-educated, entirely politically correct, and wank to your heart's delight (Diderot, of course, would have agreed). The only possible problem, as for Arnold, might be a little repetitive motion stress in the right wrist, which will then give you a chance to perform in front of an attractive young researcher intent on measuring such things on her magnetic resonance imaging machine …
Yet for all Baker's cleverness in heading off criticism, the hilarity of some of the set pieces, the brilliance of many of the observations (in particular vis-à-vis our rapport with the world of technology), The Fermata quickly gets to be too much. Certainly there is a deal of truth in this picture of affluent, charmingly aimless modern man living without parents, wife, children, or indeed any of those relationships which generate character and drama (the scenes with the two real girlfriends are indistinguishable from Arnold's fantasising). Doubtless the presentation of a man whose only ambition is to roll back the frontier where indulgence begins to cloy, is not without its aptness. But to embark on a 300-page celebration of his masturbatory adventures was perhaps to exaggerate the subject's importance and entertainment value.
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SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Larceny.” London Review of Books (24 March 1994): 3, 6.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones examines the plot and structure of The Fermata, faulting the book for its overusage of euphemisms and its adolescent stance towards sex.]
The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker's trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy. The ‘action’ of his first, novel, The Mezzanine, consisted of the lunch-hour of a single working day, as experienced by an office worker, but time under the discursive microscope changed its nature. The trivial and quotidian were dignified by the attention given them, and the self-consciously important found no place in the novel's scheme. Towards the end of the book the hero read in his Penguin Marcus Aurelius the gloomy aphorism that human life is no more than sperm and ashes, and felt no sympathy for it. The modest richness of his day refuted this downbeat Roman smugness.
A highly mannered style seems to achieve its effects almost independently of subject matter, but Baker's second book, Room Temperature (perhaps written earlier than The Mezzanine), proved the converse proposition: that mannerism cruelly shows up perfunctoriness of theme. In any case, with a highly distinctive style, a writer's worst moments are more like his best moments than they are like anything else, which can even interfere with the memory of past pleasures.
The oddball narrator of The Mezzanine, whose love affair with the impersonality of modern life might be a form either of transcendentalism or of mental illness (the book's original title, Desperation, tipped the scales unduly) mutated in Room Temperature into a New Man, whose self-absorption in paternity was assumed to be virtuous. The effect was of a hyper-realist Hallmark card.
After this sickly interlude U and I was a return to form. The book explored Baker's relationship with John Updike, as writerly model, father figure to be challenged, and occasional sharer of the same physical space (the two men's passing encounters couldn't be said to constitute even acquaintance). U and I reduced Updike's work to a mulch of remembered fragments—Baker refrained from rereading, and checked quotations only after the book was written—and then found in that mulch the evidence for Updike's brilliance as a writer.
The label of tour de force which appeared to attach so naturally to The Mezzanine by now seemed inappropriate. What had looked like tactics devised for a single book—a simultaneous reductiveness and mania for elaboration—has turned out to be the strategy for an entire literary career. An artist can't be said to be producing tours de force if he is merely doing things that are in his grain and no one else's, things counter-intuitive only to the world at large.
U and I was a combined invocation and exorcism of Updike, a homage that was also an elaborate insult, since it valued only those aspects of Updike that were Bakeresque. Out of Updike's range of excellences, Baker singled out his celebratory precision.
John Updike's own father-figure was Henry Green. What he sought to emulate, however, was not just Green's idiosyncratic lyricism but a social attentiveness, and a glancing access to characters' interior spaces. The Updike whom Baker loves is a diminished artist, an Updike with the Green filtered out.
It looked like a particular rhetorical choice, in The Mezzanine, to attenuate the narrator's life outside the workplace, but since then Baker has shown a consistent preference for contextlessness in his narrators. As a group, they are self-enclosed, gadget-loving, inherently nerdy. Baker's narrators engage the reader not by any means so vague as sympathy, but by describing sensations or objects (and particularly the sensations to do with handling objects or operating mechanisms) more or less to the standard of a legal definition. An example from The Fermata, describing a mobile telephone: ‘I imagined the quick upward arpeggio of metallic clicks produced by the telescoping chrome antenna as I pulled it out roughly to answer a call, one segment reaching the limit of its slide and engaging with the next, and the same clicks in reverse order after I'd hung up and was pushing the aspirin-shaped end-bauble down.’ This passage is likely to fail if it bothers the reader that the second set of clicks is not in fact an exact reversal of the first, since it involves the contact of different surfaces, and—more gravely—if he or she can't get used to the idea of aestheticised patent-application prose being a bonding agent between the producer and consumer of a book. Nicholson Baker's narrators establish their authority by the combined effect of thousands of tiny perceptual connections, microscopic hooks and eyes. His may be the first prose style to be influenced by Velcro.
The self-enclosure of his narrators (Baker has yet to risk a third person) is very striking. A surprising amount could be conveyed about the books in which they appear by renaming them, as if they were sculptures or installations in a single gallery: Solipsism with Office Worker (1989), Solipsism with New Man (1990), Solipsism with Senior Writer (1991), Two Solipsisms with Phone Sex (1992)—known in the real world as Vox—and now Solipsism with Fourth-Dimensional Molestations (1994).
Since U and I, Baker has settled on a new subject: sex. This too could be seen as part of an Updike-emulation programme, although there isn't what you could call an overlap: Updike's approach to sex, even as a young writer, was adult, while Baker's has something stubbornly adolescent about it. He seems to have chosen the sexual imagination as his particular speciality—the way we invent our own excitement, hiding meanings in the world and then responding to them as if we had no choice. The results more often read like the equivalent in prose to Jeff Koons's art: hyper-realist wank-pieces, shocking more for slickness of finish than extremity of subject. Nicholson Baker's para-pornography isn't the first fiction to make sex wordy, when the plan was actually to make words sexy.
The narrator of The Fermata has a name, Arnold Strine (he prefers the abbreviation Arno), and a job as a temp. Get it? He can control time, and he works as a temp: it was bound to be that or a watch repairer. On page five, Arno compares some office dictation slightingly with the prose of Penelope Fitzgerald. Even in Britain, this reference would be one of self-advertising sophistication: towed across the Atlantic, it moves up several orders of pretension-magnitude.
Arno is able, with different gadgets and rituals at different times of his life, to stop time and go about his business in a world of warm statues, suspended rain-drops and unmoving seas. He uses his power for personal gain, not of a financial sort (he is too scrupulous, and essentially uninterested), but for erotic profit. In the variable nights that are days for him alone he indulges in sexual larceny, stealing moments of women's privacy, scrutinising their breasts or pubic hair.
Starting theoretical discussions with male acquaintances about what they would do with the same talent, Arno is shocked by one man in particular, who would simply rape. Arno recoils from this vileness, seeing his own harmless invasions as altogether different. It's true that Arno goes in for pilferage rather than grand theft, but that doesn't exactly put him in the clear. His misdemeanours are like unreportable acts of sexual harassment—sexual harassment on the astral plane. Just because these acts are impossible, it doesn't follow that they represent sophisticated moral dilemmas.
Sometimes Arno's petty larcenies amount rather to little extortions, as when he intervenes in women's lives to prompt or shape their excitement, sneaking home-made pornography into the immediate environment of selected subjects, for instance, and watching their reactions unobserved. With one woman, Rhody, he is able to extort something closer to love than to lust. He makes himself attractive to her by playing with his watch in a way that he knows—from studying her journal-jottings in the book she's reading—she will find appealing. They split up when he tries to tell her about his powers, not because she believes him but because she finds it a repellent line of thought in itself—a creep's fantasy.
She has a point. Nicholson Baker has put his usual prodigies of inventiveness into evoking the sensations, both brash and subtle, made available to Arno by the time-gimmick that enables him to treat women as voluptuous holograms. What he hasn't done is devise a sustained way of dramatising Arno's singular relationship with reality. The world is exclusively the passive object of his erotic whims. He presides over and tyrannises a submissive, nubile universe, while the author's persona presides over and tyrannises the book.
This is, of course, a comic novel, like all of Baker's with the partial exception of Room Temperature, but comic writing is as mysterious in its action on the mind—with its mixture of the voluntary and the involuntary—as tickling on the body. The element of surprise seems integral to both. The comedy of The Mezzanine was part of the overall surprise of the book, but since then Baker's narrators have tended to use humour as a substitute for charm. When they aren't being actively funny, they aren't particularly likeable.
The Fermata is full of jocular euphemisms. Arno's penis is his ‘richard’, his ‘Juiceman’, his ‘stain-stick’, his ‘gender-beam’, his ‘bloated factotum’. Considering it in conjunction with the relevant testicles yields ‘moist troika’ and ‘trilogy-in-flesh’. Semen is ‘pecker-paste’ or ‘smut-schnapps’. The commonest term for a woman's part is ‘vadge’—strangely the only abbreviation of any sort that Arno describes as ‘horrible’ is the word ‘temp’. Breasts are often ‘Jamaicas’, nipples may be ‘Fijis’. A woman's orgasm is her ‘clasm’, her ‘fejaculation’, her ‘ejillulation’. If these cute formulations have any power, it is the power contained in the residue of a snigger. Readers of The Fermata are likely to notice that the comic effects pile up most densely at points where the taboo-breaking is most intense. When, for instance, a woman is multiply impaled on dildos (Baker prefers cod-pedantic plurals like dildi or dildae) the puns also multiply: ‘dildungsroman’ would be an example, or a ‘dilderstatesman issuing pleasure briefings’. Unless you think this mimics the endorphin-swamped brain's final helpless rush towards its release, it seems very much as if humour is being used in a calculated, short-term way.
Nicholson Baker has chosen as the premise and conclusion of his novel an idea that contemporary culture has much difficulty with: the innocence of male sexual desire. But it isn't the dead voice of political correctness that speaks against The Fermata. If Baker had found a way of dramatising his theme, it would be a braver and less self-satisfied book. A defence of male desire would be a valuable if not necessarily a popular project, but this protracted refusal to engage with sexual consequence is something quite different. Baker almost takes pride in elaborating his theme more or less indefinitely, without actually exploring it.
The adultery novel, even in its most formulaic manifestation, at least acknowledges that desire operates in the world. Arno's persona in the novel is a fantastical extension of a figure familiar from Updike's fiction (and also from Cheever's): the philanderer viewed not as an exploiter of women but as a dazed, helpless, humble recipient of female grace. But where his predecessors take a certain wry pleasure in making things complicated for such figures (for Updike in particular, sexual guilt is original sin, paradoxically a prerequirement for redemption), Baker arranges everything to keep the heat off his narrator.
Arno constantly disavows negative feelings towards women. He feels that ‘all women merit love and constancy.’ ‘I want above all for women not to cry,’ he tells us at one point. Elsewhere: ‘Fear is my least favourite emotion and I want to be responsible for creating as little of it as possible.’ And again: ‘The last thing in the world I want is to be seen as a threat.’
It's true that no women cry, feel threatened or frightened by Arno's tiny subliminal rapes. One woman experiences the presence on her face and closed eyelids of an unseen stranger's semen, which she would certainly find disturbing if she was aware of it for more than a fraction of a second and at a time when she wasn't preoccupied with other sensations. But Arno's hand is ready on the pause-button of the universe, and he wipes her tenderly clean. What has she suffered, really? She thinks she has had a momentary hallucination, that's all.
Yet a certain amount of aggressiveness does seep through the Fold (the inevitably suggestive word Arno uses for his personal exemption from temporality). He plays a mean trick on the estranged Rhody, by substituting himself for her new lover in mid-congress. She's not in a position to see that she has had horses changed on her in midstream, but he hints at the substitution with an idiosyncratic sexual manoeuvre. He doesn't manage to spoil her evening, all the same: his interventions aren't consequential even when he wants them to be. Perhaps his overriding good intentions neutralise his temporary desire to make trouble.
With unknown women, however, Arno does show signs of some desire to humiliate. They would not amount to much if they came from a man who could rape and kill with impunity, but since Nicholson Baker has based his literary career on inversions of perspective, where the small looms large and the important dissolves, he can hardly dismiss the significance of the trivial. Arno did, for instance, ‘once put a pair of nipple nooses on the famous Anne Rice at Barnes and Noble some years ago, when I was at the height of my mechanical-pencil Fold-phase. I clicked time on for a minute or two so she would have a chance to feel them while she signed my copy of her book, which was going to be a birthday present for somebody. Then I removed them. If she noticed anything, she was extremely cool about it and didn't let on.’ As Anne Rice writes within the mildly disreputable vampire genre, dragging its erotic content into the foreground, she is somehow seen as the literary equivalent of a hitch-hiker in hot-pants and stilettos, and therefore as fair game. Arno's fantastical powers are responsible for the details of Rice's miniature ordeal, with its mildly vicious double-bind: either she is kinky enough to take poltergeist foreplay in her stride, or she doesn't have sensation in her nipples—virtual disqualification for an erotic writer. But it's hard to hear the voice of the temporary typist behind the exquisitely calibrated micro-slights, which tell us in passing that 1. Anne Rice is famous as opposed to successful or interesting, 2. she writes a generic ‘book’ (read one and you've read’em all), 3. you don't buy her books to read yourself—she has admirers, such people have birthdays. And how about this sentence: ‘Women who read Virago Modern Classics almost always have fascinating breasts’? Presumably this is Nicholson Baker being outrageous—loveable scamp!—but if so the attempt backfires. What is communicated is the extra excitement the fantasy of stripping women without their consent acquires when the women put a particular value on their autonomy. Not much of an argument for the geniality of testosterone.
Only once does Arno seem to recognise that he has gone too far, and that is when he is being cat-scanned as part of an experiment, to see if his constant masturbation is a co-factor, along with his professional typing, in his carpal-tunnel syndrome. Disengaging himself from the temporal continuum, he sucks the nipples of the woman in charge of the experiment, then leaves a Post-It note with the message ‘Thanks’ on her left breast. Later he retrieves the note with the help of another cosmic freeze-frame, realising somewhat belatedly that ‘it would only have perplexed and disturbed her … and what if she took off her bra in front of her husband, and he noticed it there before she did—a note saying thanks on her breast? It would have caused needless suffering.’ But what other motive could there have been in the original action, beside causing perplexity, disturbance and possible suffering? Arno gets a kick out of chivalry, but he is also responsible for the prank that makes it necessary; his fantasies of magnanimity feed on his meanness. It's not so much that he wants women not to cry as that he enjoys having power over their tears.
The Fermata includes two full chapters of Arno's pornography, purpose-written to inflame particular strangers, but they aren't so very different from the narrative that contains them. This, for instance, comes from the ‘pornography’, although it also comes, like most of the lovely moments in the book, from Baker's Updike-register, the full-throated fictional voice that suits him better than his own: ‘His shirt was off. He was wiry; he had that adolescent ability to bend at the waist and not produce a little bloomp of waist fat. The small side muscles in his upper arms had a sort of sideways S shape that called out to her. They were the muscles he would use if he were supporting his own weight over her.’ Strange that an inset piece of parody erotica should yield a stronger point of view than its frame-story. Conversely, the way sexual acts (unremitting masturbation) lead to more sexual acts, when the nubile doctor helps Arno with his repetitive strain injury, recalls nothing more than the foreshortened plot-logic of porn—nurse helping the patient with his swelling. Baker's fantasia of desire and the pastiche filth with which he lards it have a contextlessness in common, which makes them seem unnervingly continuous.
Compared to other narratives of masturbation, The Fermata lacks the courage of its outrageousness. Portnoy's Complaint was about Jewish family life, rebelliousness and the Sixties. Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine, perhaps the most purposeful deployment of taboo imagery since de Sade, was about Scottishness, despair and the Eighties. But The Fermata really does seem to be about masturbation. It's enough to give self-abuse a bad name.
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SOURCE: Schine, Cathleen. “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” New York Review of Books 41, no. 7 (7 April 1994): 14-15.
[In the following review, Schine provides a negative evaluation of The Fermata, denouncing the repetitive use of euphemisms and the tedium associated with the retelling of an act over and over.]
In his new novel [The Fermata], Nicholson Baker turns his full attention to the lonely art, the art of masturbation. The narrator, Arno Strine, possesses a strange gift: he can stop time, halting the world around him. “I first stopped time because I liked my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Dobzhansky, and wanted to see her with fewer clothes on,” he says, but adds that it was not lust that impelled him. Sitting in the back of the room, he simply desired to see more clearly, to examine. His teacher stalls midsentence in front of the blackboard, a piece of chalk in her hand; the class is stilled; Arno strips off his own clothes and stands before her.
In the cottony silence of the idled universe. I undid two buttons. My fingers trembled, of course. Even now, twenty-five years later, my fingers sometimes tremble when I watch them at work undoing a row of a woman's shirt buttons, especially when her shirt is loose, so that once you have finished unbuttoning it no more is revealed to you than when you began, and, as a separate deliberate act, you have to part the still over-lapping sides of the shirt with the backs of your hands like a set of curtains. I peered into the oval world I had just created. What I could see of her bra was very interesting. It had little X's sewn along the borders of the two side pieces that attached to the round bosom-holding parts, and the bosom-holding parts had perfectly sewn seams running diagonally up over their curves, like a napping cat's closed eyes.
Now a graduate-school drop-out earning his living as an office “temp,” Arno has decided to use the Fold, as he calls his time-outs, to write his autobiography. He will create a pause in order to write about all the other pauses he has created. At the bank where he's working as a typist, he begins his memoir. He “drops into the fold” and rolls his chair over to a woman he admires. She is frozen: she is unconscious: she will remember nothing of this hiatus. He pulls her dress up, her panty hose down. Then he types.
Her pocketbook is still over her shoulder. Her pubic hair is very black and nice to look at—there is lots and lots of it. If I didn't already know her name, I would probably now open her purse and find out her name, because it helps to know the name of a woman I undress. There is moreover something very exciting, almost moving, about taking a peek at a woman's driver's license without her knowing—studying the picture and wondering whether it was one that pleased her or made her unhappy when she was first given it at the DMV.
This description is typical of much of the book's bizarrely mixed tone: one part exquisite sensitivity to feeling, to the ways people experience the small moments of their lives; and two parts blank insensitivity to how people hope to experience their lives. The Fermata is not concerned with human dignity, or even the loss of it. And as Arno's story continues, this unsettling concoction of gentle observation and moral indifference is served, politely, over and over again to the reader. The lyrical innocence of Arno's first exploration of the world inside Miss Dobzhansky's white blouse is left far behind.
In The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990), his first two novels, Baker stopped time, too, though only metaphorically. The Mezzanine is a coming-of-age novel that takes place on a two-minute escalator ride. Room Temperature, whose sole action consists of the narrator feeding his baby a bottle, is a tender meditation on intimacy, one of the gentlest treatments of marriage I have read. Intricate descriptions of nose picking or the squeak of a felt-tipped pen are offered so gracefully and with such warmth that this little book becomes a joyful reminder of the privilege of consciousness and the sweet burden of sharing the world with other conscious beings. Both books are brilliant stunts in which the formal limitations provide an opening to play. They can be as moving, as full of recognition, as a secret, shared glance.
The Fermata, in contrast, winks insinuatingly at the reader. For twenty-five years, Arno has undressed women without their knowledge, fondling them, then jacking off. Finished, he tidies up his mess and continues on his anonymous way. This has been his life, and The Fermata, his autobiography, chronicles a variety of methods of undressing women frozen in time, fondling them, etc. Sometimes Arno brings them to life for a moment, a fermata interruptus, but never long enough for them to quite figure out what's happening to them. After work one day, Arno sees a woman in the library and decides to grace her with a new butterfly-shaped dildo he happens to be carrying with him. “What I want to do,” Arno muses later, “and what I in fact end up doing, in the Fold is to live out my perennial wish to insert some novelty into the lives of women.” More accurately, Arno is consumed by a wish to insert some novelty into the lives of women—and then watch. It is his own life into which Arno is attempting to insert novelty—as well as novelties, for he is an aficionado of the sex toy.
Arno follows the woman from the library. He stops time to try the dildo on himself (“placing a Handi Wipe between the pleasure-nubbins of the machine and my scrotum … I stepped into its straps and pulled it snugly in place”), then again to get into the subway car before she does, and again to strap the vibrator onto her. He restarts the universe long enough to smile meaningfully at the woman as she looks around in aroused confusion, but he must continue to stop time every now and then to adjust the dildo; and when she reaches down to see what's there, he must switch off existence to remove the vibrating plastic from between her legs. All of this near-sadistic attenuation of arousal moves along with Baker's friendly precision, but the cheerfulness and the fussy care (both Arno's and the author's) seem increasingly sordid. For articulate, well-read, and kind as Arno may be (qualities which he keeps assuring us he has in abundance), the reader cannot help but notice that he is an articulate, well-read, kindly stalker, and the only pleasure bestowed is a stalker's pleasure, a voyeur's anonymous gaze made active.
Nicholson Baker's adventure in pornography is not entirely surprising. By literally objectifying women, he courts contemporary disapproval, but he is also partaking of a centuries-long tradition of serious writers trying their hand at a stroker. And there is something in the internal logic of Baker's talent, his genuine lyrical gift for microscopic and obsessional observation of the mundane, that must have made the challenge of a dirty book irresistible. “Literary” pornography is a challenge, though, one that has defeated plenty of authors before Baker.
Arno Strine is also drawn to pornography. Standing around in a bookstore, Arno composes little obscene notes in the margins of books, waiting to see a woman's expression when she reads them. And if notes, why not stories as well? At the beach he stops time long enough to sit on a prone, bikinied woman, type out a dirty story bury it beneath her hand, and then, having started the world again, watch as she digs it up, reads it, and goes home to drag a dildo out of a drawer and masturbate with it in the bath. “You ready to fuck this nice clean cunt?” she asks the dildo, and Arno, hiding in the laundry basket stops time again.
I licked her knuckles. I tapped my dick against her breasts to see how they quivered, I straddled the tub just as she was straddling it, facing her, and beat my richard savagely until I was almost there. When I was ready, I stood and said, “Let me be there with you, honey, you're so sexy, please let me come on your face,” in a strange almost singsong pleading voice, and without waiting for an answer from her I let all of my burning bechamel jump out onto her tightly closed eyes, unable to resist doing so even though I knew that I would probably regret it afterward—not least because it would be so much trouble to get all of it off her eyelashes and eyebrows.
Despite the burning bechamel and other felicities, passages like these are not too different from Arno's own dirty stories, which he leaves where women will find and, he hopes, enjoy them (as he watches); stories that he refers to proudly as “rot,” short for erotica. There is, for instance, this typically baroque fantasy sequence:
Marian unbent her knees and sat flatly down on the Van Dilden with her legs extended in front of her. This had the effect of pushing the Royal Welsh Fusilier deeper into her ass. It was like a fleshy tail. “I've got toys up my cunt and up my ass,” she moaned. The truck started bumping and jostling. She pulled the length of the Fusilier up against her tailbone and bent it around her hip, and found that, as she had hoped, the other end easily reached her clit. She pulled back its “foreskin” and held the slick second head against herself. “Oh fuck,” she said, feeling all of her circuits starting to get busy.
Marian the librarian, the UPS man delivering dildoes, the ride-on power mower—Arno writes slightly comic variations of the staples of conventional porn. There is humor in The Fermata. Baker's euphemisms for female genitalia (Marianas Trench, dripping flowerbox, open boat, natcho, nug, and, my favorite, Georgia O'Keeffe) are jolly, friendly. He describes one dildo as “my fellow American.” Of course, conventional pornography is itself frequently full of comic variations, including the arch and whimsical tone, the funny names for sexual organs and acts. And reading this novel, deftly written and intelligent as it is, one is struck over and over again by how little Baker's skill and insight matter once they enter the land of what Steven Marcus once called Pornotopia. “More than most utopias,” Marcus wrote in The Other Victorians, “pornography takes the injunction of its etymology literally—it may be said largely to exist at no place, and to take place in nowhere. … Time in pornotopia is determined by the time it takes to run out a series of combinations.”
Anyone who has actually had to read a complete volume of the celebrated Marquis knows how leaden and uniform even his inventive perversions quickly become, like a child's IQ test, square pegs slid automatically into square holes. Every pornographic narrative huffs and puffs to the same inexorable conclusion; tab A being fitted breathlessly into slot B, at first a titillating diversion, is repeated in one variation or another until it becomes mechanical and predictable. No literary genre can match pornography for initial excitement and fast-arriving boredom. However ornate the preparation, the outcome is inevitable. It is the nature of this iron-lawed, obsessional, and repetitive form to take over and make conform to it whatever commentary or satire or reflection it attracts. The genre refuses to be transcended.
Pornography relies on formula as much as a circus dog doing somersaults. The Fermata is no exception, and the endless loop-de-loops, exciting at first, become tedious very quickly. Tedium has always been a special danger with Baker. Ostentatiously undramatic, his compulsively inclusive style is exhausting. But most of his books are short. They run out of gas before (or just after) the reader does. The Fermata, on the other hand, Baker's longest novel by far, seems to be running on Duracell batteries.
In The Mezzanine, admiring in memory a green truck he once saw, Baker writes:
Right when I suddenly had more blue sky in front of me than green truck, I remembered that when I was little I used to be very interested in the fact that anything, no matter how rough, rusted, dirty, or otherwise discredited it was, looked good if you set it down on a stretch of white cloth, or any kind of clean background … This clean-background trick, which I had come upon when I was eight or so, applied not only to things I owned, such as a group of fossil brachiopods I set against a white shirt cardboard, but also to things in museums: curators arranged geodes, early American eyeglasses, and boot scrapers against black or gray velvet backgrounds because any time you set some detail of the world off that way, it was able to take on its true stature as an object of attention.
With this democratic yet privileged view of the clutter of life, in which every object exists as a potential object of attention, Baker did not have far to go from his earlier episodic, obsessive novels to this one. The commercial success of Vox, a phone-sex dialogue, might have further encouraged him to make a record of onanism (although The Fermata is too earnest and authentically unpleasant to have been motivated solely by best-seller lust). And Vox, while describing the theory of masturbation with meticulous elegance, is not about masturbation, or even sex. A far more human book than The Fermata, it is the story of a courtship, a romance, of sorts, between a man and woman, a verbal give and take, a conversation that leads to a kind of intimacy.
In The Fermata, Baker has taken the author, once a curator, and collared him as a voyeur. It is the artist, not his audience, who sees the world as a series of objects to be stared at. A self-conscious and formal novelist, he appears to suggest that stopping time by describing the world is a kind of literary masturbation. Baker flirts with the nature of art, often throwing in names of visual artists. But rather than expose art as a kind of voyeurism, The Fermata seems to expose only The Fermata as a kind of voyeurism. In the past, obsession was Baker's method; in The Fermata it has become not only his subject—it seems to have taken over completely. Even Baker's prose loses its originality and comes to resemble the expert droning jocularity of a dedicated hobbyist in a magazine like Car and Driver.1
“My sense of sight is infinitely and lovingly promiscuous,” Arno writes. In Baker's aesthetic, shoelaces, dildoes, a woman's anus are equal. Stylistically, Baker's promiscuous curiosity can be thrilling. Generous and eager, he is a miniaturist rather than a minimalist. But the exhilaration one felt in his earlier books, the way the world expanded as Baker revealed ordinary objects in all their formal grandeur, has disappeared from The Fermata. Passion does not exist in this book about sex. Baker has taken the wonder of the human body and revealed it as a grinding collection of gadgets.
With so many climaxes, there can be no climax. So Baker contrives an exit. In order to get off the circular track he's laid down for himself. Baker drifts to a conventional narrative ending: Arno finds real love and returns to graduate school. He loses his power, first sharing it with then accidentally transferring it to his girlfriend (Joyce, the one in the bank with the pubic hair). His puerile existence as a “temp” is over. The fermata is finished. He has grown into a man and his real life can begin. It's not a convincing conclusion, but, then, The Fermata is not really about Arno Strine. It's a long, dreary, dirty note scrawled in the margins of Nicholson Baker's work.
“We never did warm to SLP's composite hood—it has huge twin air-intake slits that could accept whole Spiegel catalogs … but we were reminded of the near religious transformation of GM's F-bodies into comfortable road-erasers, a revelation that the SLP modifications do little to disturb.” (Car and Driver, April 1994, p. 135.)
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SOURCE: Spufford, Francis. “Consuming Passions.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 395 (22 March 1996): 40.
[In the following review, Spufford offers an unfavorable assessment of The Size of Thoughts.]
There was a Victorian naturalist named Frank Buckland who liked to eat what he studied: jaguar steaks, armadillo stew. Nicholson Baker displays something of the same urge, only refined and let loose on the zoo of consumable things. They don't have to be consumer goods, let's be clear. The sensibility that gave the chief character of The Mezzanine “Panasonic three-wheeled vacuum cleaner, greatness of” as his sixth most frequent thought ever, didn't have its drab utility in mind. His pleasure was more avid; it bypassed mere vacuuming.
The point is the discovery of incidental adventures for the gastronome. And so [in The Size of Thoughts] in these exercises in applied epicureanism, it transfers with ease to such challenges to digestion as industrial-process technology. Baker bibs hot metal, sips at the “vintage 1979 Cincinnati Milacron injection press”, a “hulking, squirting” monster, “ministered to by taciturn women who, but for their safety glasses, might have been milkmaids in another life”. A long impassioned defence of card-indices for the New Yorker intends serious advocacy, but refuses to conceal the purity of Baker's response to the cards—grimed on their top edge in exact proportion to the book's popularity. Other people use card catalogues to find books. Among them, we imagine Baker, a man in secret rapture, riffling the drawers just to revel in the sheer catalogue-i-ness of the act.
He encourages experiment. CD-ROMS played on an audio CD deck produce mostly saw-edged buzzing “around a low E-natural”, but with interludes of “lyrical swooshing, as of several cooling hoses playing over the mind at once …” Stung into emulation, I read to a sceptical friend the paragraph of the title piece where Baker expresses a wish for thoughts big enough “to rap on the iron nodes of experience until every blue girder rings”. “Ah, come on,” she scoffed promptly. “That's like saying I use balsamic vinegar in all my thinking.”
It's true that the latent power to annoy in Baker's style seems to blossom when he isn't writing fiction. Even though his male leads—synaesthetic supernerds, all of 'em—aren't exactly unrelated to NB himself, some negative capability seems to operate in the novels; some interplay between his intelligence and the concocted status of fictive events. Little bubbles of untruth cling to the underside of his obsessions and buoy them up. In the novels he sees to it that mock-pedantic footnotes and other accessories are aerated—and rationed, too. Here, in “Lumber”, Baker pursues the word “lumber” through the history of EngLit for 150 unrelieved pages, and all pleasures for the reader are definitely incidental ones.
On the other hand, no one since Nabokov has displayed anything like Baker's fastidious density of invention. He finds words—show-off clever, Yankee-ingenuous ones, arranged in sentences of exquisite marquetry—for sensations so deeply lost in daily living that their recovery has a miraculous quality. Often they're tacky, which pleases Baker, who praises a dictionary of American slang for serving up “each livid slang word on a decorative philological doily”.
He can savour, and therefore make visible, the intangible sensuality of a train of thought. What he is less good at is the unwitting drift of minds. Again like Nabokov, he is no friend to the unconscious, perhaps because the whole direction of his imagination is toward the perfect articulation of the mind's littlest movements. To accept the profanity of these is not at all to be comfortable with the idea of involuntary drives.
After Vox and The Fermata, some large, unanswered questions about Baker await: why—apart from his aptness to its technical needs for endless synonyms, an endlessly re-invented carnality to prevent the fantasist's desensitisation—he should be so drawn to porn; and why the bodies of women have their place in his world of stuff. The minute detailing of his prose tells against awareness of these big shadows, though the winking accuracy of each idea contributes a pixel to some Leviathan-sized concerns.
You won't see Baker's whales directly. But there are moments, as in the resolute perkiness of his mood whenever sex comes up, when a certain pressure makes you aware of their presence. The white paper ocean rumples from beneath.
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SOURCE: Korn, Eric. “A Clippings Job.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4853 (5 April 1996): 22.
[In the following review, Korn offers a generally positive assessment of The Size of Thoughts, though criticizes the inclusion of several unworthy pieces in the volume.]
After the entertaining phonoerotic Vox and the deplorable Fermata (which gave a new, literalist interpretation to the cry, “Stop the world, I want to get off”), Nicholson Baker, to the relief of the rest of us, has turned his hand elsewhere. He is a man of enormous lexical talent, a talent recently deployed largely to describe underwear; and so clinging is literary repute or ill-fame that when he published his deeply researched and deeply felt tirade (philippic, jeremiad, dithyramb) on the subject of the deaccession (as in “at yesterday's auto-da-fé, sixteen Jews and three Lutherans were deaccessioned”) of card catalogues as libraries the world over constructed classificatory castles in cyberspace (or cyberspain), readers everywhere paused, decided that they must have misheard, and attributed the piece to the blameless Nicolas Barker, of the British Library and Book Collector, who was obliged to pen a pendant article, which would win him a place in any collection of literary disavowals, along with H. G. Wells grumpily protesting that he is not George Meek and Cruikshank scrawling “Nothing to do with me!” across falsely attributed cartoons.
This is reprinted here, [in The Size of Thoughts,] together with a fine, massive piece, two-fifths of the whole book, on the various roots, meanings and usages of the word “lumber”, which meanders with a mazy motion through many pleasant places, before revealing itself as a precisely machined, and closely argued review of the Chadwyck-Healey CD-ROM English Poetry Full Text Database, four shiny discs that hold an astonishingly large portion of the glory (and a good deal of the dross) of English poetry, which “promises, and moreover delivers, something like 4,500 volumes of liquidly, intimately friskable poetry”, as Baker notably describes it.
“Lumber”, astonishingly, runs back, at least in part, to “long-beard” (or possibly “long-axe”); the hirsute Langobardi became the more subtle Lombards, who bought unwanted goods from the financially distressed, and stored them in Lombard-houses, or lumber-rooms. It's all Lombard Street to a china orange that the pawnbrokers didn't mind laying up other folks' treasures; but people who found their private store-rooms filling up with miscellaneous goods felt burdened, encumbered, lumbered.
The lumbering gait of a bear or a rambling, rumbling drunk may relate to a Swedish verb, a Swedish dialect verb at that, denoting, perhaps onomatopoetically, a noise, as in Skelton's wondrous “he lumbryth on a lewde lewte, roty bully joyse, rumbyll downe, rumbyll downe”. This has nothing to do with the Lombards, for “lumber” is one of those delightful unbiological lexemes that has several disparate parents, promiscuously blended. And “lumber” as timber seems to be American in origin, therefore outside the Chadwyck-Healey database. This is one of many lacunae—no poems by those classified as prose-writers, hence no Johnson, no Scott, no Charlotte or Anne Brontë.
It would be hard to find a better example of the inadequacy of Chadwyck-Healey's criteria (of any human criteria, and a fortiori any machine criteria, if the machines have been invented and employed by humans) than the omission of John Henry, Cardinal Newman (Dream of Gerontius, “Lead, Kindly Light”, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height”), and the inclusion of his interesting brother, the polymath, freethinking and, to be candid, marginally dotty Francis. The mechanical criterion is that John Henry is essentially a setter-up of prose monuments, a stele-driving man, while Francis frequently puts his scholarship in rhyme (there is a long book about theism, largely in hexameters) and counts as a poet, or rather what a computer would recognize as POET—including poetess, poetaster, poetic disaster and so forth. What is impressive about both the Chadwyck-Healey and the Catalogue-card essays is Baker's revelling, joyful familiarity with the technology which threatens what it claims to preserve. We need such non-Luddite guardians of the past, techno-Greens.
Other essays demonstrate Baker's versatility. His essay on model aircraft kits and their place in the history of ideas is a loving, elaborate and fairly convincing exercise in techno-mannerism, the Higher Nerdery; as is his monograph on nail-clippers, though he doesn't draw attention to the most striking everyday example of the cultural phenomenon of sciomorphism: the outer limb of the clipper frequently bears a non-functional pattern of incised lines, representing the suppressed nail file, as the earliest thrown pots were decorated with the pattern of twisted twigs.
Baker is sometimes frugal. If, improbably, the New Yorker were to write to me enclosing a ＄100 bill and asking for some bargain writing, I might also be inclined, supposing I had such a thing, to send them a few haphazard pages written under the influence of large quantities of marijuana—which give the lie more effectually than the whole canon of 1960s literature to the myth of potwit. But I doubt I would be so shameless as to reprint it in hardback. Another facile article simply reprints, as found poetry, his outtakes, the terminal moraine of sentence debris that accumulates at the foot of the word-processed page if you don't delete misspellings but simply push them forward. Baker's speech at his sister's wedding shows a delicate fraternal feeling but has no other merit.
He has no need for this. Hugely literate and with a promiscuous, if not actually incontinent, love of words, and a fine Dumptyish ability to make them perform tricks for him, he is more impressive when he has a subject. He employs a massive and multifarious vocabulary for the variety of jobs he has to do, like one of those 285-piece toolboxes advertised in the back of Sports Illustrated or the folksier scandal magazines (in among the pheromones and the handcuffs and the lucky Lourdes rosary at a miraculously low price): huge wrenches for wrestling the wheels off transcontinental rigs, multi-purpose adjectives for a hundred jobs about the home, tiny, purpose-built predicates for delicately tweaking a clause.
And what a lot of jobs not-just-a-pretty-face Baker finds to do about the house! Not just good at sex, he can do technical, lexical and critical (movie projectors, regional slang, Alan Hollinghurst); to say nothing of technical-critical, lexical-technical and technical-lexical-critical. Wistfully returning his review copy of EPFTD (even the most puissants critics don't get one to keep), Baker finds dazzling metaphors from the kitchen and the alimentary canal: “one book after another I have sliced in half and jammed down on the juicing hub—at times my roistered brain-shaft has groaned like a tiny electric god in pain with the effort of noshing and filtering all this verbal pulp”. This is life-enhancing stuff, but I'm not certain it is zoologically sound. Noshers are not gnashers: the baleen whale, the leopard and the scallop all, in their different ways, filter their food before noshing it, as do the newly discovered creatures that dwell on lobster bristles; and so, I suspect, do even the most sensual lexicographers.
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SOURCE: Krusoe, Jim. “Head Case.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 May 1996): 1, 10.
[In the following review, Krusoe praises The Size of Thoughts, complimenting the obsessive detail and evolution of style presented in the essays.]
I suppose that the two things I've always resented most about sports are exactly the two things most people watch them for: that desire to know the final score and the moment (the one when I'm invariably looking somewhere else) that proves to be decisive. That's why I like six-day bike racing. Not only is the end so far off that I can go out to breakfast (several times, in fact) before it arrives, but when I miss a “decisive moment,” I know any sport that has sleep time built into its structure has already absolved me.
Such, in a way, are also the pleasures of reading the essays collected in The Size of Thoughts by Nicholson Baker. Like one or more cruise missiles set not on “search and destroy” but on “peruse,” they resist conclusions; they depend not on an occasional moment of charm for their glory but on whole bushel baskets of perceptions, engaging and quirky each and all. In that way, I suppose, these pieces resemble not so much those juggernauts of reason many of us associate with freshmen writing classes or opinion pieces found in news magazines that drive readers to their knees and make them say uncle or aunt, but poems:
Has anyone yet said publicly how nice it is to write on rubber with a ballpoint pen? The slow, fat, ink-rich line, rolled over a surface at once dense and yielding, makes for a multidimensional experience no single sheet of paper can offer. Right now dozens of Americans are making repetitive scroll-like designs on the soft white door-seals of their refrigerators, or they are directing their pens around the layered side-steppes and toe-bulbs of their sneakers (heads bent, as elders give them advice), or they are marking shiny initials on one of those gigantic, dumb, benevolent erasers (which always bounce in unforeseen directions when dropped, and seem so selfless, so apolitical, so completely uninterested in doing anything besides erasing large mistakes for which they were not responsible). …
Indeed, one of the enjoyments of reading the work displayed here (written over the past 13 years) is seeing the progression from Baker's early writing, done at a breathtaking 25 or so, to his most recent work, “Lumber.” In his earliest essays, the young writer struggles with ideas, or rather the idea of Ideas. Then, rather quickly as these things go, he gives himself over entirely to the famous dictum of William Carlos Williams, “No ideas but in things” and proceeds to create miraculous strings of objects, which, like those magnified photos of everyday implements—forks or saltshakers—seem to be reinvigorated with menace and wonder, so that, as one of Baker's heroes, A. E. Housman, put it, “we may delight ourselves in discovering them.”
But these lovely catalogs are only half the story. The rest has to do with Baker's other predecessor: that great American obsessive, shorn of his howl and his necrophilia, Edgar Allan Poe. Here we have a writer-madman who is willing not just to track down, but absolutely run to earth practically any notion, no matter where it may lead him.
Ever wonder about those nice-looking books we see littering the rooms of tony furniture catalogs? No problem—Baker reads them. What is there about model airplanes we remember as so great? Two hundred and eleven dollars worth of unassembled airplane kits later, Baker offers the entirely true (at least for me) perception that the attraction of those airplanes was never really the finished product—small and glue-smeared and fragile—but the very idea of speed and flight itself. Thus the book examines not only model airplanes and nail clippers but also what it's like the first time to read one's work in public, movie projectors, the history of punctuation; it even throws in a recipe for a hot fudge sundae.
The crowning moment of the book, however, is the nearly 150-page essay called “Lumber.” It examines the origins of the phrase “learned lumber,” from Pope's “Essay on Criticism”: “The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read / With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head.”
Half essay, half database, part hymn to scholarship and part a sendup of same, this leviathan of a study makes it its virtue to become more giddily fogbound the deeper in one goes, and then suddenly, when the end is near, it deposits us on a sunny plain where all we can see is our shadows.
In general, I'm of divided mind when I consider this data-based approach to writing that seems increasingly popular of late and I confess that most of the work I've read along these lines doesn't make me very happy. Baker's version, however, is different and I like it very much for its stage-whispered awareness of its method. Yet there still may remain (I must add, in the hope of fending off many more demonstrations of the same) a residue of too many evenings spent looking at pictures of other people's vacations.
Nonetheless, there is good news here. For any of us who have ever read or even longingly gazed at the title of a self-help book, fooling ourselves for a minute with the possibility of reform, Baker reminds us there exists a kind of grace that can come even to the most boorish of us whenever we completely and selflessly pursue our interests, however small (and probably the smaller the better).
There's a poem called “Wings,” by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, that I've admired for years, and it says close to the same thing:
We have a map of the universe for microbes, we have a map of a microbe for the universe. We have a Grand Master of chess made of electronic circuits. But above all we have the ability to sort peas, to cup water in our hands, to seek the right screw under the sofa for hours. This gives us wings.
—Translated by George Theiner
It so happens, by the way, I once had the honor of taking Holub on a tour of my backyard in Van Nuys. As the poet stuck his foot into one of the mysterious sinkholes that had recently started to appear in what passed for a lawn and gracefully buckled into a patch of weeds, he beamed a pained smile up at me. “This,” he said, as if just noticing for the first time, “is not an English garden!”
Neither is this fine, surprising, pungent, playful and thought-provoking bouquet of a book.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1826
SOURCE: Baker, Nicholas, and David Dodd. “Requiem for the Discarded.” Library Journal 121, no. 9 (15 May 1996): 31-2.
[In the following interview, Baker discusses his controversial 1994 New Yorker essay “Discards,” in which he opposed the destruction of library card catalogs.]
Nicholson Baker's new book taps the author's uncanny ability to capture in prose those minute, seemingly insignificant aspects of our daily lives and thought processes and turn them into inspiring reflections. The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber is a collection of essays on topics ranging from the evolution of punctuation (in which he defends, for example, the collash, which connects a colon and a dash) to the use of the word lumber throughout the history of the English language.
Librarians will enjoy this book immensely, not because they will always agree with the controversial Baker on all points but perhaps because he is the ultimate library patron: demanding, meticulous, often uproariously funny, and full of the kind of surprises that make working a reference desk worthwhile. Still, Baker's thoughts on libraries are bound to set library listservs abuzz: While acknowledging his deep affection and devout support of libraries, he nonetheless reveals his view that the library profession's repudiation of its own past reinforces a perception of its insignificance in the real world.
LJ book reviewer David Dodd interviewed Baker via E-mail to learn more about his book and particularly its most famous piece—in the library profession at any rate—“Discards,” which appeared originally in The New Yorker, April 4, 1994.
[Dodd]: Your piece on library card catalogs, “Discards,” aroused quite a bit of discussion among librarians when it appeared in The New Yorker. Can you give some background on the article—how did you manage to interest The New Yorker in such an arcane topic?
[Baker]: I called the books editor up and asked her if I could write about card catalogs, and she said sure. You know, it doesn't really strike me as an arcane topic for people who read. What could be more central to our affection for libraries than the card catalog? Libraries are repositories of history, and the card catalog is the crucial self-published document in the history of each library. It is a big, slow, beautiful thing, built over generations by many unthanked people. It has flaws and oddities and secret strengths. Why not write about it? When I began, I merely meant to celebrate the technology of the paper database in its twilight years, since there were already innumerable people celebrating its replacement, the online catalog. I had no idea until I began calling around that libraries across the country were, right at that moment, actually throwing out the catalogs, physically destroying them. It's one thing to denigrate an old technology and replace it with something that is faster and better in many important ways, but it's another thing entirely to gleefully pulp the past. It's an act of narrow-minded, unimaginative hostility toward the work of the librarians who preceded you. For example, Johnson's dictionary is out-of-date, it does not accurately describe the holdings, so to speak, of the English language now. Do we have parties in which we ceremonially burn pages of Johnson's in an atmosphere of white wine and cheese and crackers? Of course not.
Did you get much response to the piece, personally, from librarians?
I got hundreds of letters from catalogers, references librarians, library administrators, and others, at research libraries and business libraries and tiny public libraries. In fact, early on I had to give up answering the letters. All but three or four of the letters said, “Go, man, go.” But that isn't surprising, since the people who write letters to a writer are for the most part going to be people who approve of what he's saying. On the listservs, there was anger. There was ball-clanking and nostril-flaring and frothing at the mouth.
Why the outpouring of anger?
Because every institution that has gone through a retrospective conversion and then trashed its catalog has seen problems and questions arise here and there that would have been solved or answered by its late-lamented card catalog. Even when the cards are microwaved, or rather microfilmed, there are problems. MIT had the front of its cards microfilmed, but crucial information spilled over onto the backs. When I talked to them about their recon they were contemplating going to the original books to verify what edition a given microfilmed record referred to. There have been hundreds of small turf battles all over the country, and in almost every case, the card-trashers have won. Now I come along and question the wisdom of that victory in a general-interest magazine. I say things that everyone knows are true but don't quite want to face—that the recon is often incomplete when the card catalog gets dumped, for instance, and that local information is lost in the flip. I point out some of the areas in which online catalogs—though they are awesome achievements in many ways—are still weak areas where the frozen card catalog, out-of-date though it may be, would have been exceedingly helpful above and beyond its status as a historical artifact. It may cross an administrator's mind, reading this, that maybe, just maybe, he did an immoral and—worse yet—wasteful thing by junking his library's defenseless card catalog over the timid protestations of staff and patrons. You think he's going to like me for saying so? No; what he's going to do is scream that I don't know how to use the online catalog and that I'm a technophobe, which is dotty.
So you're not a Luddite?
I've spent much of my brief and undistinguished life writing and thinking about technology. And for better or worse I have become something of a keyboard cowboy on MELVYL. A librarian at Harvard sums up the reaction well, I think. This person wrote in a letter to me: “Most of the responses that I saw to your New Yorker essay were vitriolic, let's-gather-the-wagons pieces, but they are not representative of what large numbers of librarians felt. Many of us know, or at least fear, that the quality of recon is even worse than you depict.” The people who are advocates of a single-strand approach to searching have not had to spend years submerged in a complex historical project involving centuries and languages other than their own. We need all the search tools we can get.
Including out-of-date card catalogs?
Every search tool has flaws and strengths. To a historian of scholarship, the flaws in a particular search tool are as interesting as its strengths, sometimes more so. We're not talking about a potted plant here. We're talking about a huge cooperative enterprise that consumed the time and best energies of hundreds of people over a century. What gives any single person the right to dismiss that particular achievement as worthless and unworthy of preservation? Librarians don't generally feel compelled to tell us what we should or shouldn't be interested in, because they understand that a library is bigger than any one mind or set of interests can encompass. I'm interested in card catalogs; I love them, and I am not alone. But there is another aspect to the debate that is very interesting. The card-ditchers disagree with me about the merits of card catalogs. They say I'm wrong in my claims about collocation, lost local information, etc. But in a frightening number of cases, we can't test whether they're right or I'm right because they've already thrown out the evidence! They've killed the tortoise to ensure that the hare will win the race.
It appears that you did quite a bit of research for “Discards.”
I did the things journalists do: I interviewed people, I did background reading. The research took a month. The rumor started going around after the piece came out that I once worked in a library, or maybe that I was a temp at OCLC. I've been a temp, yes, but never, unfortunately, at a library or any bibliographic institution. Before I visited the cheerful folks at OCLC, I'd never even set foot in the great state of Ohio. I'm just an ardent library user who thinks librarians are underappreciated. But here's the thing. If librarians fail to take their own past seriously, they're never going to succeed in convincing funders to take their present needs seriously.
In many ways, you seem to have pioneered hypertext writing before the actual thing came along. Do you have plans to work in electronic formats (e.g., HTML)?
Thank you. I used footnotes in The Mezzanine in 1988 because they are ways of entering a large hidden area of secondary analysis through the tiny portal of a superscripted numeral. The footnote symbol functions as a kind of directional switch next to the railroad track of the sentence, diverting the eye down to the stockyards at the bottom of the page, or, in accordance with the reader's wishes, allowing him or her to keep chugging along in the cross-country paragraph. I used footnotes again in the last essay in The Size of Thoughts, about the word “lumber,” because small thoughts (about the etymology of a single word) can have large footnotes hanging from them that cumulatively imply, or pay homage to, the thrilling enormity of the entire library. I really like tiny type of the sort used on toothpaste tubes and in footnotes in the great scholarly editions of the 19th century, so I'll have to wait until the typographic resolution of web browsers and word processing applications improves to the point at which truly fine print is legible onscreen before I relinquish the poor-man's hypertext of the ink-and-paper footnote.
If you had one request to make of the library profession, what would it be?
Could administrators please, please stop using the specious “out of space” argument when they want to throw out frozen card catalogs? Time after time, card catalogs are destroyed right when a library has more space than it has enjoyed in decades—that is, when it is moving into a brand new building. And it would be lovely if a librarian created a web site called The Catacomb, or something catchy like that, where any cataloger who wanted to could contribute a rare book-style MARC description of any surviving card catalogs or shelf lists or card-catalog fragments (say for serials holdings) at his or her institution, including things like number of drawers, date of inception of the catalog, date of freezing if frozen, principal catalogers over the years, notable features, etc., etc. The cataloger could even note in the appropriate MARC field that the catalog is on acid-free paper—after all, card stock is usually made of the highest grade archival rag-content stuff. Once thoroughly cataloged, a given surviving card catalog will be that much harder to throw away. Maybe the world will take libraries seriously again and fund them adequately when they stop repudiating their own past.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3423
SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Up to the Minutiae.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 8 (20 June 1996): 65-6.
[In the following review, Wood examines the variety of essays in The Size of Thoughts, commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of various pieces. Wood praises the humor and passion evident in several essays, focusing on “Discards” and “Lumber” in particular.]
There is much to be said for tiny signs, and we don't have to laugh at the idea of what Erich Heller once called a “profound” semicolon in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Borges's story “The Library of Babel” opens with a pretty deep parenthesis: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. …” Just a pair of small curved marks, but what a difference they make. You could get the meaning here, and even the rhythm, with commas or dashes, but you couldn't get the dizzying sense of the throwaway, of information that almost wasn't given to us, and even now scarcely seems to matter.
Wittgenstein's semicolon looks like this: “The philosopher treats a question; like a disease.” G. E. M. Anscombe translates: “The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness,” which respects the writer's syntax, but doesn't allow the sense of a question itself being like an illness, and evacuates the wilder thought let loose by the punctuation: “It's like a disease, the way the philosopher treats a question.” I'm not sure a semicolon can ordinarily work in this fashion at all, but here it appears to masquerade briefly as a comma, before ending up as a colon. Or it acts as some kind of double agent: a colon that will also play the comma if we want it to.
The argument, if we were arguing, might be that nothing should be too small for our attention, or perhaps that the insignificant doesn't exist. But that argument is slightly too easy, even sentimental, and doesn't get at the edgy interest of these details. The insignificant does exist, the world is full of things too small for anyone's attention; but a lot of those small things actually look big, and significance hides in unlikely places. We don't know what we are missing; can't know; although with luck we can stumble on some of it now and again.
Well, we need a little more than luck. Nicholson Baker has always been a specialist in “microscopy,” as he put it in his first novel, The Mezzanine; anxious to be “up-to-the-minutiae,” as good he said in U and I. The pun is almost as good as a piece of profound punctuation, since it evokes a person who is up to date and attentive to detail, but also up to the challenge of small things, ready to take on the care or even championship they may need if they are not to be rolled upon by things several times their size. It is possible that only a reformed admirer of large things could feel this way.
“Each thought has a size,” Baker writes in the title piece of his new book [The Size of Thoughts], “and most are about three feet tall. …” This seems an ambitious estimate to me, but Baker is after very big game, the hugest that has been known and thought. For instance:
a really large thought, a thought in the presence of which whole urban centers would rise to their feet, and cry out with expressions of gratefulness and kinship; a thought with grandeur, and drenching, barrel-scorning cataracts, and detonations of fist-clenched hope, and hundreds of cellos; a thought that can tear phone books in half. …
He doesn't do too well in his quest for such a thought, but he learns some lessons along the way, which he develops into theorems: “All large thoughts are reluctant”; “Large thoughts are creatures of the shade”; “Large thoughts depend more heavily on small thoughts than you might think.” Less axiomatic, but even more persuasive, is Baker's discovery that large thoughts are tiresome, possibly the enemy of everything we care about:
As you may imagine, by the time I had successfully formulated this second theorem regarding large thoughts, I was desperately tired of them. If I felt one looming up in a page of Tolstoy, I ran off; I hid.
Nice semicolon there; not profound, but neat and accomplished. In a chapter on punctuation, first published in The New York Review in 1993, Baker calls the semicolon “that supremely self-possessed valet of phraseology,” but there are valets and valets.
I scolded myself for my callousness toward the small. “We must refine all epics into epigrams!” I said. “We must measure only the flares and glimmers of the world, thimbleful by peerless thimbleful; nor should we grudge even the jingle of a lightbulb filament the silence of an enraptured continent!”
This may be a little further than we need to go, and Baker himself suggests that “this extreme reaction missed the point,” formulating at this stage his third theorem about the dependence of large thoughts on small ones. “The Size of Thoughts” is an early essay, though, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1983, and the third theorem doesn't do justice to the complicated effect and implied argument of the completed book, which includes some earlier work but also much more recent writing, as well as material from every year since 1989.
In The Size of Thoughts Baker tackles slang, an ice storm, changes of mind, reading aloud, the notion of rarity, model airplanes, a novel by Alan Hollinghurst, the replacement of the old movie projector with a system of platters, the design and manufacture and allure of nail clippers. He offers us a recipe for chocolate sauce, prints the speech he made at his sister's wedding and a page of half-coherent outtakes from his novel Room Temperature, as well as a wonderfully vatic text (“the myths of disorder cannot moult”) written in 1982 under the influence of “nearly a hundred dollars' worth of marijuana.” Is he scraping the barrel, couldn't he have done without some of these ephemeras? Of course, but he's not trying to make weight, he's trying to make a point: about the barrel, about scrapings, about ephemeras. The very idea of throwing some of these pieces out introduces just the notions of relevance and importance that Baker wants to question.
You probably have to like terrible puns to like Baker's writing a lot, but if you do, there are extravagant delights here: like “Brugesed and battered,” “draw-and-quarto,” “arpeggiate Lisztlessly,” and “Vault Whitman.” It's as if S. J. Perelman had been put in charge of the whole Humanities syllabus. The funniest piece in the book, I think, although there isn't one without a good gag or two, is “Books as Furniture” (1995), which opens with an exemplary close reading of images in mail-order catalogs from places like Crate & Barrel, the Pottery Barn, Crabtree & Evelyn, Eximious, the Company Store. It's not just that you can, if you feel the need, buy a coffee table made of fake books, or a mirror framed by fake books, or a pencil pot covered with the replica of an old edition of Racine, or even a cassette holder that looks as if it holds books. The catalogs themselves are images of life, someone's dream of what our dreams are, a genteel fantasy of other times and other places.
There isn't a self-help or a current best-seller to be seen, because the men and women who live in the rooms of the mail-order catalogs never read best-sellers. In fact, they never read paperbacks.
Do they read at all? They give signs of reading, and no doubt signs are all they can give us. The J. Crew catalog, Baker tells us, shows a hard-working fellow—“on break, apparently, from his labor of hammering and gentrifying”—reading a Guide Bleu to Switzerland; and a Crate & Barrel catalog is full of signs of recently interrupted reading:
The books lie open on chairs, on hammocks, on the floor, as if whoever was reading them had left off briefly to check the status of an earth-toned lentil soup: on their pages rest studiously haphazard placeholders—a shell, a twist of ribbon, an apple, a daisy.
What are these invariably ancient books doing among all this furniture we can't afford or don't want? Baker is too subtle to answer this question, but his essay allows a couple of complementary inferences: that we shouldn't sneer at the romance of reading, however faded or philistine or comic it may appear, because books need all the friends they can get; and that however tolerant we are of the use of books as accessories to design, the best thing we can do with a book, any book, is read it. Friend or faux is the joke that has been hovering throughout the essay, and Baker gives in only a page or two before the end of the piece. You'd also expect an echo of the line from the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie (“We're off on the road to Morocco / We're Morocco-bound”), and there is one, but very delicately done, via the faintest sketch of “camel caravans of thought-bearing time.”
The most passionate and intensely researched piece in the book is “Discards,” a magnificent defense of the card catalogs which libraries all over the country are cheerfully scrapping: Baker calls it “cardnage.” The cheerfulness is the chief problem. Parties are held, balloons are released, gleeful jokes are made. Out with the old, online with the new. “Administrators are singling out card catalogs, I think, not as a last resort but as a first resort.” The claim is that libraries need the space, but “this in no way constitutes an argument,” Baker says. “Libraries have been running out of space since the Sumerians first impassioned clay. …” This probably means that the argument is ancient rather than that it isn't one; what really ruins the argument is that the saved space is rarely put to any use as attractive or helpful as housing a card catalog.
A card catalog, Baker suggests, is human, material history, full of the traces of time, like an old Rolodex or a great worn book. Even if you love roaming about in online catalogs, as Baker does, why would you want to shred or burn or dump these splendid shabby memorials, full of notes and adjustments, and datable by their faded color and their foxed corners. “They hold,” Baker says, “the irreplaceable intelligence of the librarians who worked on them”; and they can tell at a glance, as a computer cannot without complicated instructions, that not every pseudonym is another person, and that the eighteen different spellings of Tchaikovsky (Baker lists them) refer to the same Russian composer.
Are administrators ditching card catalogs because they hate them, as Baker suggests? Because they are so in love with the lean and healthy look of the new technology, its patent disavowal of all those ratty retrograde fumblers among the cards? Baker quotes one expert as saying that “not having to go to a library is a very important improvement in providing library service.” We see what the expert means, and it's fun to be able to call up the online catalogs of libraries you have never set foot in. But we also see what the next improvement might be: no library service at all, or perhaps no library.
But the essay that holds The Size of Thoughts together, that makes it something other than the miscellany it needs to pretend to be, is the long, previously unpublished exploration of “Lumber.” “Now feels like a good time to pick a word or a phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get.” Baker goes on to say “a metaphor might work best,” something a little dingy and neglected perhaps: “It should be representatively out of the way; it should have seen better days.” He settles on “lumber.” which apart from its attractions as an ungainly verb of motion, means junk or rubbish in British English, and timber in American. The interference of these meanings with each other, once the Atlantic has been crossed often enough, is essential to Baker's argument. We keep seeing planks of junk when historically we ought to be seeing planks or junk. The latest American literary use of the British meaning, according to Baker's sources, is Elizabeth Bishop's “uninteresting lumber” in her poem about Robinson Crusoe; but even there I'm not sure planks are entirely absent from our (or her) mind.
Earlier uses of the word include Swift's “Lumber of the Schools,” Dryden's “machining lumber,” Johnson's “lumber of the memory,” Traherne's “An Endless Body is but idle Lumber,” and Sherlock Holmes's “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across. …” Johnson in his Dictionary darkly defined lumber as “Any thing ufelefs or cumberfome; any thing of more bulk than value.” Just heavy litter. Alas, this must be true of most of us; perhaps even of the large Dr. Johnson. “The most beautiful piece of lumber-poetry extant,” Baker says, is Rochester's translation of a chorus from Seneca's Trojan Women:
Dead, wee become the Lumber of the World, And to that Masse of matter shall be swept, Where things destroy'd, with things unborne, are kept.
But the most famous and most brilliant use of the word, which is also at the center of Baker's essay, appears in Pope's Essay on Criticism:
The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head.
At first, Baker seems to be interested in tracing the sources of this image, riffling through one CD-ROM after another, as if to prove that there was nothing Luddite about his passion for card catalogs, but then you realize that scholarship, even of the idiosyncratic kind, is not the chief game here. For a start Baker tries playing his CD-ROM disks on his audio system, and describes the sound:
Eighteenth-century English poetry, as interpreted by my Yamaha stereo receiver and peripherals, generated an edgy square-wave buzz, around a low E-natural, a discordia concors lower than a table saw (except when it is cutting a piece of wood with a split end), more like one of those neck hair trimmers that the stylist pulls out of a drawer in the final phase of a haircut, but with excellent spatial separation and some gratuitous conch-shell oceania on top. Disk 3 (1800-1900, poets A-K) sounded much the same. … The CD-ROM that works best under this sort of auditory misprision, though, is Compton's Encyclopedia. … The first track is given over to the usual vagrant digital buzzing and swooshing. But in track two, the left and right channels split, and each carries a separate inventory of audio clips. In your right ear you hear an intelligent woman reading alphabetized words like abdominal cavity, adrenal, algae, brackish, bronchial tree, catastrophic, cephalothorax, conflicting, and contour feathers, while in your left a Ted Baxtery voice booms out political clichés. (“Give me liberty or give me death!” “The British are coming!” “Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!”) The woman quietly continues with: massive collapse, minute food particles, and mucous membrane, while Roosevelt angrily declares war on “the Japanese empire.”
Lumber indeed. Baker dips from one lumbersome mention to another, apparently at random and often distracted, just browsing. Did you know that one of the derivations of lumber is from Lombard, via Lombard Street in London where pawnbrokers used to do business? Hence a lumber-room was once not only an attic or what your bedroom feels like on a bad day, but a vault at a bank or pawnshop. Could you have known that there was in Natchez in the nineteenth century a firm called the R. F. Learned Lumber Company, named after Rufus Frederick Learned and dealing in timber rather than footnotes? How much do you want to know about Hawthorne's or Housman's or Stevenson's or Bulwer-Lytton's uses of the word? Baker writes in U and I of “an impatience with criticism as a literary form,” but here he has turned something like the testing of our patience into a critical and literary art.
But then just as you're about to give up altogether, tired of the excursion through translations' of Madame Bovary and meatpies in Montaigne—allowing that Baker has proved his point about the limits of relevance by abolishing the notion of relevance entirely, yet feeling there may be better places to get lost than in Nicholson's adventures through the magnifying glass—it dawns on you that he has been up to something else all along. Or something else as well: he was rambling, but not only rambling. This essay not only feels like a Nicholson Baker novel with a slightly less nerdish narrator; it is a Nicholson Baker novel, with a narrator who has taken his mind off the interesting embarrassments of his blemishes. In place of the sequence of thoughts on an escalator ride (The Mezzanine), or the spread of thoughts while feeding a baby girl (Room Temperature), or the rise of thoughts while engaging in telephone sex (Vox), we get the size of thoughts while riffling through books and disks in search of the lost life of a worn-out word—a word which itself names and evokes lost lives.
This is where Baker's third theorem gets refined. It's not just that large thoughts depend more heavily on small thoughts than we might think. It's that very large claims have often been made for small thoughts, and that these claims constitute a betrayal of the modesty they seek to praise. Nothing is stranger or more worthy of notice than the commonplace, but this proposition is itself a commonplace: poets and critics have been reminding us of the ordinary for a couple of hundred years. What's interesting, of course, is not the reminder, or even the ordinary itself—which is going to be interesting or not, case by case, day by day, as the instances fall. What's interesting is the perceived need for the reminder. How could we keep forgetting the ordinary—unless of course the ordinary just is what we keep forgetting?
That we ought to be able to redeem truisms is itself a truism; a proposition that can't coherently or interestingly be made, but can be played out, as in a novel. Our hero fills his head with lumber on our behalf, because only in this way can we see that lumber is both what we have thrown out because we don't need it and what we need because there are always treasures among what we have thrown out. Baker quotes from a nineteenth-century book called The World's Lumber Room, by Selina Gaye, a work he characterizes as “an interdisciplinary study of ‘dust’ and its sources and users,” and then says,
Perhaps I am not so very misguided, then, in deliberately making a lumber-room of my head with the present study, so long as that room is, as Gaye contends, coextensive with the world itself. No decomposing quotation is so vile that it can't be taken in hand and turned to good account.
The central character in Room Temperature has a fantasy about writing a “concentrated history of the comma.” The fantasy includes, as fantasies always do in Baker's elaborately self-mirroring work, a picture of the picture others will have of the author:
See that guy there with the terrible posture? He's the world's authority on the comma! He's studied the negative spaces in prose for twenty-eight years! He sees the comma as the embodiment of civilization, as the true “volute” in evolution; he's tried to focus all of humane letters into that tiny curlicue. Can you believe it? Fruitcake!
There is genuine yearning as well as mockery in this image, as if Baker's fictional character had wandered onto an American campus from the precision-haunted deserts of Beckett's plays and prose: But The Size of Thoughts goes this image one better, turns from the stooped scholar and his dream of authority to the forlorn world itself; to the possibilities of finding again, if only on borrowed time, what seemed lost forever:
Lumber-room loans the short-sold world back to the reader, while storing all the poetry and prose within as a shrouded pledge. It contains the notion of containment; it keeps in mind how little we can successfully keep in mind. … Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close.
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SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 3 (fall 1996): 201.
[In the following review, Malin offers a positive assessment of The Size of Thoughts, commenting on the deeper themes within the collection and Baker's other works such as Vox and The Fermata.]
I remember my first reading of The Mezzanine, I was puzzled by the obsessive attention to detail (especially in the footnotes). Baker used much space for references to Marcus Aurelius and mall design. Why did he consciously cultivate the details? Was he linking consciousness to detail? Was he, in effect, writing a philosophical novel that masquerades as a satire?
In his first collection of essays [The Size of Thoughts,] Baker gives us a wonderful, perverse essay on the linguistic turns of lumber. He endeavors to locate not only its first usage in the OED; he searches concordances to Pope, Browne, and others, so that he can discover whether or not lumber ever suggested thought. And as he travels through the literary past, he finds, among other things, that the mad Kinbote may have been found in Nabokov's reading of Housman's Selected Prose: “Mr. Mary should write a novel. Nay, he may almost be said to have written one; for his notes on book iii (Lucilius' journal to Sicily) are not so much a commentary on the surviving fragments as an original narrative of travel and adventure” (my emphasis).
Baker's essay—written in his slow, tentative, Jamesian way—confirms that his fiction is, in effect, an attempt to capture “the size of thoughts,” the way we perceive “reality.” And in “Changes of Mind” he muses about musing. Thus this odd collection is “lumber-room” for reviewing the notorious Fermata and Vox, novels deemed salacious, pornographic, slight. They are “hoaxes”; although they pretend to be interested in sexual details, they are, in fact, absorbing inquiries into the nature of language and perception.
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 May 1998): 2.
[In the following review, Eder criticizes The Everlasting Story of Nory, asserting that the book fails in its attempt to depict the perspective and language of a nine-year-old girl.]
As a child late in the last century, Daisy Ashford assumed a grown-up's voice—or her notion of one—to write the romance of Ethel Montacue and her admirer, Mr. Salteena. In its comic misapprehensions of tone, likelihood and spelling, “The Young Visiters,” unearthed years later by J. M. Barrie, became a minor English classic.
Nicholson Baker has reversed the displacement. The Everlasting Story of Nory uses his notion of a child's voice to depict a 9-year-old American girl spending a year with her family in England. Baker's fertile shape-changing and playfulness of language do a lot to suggest a 9-year-old's butterfly speculations. Yet his venture, though sometimes attractive, doesn't really work.
A child dressing up as a grown-up displays not the grown-up but—charmingly in Ashford's case—the child. A grown-up dressing up as a child, on the other hand, runs the great risk of displaying the grown-up.
Some writers Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll and other great inventors of children's worlds—overcome the risk. To create a fictional child, it is not enough to admire children. It is necessary to ignite, as an adult, the desperate spark that arcs across the gap between a child's longing for action and transformation and the realities that constrain it. Baker is a radiant admirer, a perceptive observer and extremely nice, besides, but his Nory is becalmed.
Nory's father and mother have moved her and her younger brother temporarily from Palo Alto to Threll, an English cathedral town closely resembling Wells in Somerset. Her teacher at the Montessori school in Palo Alto had used the words “fatal flaw” in criticizing her inattentiveness, and this, Nory assumes, was what caused the move. It is one of many faintly skewed perceptions, appropriate to a 9-year-old, that populate the book.
There were other reasons, no doubt; the father is a writer and free to move about. His books—so Nory gathers from her parents' amiably jokey table talk—put people to sleep. Baker, who draws heavily on his own family, is having a quiet joke at himself. Unfortunately, what is not true of any of his previous books (Mezzanine, Room Temperature, Vox and Fermata) has some relevance here. Nory, even in its felicities, can be tedious.
In the earlier books, Baker applied his unique miniaturization—a world seen in a grain of sand and intensified—to large adult preoccupations and fantasies. The very safe and protected 9-year-old world that Nory miniaturizes is already very small. It is a grain of sand seen in a grain of sand and seen, furthermore, at what comes to feel like considerable length.
We hear about Nory's younger brother, Littleguy, whose main interests are digging machinery and famous trains. God, he believes, drives a steam locomotive; the devil drives a diesel. Nory herself thinks of God as “a thoughtful, extremely supreme person.” Her mother, who doesn't do much to enliven the story's bland ingenuities, sees him in the good in other people.
Nory opposes scariness. She is against scary books and movies, particularly those that seem benign and ambush you with a scary incident. Teeth worry her—preemptively, perhaps, she decides to be a dentist—and she dreams of ducks and cows with long sharp ones. She thinks a lot about bad dreams, tries to rearrange her thoughts to ward them off and, when they do slip through, mentally rewrites them after she wakes up.
This about does it for darkness; mostly, Nory's existence is cheerful. Her parents, who take the children on weekend excursions, are equable and attentive. When Nory worries about something called the Tweety Monster or Littleguy worries about owls, their mother reassures them that there are no bad things out there. “Only the gentle night,” she goes, “and the squirrels all fluffed up to keep from getting too cold, and the raccoons having a pleasant chew of garbage.” For Nory's part, when some harmless disagreement threatens between mother and father, she recites her own reassuring mantra: “Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of an argument.”
Cuteness threatens, here and elsewhere, though generally Baker avoids it. A greater problem is coziness. He has drawn a 9-year-old devoid of tears, meanness and, above all, silence. Nory is less the portrait of a child than a continuous commentary about the child, ostensibly by herself: fluent, fey, imaginative and unstoppable. It is hard to see much through the words, however well Baker has chosen them.
Curiously, although the narration is couched in the language of an only slightly precocious 9-year-old, with a few touching slips (“up to sniff,” “the biggest … by any means”), it is delivered in the third person. No additional perspective is added, and the freshness and immediacy of a first-person account—two qualities needed in this overly nudged story—are sacrificed.
There is more life to the book when Nory gets out of the house and her cogitations and goes to the English school. She rather enjoys it despite the difficulties and strangenesses for a girl out of a California Montessori school. There are the uniforms and the obligatory hymnbook and weekly school procession to the cathedral. There is oatmeal for breakfast instead of frozen waffles.
There is more bloodiness and less high-mindedness, more intimacy and less virtue, more history and less environment. There are more facts. There is the non-P.C. bite of the teachers: The drama teacher has them practice dying successively from gunshots and poison. There is the acrid teasing and testing by the other school-children of the American newcomer, who nicely holds her own and gains respect.
The only wispy bit of plot concerns Nory's insistence on making friends with the bullied class wall-flower; at the end, because of her efforts, the other children let up on their persecution. It is a faintly suspect decorative bit; here, as elsewhere, Baker seems more concerned to celebrate his child than to expose her to childhood's dangerous randomness.
Baker has given Nory a quirky and unmistakable flavor of her own, but it is flavor without food. Her cogitations, her unexpected views on God and deathwatch beetles and the ingenuity of her mistakings would ornament the story if there were much of a story to ornament. It is a palaver of excellent adverbs and only two or three verbs.
Eventually, the talk wearies, as with a bright child brought down to entertain the guests, and you begin to wonder when it will be bath time. Imagine Alice discoursing beside her sister and never going down the rabbit hole; imagine Huck telling you about life on the Mississippi and never getting on the raft.
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SOURCE: Moore, Caroline. “Sugar and Spice.” Spectator 280, no. 8862 (13 June 1998): 38.
[In the following review, Moore presents a negative assessment of The Everlasting Story of Nory, noting that the work is overly cute and sweet.]
You need a strong stomach to be a critic of modern novels, which collectively give the impression of a world in which children who have not been sexually abused by their near relations are pretty thin on the ground. I thought I had supped full of horrors, but nothing quite prepared me for the stomach-churning qualities of Nicholson Baker's latest novel [The Everlasting Story of Nory]. Professional duty got me through it, but it was a close-run thing.
Perhaps I should have expected something disconcerting. Nicholson Baker's recent fiction has moved away from the ‘exuberantly detailed comedies of ordinary life’ billed by the blurb to exuberantly detailed fantasies about masturbation. This book, however, finds a rather ingeniously novel way to surprise and repel the reader, which is, as we all know, the function of art. The Everlasting Story of Nory is disgustingly, toe-curlingly twee.
The eponymous and remarkably under-abused heroine, Nory, is
a nine-year-old girl from America with straight brown bangs and brown eyes. She was interested in dentistry or being a paper engineer when she grew up.
She is very, very nice, befriending a bullied girl at her new school in England, and sympathising even with death watch beetles (she ‘liked all insects, even earwigs, and especially ladybugs, and she did not appreciate any killing, because of the important rule of Do Unto Others, and how would you like it if a huge scrumple of toilet paper came down on you and stole your life away from you?’).
The important rules of niceness are inculcated by her very, very nice parents, who are endlessly kind and patient and understanding in a twinkly, syrupy, worthy, Sesame Street kind of way—even when Nory launches into interminable stories, which are ‘miracly much fun’, at least for the teller. Her mother soothes away nightmares about a bad Tweety-bird Monster by saying gently:
‘I know, I know, but it's just drawings. There's no Tweety Monster out there, no bad thing, only the gentle night and the squirrels all fluffed up to keep from getting too cold, and the raccoons having a pleasant chew of garbage. Everything's all right.’ Her mother's eyes were the most soothing, nicest, softest, deepest eyes that any mother could ever have. They were, to be specific, blue.
Her brother, whom they refer to as Littleguy, does ‘occasionally’ say
rude things that could hurt your feelings, but he was two and usually it was a question of him just not understanding what he was saying.
But he is basically very, very nice too, and lisps in a fashion I have not seen in print since the brave days of Victorian saccharine—saying that his toy trailer has ‘had a bad mergency', and the like.
Not much happens in The Everlasting Story. The highlights of the plot are perhaps when Nory loses her pencil-case, and gets a Good Result prize for being kind. And once there is ‘a discreet thud on her face’ and she realises that ‘a disgusting bird took its leisure on me’. (This is kept shockingly arch by the coy adult control in ‘discreet’: the winsomeness of this novel is unchildlike.) Mostly, however, Nory just muses about such things as toothpaste and Barbie dolls and best friends.
This book is dedicated to ‘my dear daughter Alice, the informant’ (I hope she remains properly grateful in a few years' time). It becomes plain that Nicholson Baker is breaking several important literary taboos, as all art should: not just the ban on tweeness, but the taboo against telling cute stories about one's children in public print. Of course, a lot of it goes on in private between consenting mothers—one can spot well-established rings loitering outside the school-gates—but in print most columnists hypocritically exaggerate the rudeness and messiness of their offspring. Baker dares to point out that quite a lot of children—particularly one's own—can be revoltingly nice. And if the book gave me a suffocating feeling of drowning slowly in maple syrup, well, art should make one uncomfortable.
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SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Giraffes, Children, and Stories.” Christian Science Monitor (25 June 1998): B7, B11.
[In the following review, Charles praises The Everlasting Story of Nory, lauding its ability to evoke the innocent, simple, and “miraculous” world of childhood.]
My six-year-old daughter recently asked me about the giraffe in our house.
“What giraffe?” I asked.
“That giraffe you and Mom felt coming down the stairs.”
“That was a draft, some cold air, you know, a breeze.”
She nodded skeptically, as though she'd stumbled upon an exotic smuggling ring. For me, her question was a reminder of the miraculous, perplexing world in which children live.
Nicholson Baker has written a most beguiling novel about that world. The Everlasting Story of Nory perfectly captures the ordinary life of a kind, creative nine-year-old girl. In the cacophony of novels, memoirs, and talk shows about the harrowing hazards many children face, Nory's story is a charming reminder of the life children need and deserve.
Nicholson presents Nory with a degree of gentle irony that makes this novel sweet, but never saccharin. The book's sustained comedy stems from Nory's attempts to make sense of her year in England, where her father is taking a sabbatical to “write books that help people get to sleep.”
Leaving behind her dear friends in Palo Alto, Calif, and moving to the little town of Threll, Nory must figure out a new school, defend her accent, and negotiate the complexities of playground politics. She manages all these tasks with great concentration and success, but she devotes at least as much effort to her everlasting series of dreams and tales that pit a little girl against extraordinary, sometimes gruesome challenges.
“You need something to fail in a story,” Nory observes, “because then when it fails it has to get better. Usually with a story there is a moment at which you're supposed to think some person or animal has died or some other really sad failure has happened—and if you don't know that that's how stories are supposed to work you can become quite upset and have to run out of the room to escape the squeezing feeling in your chest, like at the end of ‘Lady and the Tramp.’”
Indeed, much of this short book concerns Nory's simple but profound discoveries about the nature of language and fiction. While most of us race through words like bored commuters on familiar streets, Nory studies words like a jeweler. She takes no colloquial phrase for granted. She realizes immediately that “the last straw was not the last straw in the machine at the restaurant that when it was taken meant the machine was empty and you would have to drink your milkshake sadly without a straw.” And she knows a camel's back is unlikely to be broken by that straw. He would kneel down long before the burden got too heavy.
Even when being taunted for befriending an unpopular classmate, Nory mourns how difficult it will be to recall the details of childhood. “You live your life always in the present,” she notes. “And even in the present, this day, dozens and hundreds of little tiny things happen, so many that by the end of the day you can't make a list of them. You lose track of them unless something reminds you. Say someone says, ‘Remember when you dropped your ruler this morning?’ And you do remember. But then that is lost in the tangle.”
Baker has untangled those memories with loving precision in what's likely to become a classic book for adults about childhood. If there's any real “failing” in The Everlasting Story, it's that fourth grade isn't everlasting after all.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330
SOURCE: Lorberer, Eric. Review of The Everlasting Story of Nory, by Nicholson Baker. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 242-43.
[In the following review, Lorberer applauds The Everlasting Story of Nory for its vivid portrayal of the thoughts and internal feelings of Nory, its nine-year-old protagonist.]
Nicholson Baker, well-known for his phone-sex novel Vox and his voyeuristic fantasy The Fermata, here attempts what in some ways might be his most risky book yet. The Everlasting Story of Nory depicts a year in the life of a nine-year-old American girl attending school in England; its quiet, pastoral tone is more evocative of children's authors such as Robert McCloskey (whose Make Way for Ducklings is cited early on) than of the famed Anonymous. Yet Nory rigorously avoids the cliches of both the innocent childhood remembrance and the darker coming-of-age story, instead chronicling its young protagonist's chaotic thoughts and internal world at the age she is now. This is Baker's forte, of course; as in all his novels, which stretch and pull a single moment of time like taffy. Nory offers an absurdly detailed glimpse of the present, thus showing it to be rich and strange in its very ordinariness.
Baker pulls this off not through plot (of which there is virtually none here) but through his attention to language. While simple enough to be believable coming from a nine-year-old girl, Nory's verbal dexterity shows how both the scientist and the surrealist inhabit a child's consciousness. The book tumbles with hilarious self-explained concepts, self-defined words, self-told stories—in short, with self. As an intriguing foil to Nory's struggle to make meaning, Baker offers the background character of her younger brother Littleguy; his linguistic repertoire of dump trucks and bulldozers serves to remind us that “his head was still basically a construction site.” Although puzzlingly scattershot at first, and verging on sentimentality throughout, Baker's latest novel rewards the reader who sticks with it with an acutely sculpted prose that offers sheer and unabashed delight.
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SOURCE: Saltzman, Arthur. “A Columbus of the Near-at-Hand.” In Understanding Nicholson Baker, pp. 1-14. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Saltzman provides an overview of Baker's life, writings, literary style and thematic concerns, and critical reception.]
Nicholson Baker has established himself as contemporary fiction's principal detective and dissector of epics that await the reader at close range. Thanks to Baker's extraordinary attention to ordinary objects and processes, restroom paper towels and computer paper perforations have been accorded the same descriptive indulgence as Achilles' shield; tying shoes and writing with a ballpoint pen on a rubber spatula rise to high drama; the fates of popcorn poppers and peanut butter jars are crucial planks in a private political platform, quietly alive with social implications. With unrivaled patience and meticulousness, Baker tweezes poetry out of a seemingly prosaic environment, which brims for him with compacted extravagance, ingrown gorgeousness. As one reviewer puts it, “Baker doesn't just count the angels on the head of a pin; he does long division with the feathers in their wing tips.”1 In The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990) in particular, a studied intimacy presides; happily banished to contemplation, Baker offers the radiant residue of extended meditation. He is exquisitely fussy, drawing out the hidden heritage of a drinking straw or awakening the layered etymology of a neglected noun from the grave of casual usage. The following sample among the scores of reflections that constitute his first novel suggests the lush weave that Baker creates:
Why can't office buildings use doorknobs that are truly knob-like in shape? What is this static modernism that architects of the second tier have imposed on us: steel-half-U handles or lathed objects shaped like superdomes, instead of brass, porcelain, or glass knobs? The upstairs doorknobs in the house I grew up in were made of faceted glass. As you extended your fingers to open a door, a cloud of flesh-color would diffuse into the glass from the opposite direction. The knobs were loosely seated in their latch mechanism, and heavy, and the combination of solidity and laxness made for a multiply staged experience as you turned the knob: a smoothness that held intermediary tumbleral fallings-into-position. Few American products recently have been able to capture that same knuckly, orthopedic quality (the quality of bendable straws) in their switches and latches; the Japanese do it very well, though; they can get a turn-signal switch in a car or a volume knob on a stereo to feel resistant and substantial and worn into place—think of the very fine Toyota turn-signal switches, to the left of the steering wheel, which move in their sockets like chicken drumsticks: they feel as if they were designed with living elbow cartilage as their inspiration.
(The Mezzanine, 27)
And on and on he goes, zealously invested, utterly open to association, metaphor, and fresh diction (“tumbleral” and “knuckly” are particularly effective examples in the passage above), all in an effort to do justice to the little things, to get them right.
Baker acknowledges that he has always had this “cast of thought,” with its penchant for what governs things so small: “I would write in my notebooks about all these ambitions of writing enormous books, huge subjects for novels, but the only time I actually felt pleasure writing was when I had turned the lens a little bit and was focusing on something carefully and was able to revolve it in my mind. … What it feels like is that … I have some pressing point I want to make about the coils of a toaster.”2 Contemporary man lives amidst innumerable bits of manufacture; made things line every desk, shelf, counter, and pocket. As Henry Petroski writes in The Evolution of Useful Things, “Virtually all urban sensual experience has been touched by human hands, and thus the vast majority of us experience the physical world, at least, as filtered through the process of design.”3 Nicholson Baker is eager to disclose that rich tangle of invention, the vivid infrastructure that largely constitutes what and how perception is accomplished. As James Kaplan maintains in Vanity Fair, “In an American book-writing generation that seems to span the talent gamut from A to C, Nicholson Baker is out there at the end of the alphabet, quite alone. His unmistakable voice, his razor-sharp comprehension of culture high and low, his mighty-Wurlitzer skill with the language—all move him out of the lit pack, straight into suede-elbow proximity with the timeless ones, the echt practitioners.” “Pure-octane-wise, not many are in Baker's league,” Kaplan continues, awed by Baker's “broad, jaw-droppingly knotty matrix of usable reference.”4 Novelist David Shields concurs in a piece for the Village Voice, in which he attributes to this “artistically adventurous, passionately intellectual writer” the power of transfiguration: “He is a kind of literary Statue of Liberty: give him our wretched refuse and he'll turn it into poetry.”5 From such a glamorous vantage point, calling Baker a master of trivial pursuit does a disservice to the wealth of all he coaxes out of anonymity.
It should not be surprising, nonetheless, that responses to Baker's writings typically emphasize his minor-key commitments. By virtue of the reception of his first two novels, Baker has occasionally been called a minimalist; to be sure, his uncompromising alertness to the discarded and the daily, coupled with (in a strictly traditional sense) the relative plotlessness of his books, may initially lead reviewers to unite him with writers like Raymond Carver. However, Baker will have none of the poverty that the term “minimalism” suggests. On the contrary, his is a persistent war on attenuation. Nor can he be accused of predictability, another charge that tends to be levied against minimalist fictions. Instead, Baker defamiliarizes the landscape by being so in-depth about his inventories, by providing such relentlessly exploded views. In this regard, the opening lines of Jorie Graham's “Erosion” are most instructive:
I would not want, I think, a higher intelligence, one simultaneous, cut clean of sequence. No, it is our slowness I love, growing slower, tapping the paintbrush against the visible, tapping the mind.(6)
When mechanisms are exteriorized, bowels butterflied, and anatomies flayed, nothing can be presumed usual anymore. Baker describes his goal in this way: “I mean, what you really want to be is strange. Because that feeling of strangeness is delightful. There's a hundred ways that I could make you feel uncomfortable. But there's only one or two or three ways that I could make you feel at ease. The whole premise of conceptual art—that you've got to make the viewer kind of worried—doesn't seem very convincing to me. I want the reader to be happy. At some basic level, I want to be writing entertainment.”7
Novelist Steven Millhauser, a fellow traveler of sorts when it comes to concentrated mystery and compressed obsessions, provides a more accurate term in his assessment of the miniature, which he says “is an attempt to reproduce the universe in graspable form. It represents a desire to possess the world more completely, to banish the unknown and the unseen. We are teased out of the world of terror and death, and under the enchantment of the miniature we are invited to become God.”8 Millhauser opposes the charms of the miniature with the awesomeness of the gigantic, which is intimidating because there is “something lush, profuse, unstoppable” about it.9 While Baker's fiction definitely has more in common with the patiently, ornately furnished company of the miniature, as Millhauser uses the term, than it does with the spartan decor of the minimalist, it seems to contradict the idea that reduction of scope affords godlike control. In fact, it could be argued that Baker's dilations prove the ungraspability of this world regardless of the size of the grafts that are taken from it. The puzzle is further considered in Millhauser's Martin Dressler, a novel in which the hero chafes at every constraint, not excluding the accomplishment of a given vision: both giganticism and miniaturization, which equally tend toward “obsessive elaboration,” betray “a yearning for the exhaustive, which was the secret malady of the age.”10 The Baker narrator is a similarly inverted Horatio Alger. Nevertheless, instead of finding refuge in the miniature because the world is too much with him, he is excited to discover that wherever he hunkers down there is too much world. The revelation is not terrifying but compelling, wonderful.
Baker's delightful, astonishing sensitivity to subtle textures accounts for only part of his reputation. Probably the majority of Baker's following—certainly the greater share of the public awareness he has inspired—is due to his uniquely academic twist on the erotic novel, as demonstrated in Vox (1992) and The Fermata (1994). For some, these ventures are aberrations in a promising literary career, or worse, blatant (and, it turns out, successful) plays for bestsellerdom by an eccentric writer otherwise restricted to coterie tastes. Certainly these novels have not been uniformly appreciated by reviewers, several of whom have chastised Baker for chauvinism or sheer vulgarity. However, it seems that the connection between the passion for intricate detail in the first two novels and the intricately detailed passions of the next two does not really represent a departure after all. Voyeurism is a natural extension of other obsessive attentions; whatever the controversies occasioned by the explicit dialogues in Vox and the even more explicit sexual activities in The Fermata, the decision to embody the intrigue of specificity in the bodies of women does seem consistent with the way Baker loves to linger in the earlier works. True, the method may be pornographic by definition, its pleasures being at the expense of the “thingification” of women by an author who rather prides himself on breathing life into things. On the other hand, the reader may remember the argument of William Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, that quintessentially metafictional erotic text, which equates the talents and dedicated observances of the assiduous reader with those of the good lover. This brand of allegiance is frequently given its due in Baker's writings, as is seen, for instance, in the homage-within-a-homage in U and I: A True Story (1991), when Baker's admiration for (and envy) of John Updike leads him to defend narrative “cloggers”—swollen descriptions that interrupt, reroute, or even displace, the horizontal flow of a given story:
The only thing I like are the clogs—and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling, and I start bending the pliable remainder of the book so that it makes a popping sound, and I pick off the price sticker on the back and then regret doing so and stick it back on because it is a piece of information I will always want to have (a delight, as Updike memorably says of picking at a psoriasis lesion, thereby capturing a whole world of furtiveness we would otherwise not know about, that “must be experienced to be forgiven”). I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers; the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked-for seepage- points of passage.11
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether one can imagine a piece of information that Baker would not want to have, the reader can recognize in this reversal of ranks between central plot and accompanying description a consistent aesthetic. It is as though the caddy were taking the strokes while the golfer lugged the clubs. Or, to return specifically to Baker's sex-obsessed novels, it is as though foreplay were the play itself and not just the mandatory preface. Art for art's sake lies at the heart of the style, subject matter, scholastic disposition, and comic outlook of Nicholson Baker.
Baker is also a brilliant essayist, and here, too, the encyclopedic resolve of the novels is clearly operating. The Size of Thoughts not only delivers several versions of author's creeds, focusing on industry's unsung convergences with daily life, it is also replete with hymns to gadgetry, confection, and the minute architecture upon which people obliviously rely. If many of his subjects are sturdy components of today's lifestyle—modest contributors which Baker has stand for the honor they deserve—others (like the library card catalogue) are threatened with obsolescence, and eulogies evolve into efforts to restore their status. This is not to say that Baker is a Luddite grumbling about the displacement of pure artisanship by soulless products of the factory. Quite the contrary, he celebrates with exacting sympathy the technological pastoral thriving everywhere in the vicinity.
How things work, how things got there, what constitutes human musings and sensations, and any number of “those shaky curved lines … from A to Z” from which awareness is drafted12—Baker is consumed with fundamentals. From arriving at a drugstore, to getting the baby to sleep, to reaching orgasm, to rooting out the legacy of a plastic bottle or a bit of slang, he means to revise the very nature of literary adventure.
A WRITER IN THE MAKING
Nicholson Baker was born on 7 January 1957, in Rochester, New York, to parents who had met as art students at Parsons School of Design: Douglas Baker, an advertising executive, and Ann (Nicholson) Baker. Evidently the analytical preoccupations of the author of The Mezzanine hark back to childhood, when Baker typically busied himself with applying personal modifications to model planes and cars; he claims to remember wanting to become an inventor when he grew up. His interest in the arts was encouraged by his mother, who would set him such tasks as drawing the interior of a pillow, and his father, who would accept suggestions from his son for his advertising campaigns. In school, Baker was attracted to music. Taking up the bassoon in fourth grade, Baker grew proficient enough to enroll at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in 1974 with his sights set on composition. He even performed for a short time as a substitute bassoonist for the Rochester Philharmonic. Music has remained an important concern in his writing, its prominence obvious in the titles The Fermata and “Playing Trombone,” as well as in some of the amiable digressions of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature.
After a year at Eastman, Baker moved on to Haverford College, where he received his B.A. in English in 1980. The switch from music to literature derived from several subtle inspirations, including Baker's longstanding appreciation of the physical pleasure of books (commented upon by Baker in “Books as Furniture,” among other locations), the rewarding sense of books as repositories of information, and the growing belief, discussed in U and I, that “nothing is more impressive than the sight of a complex person suddenly ripping out a laugh over some words in a serious book or periodical. … I began increasingly to want to be a part of the prosperous-seeming world of books (prosperous in contrast, that is, to the grant-dependent and sparsely attended concerts for living composers, whose ranks I had up until then wanted to join), where there was money for screaming full-page ads and where success was quantified as it was on the Billboard charts.”13
Briefly held jobs as a Wall Street oil analyst and a stock broker—“I got very fired up about kind of mystical notions about markets and trading and everything. It was unlike anything I'd grown up with”14—preceded his moving to Berkeley, California, to live with Margaret Brentano, whom he would marry in 1985, and her parents. A writing workshop with Donald Barthelme at Berkeley helped to strengthen and validate this decision, as would initial publications in toney outlets like the Atlantic and the New Yorker. However, it would be some time before Baker would find his singular voice. After moving to Boston, he worked as a word processor (a job title whose resonance with his fictional eccentricities he would jokingly allude to in The Size of Thoughts) and a technical writer (a job shared by the narrator of Room Temperature), before devoting himself to writing full time by 1987.
The breakthrough came when, in a realization comparable to John Hawkes's infamous dictum about how the conventional components of narrative were in fact the enemies of true fiction, Baker figured that he would dispense with plot altogether: “But I'd start writing, and if the plot were, say, a foot long, I'd find I'd covered an eighth of an inch. So I got rid of the plot,” he told Harry Ritchie in the London Sunday Times. “I felt enormous relief that I didn't have to pretend to do something that didn't interest me.”15 From this conviction grew The Mezzanine, a book sustained almost solely by the hyperactive ruminations and ultramagnified examinations of a man on his way during his lunch hour to purchase new shoelaces. The combination of omnivorous concern, droll humor, and metaphorical richness characterized a technique that was in itself the most memorable event he had to offer. By 1990, with the completion of his second novel, Baker was well on his way to becoming known as one of the most intellectually satisfying stylists of his generation, having made, in Lawrence Norfolk's words, “a rapid transition from experimental writer to writer of successful experiments.”16Vox and The Fermata would follow, bringing both more controversial and varied reviews and wide popular success (including profiles in Esquire and Gentleman's Quarterly). As of this writing, Baker lives in Berkeley with his wife and two children.
AFFINITIES AND INFLUENCES
His literary debts and resemblances are a matter of considerable self-consciousness to Nicholson Baker. This is hardly surprising, given his dedication of an entire book to his worshipful speculation about (or jealous obsession with, or imaginative stalking of) John Updike. When it comes to models, Baker says, “every little guy like me has to be constantly doing this measuring process and comparing. When an interviewer asks you what was important to you when you were learning to write, what were the texts, you're tempted to come up with people like Henry de Montherlant or the Brothers Goncourt. You don't want to say John Updike because he's commonplace and familiar and it's not exciting. It felt excitingly provocative to write a book about commonplace, familiar John Updike.”17 In an on-line interview with Alexander Laurence and David Strauss, Baker also added the following list of writers he likes: “There's Allan Hollinghurst, a gay novelist. I like Samuel Johnson. I like certain poets: Howard Moss, Stanley Kunitz. I'm reading Ronald Firbank right now. Flann O'Brien. I'm a terrible reader. Usually if I actually get to a point of reading a book, there's enough stuff that I'll like. I buy novels for the cover. Beautiful covers are like buying candy.”18 While he suspects that “imitation is a kind of theft” rather than a form of flattery, Baker acknowledges that “the great enterprise of literature doesn't move forward unless each writer profits from all the different tiny discoveries made by all of his or her predecessors.”19 Clearly, Baker's writings may readily be categorized with John Updike's lyrical mannerisms and exaltation of the everyday; their shared interest in contemporary sexual mores and their poetic potential is another obvious point of comparison.
Donald Barthelme, by virtue of his wit and insatiable appetite for cultural debris, is another connection; indeed, before “digressing” into the fascination with Updike that will come to dominate the book, U and I opens with the narrator's decision to write a critical appreciation of Barthelme in the wake of his recent death. That book provides a grab bag of literary influences, ranging from the canonical to the pop cultural, which the narrator imagines providing in response to future interviews: “The Tailor of Gloucester, Harold Nicolson, Richard Pryor, Seuss's If I Ran the Circus, Edmund Burke, Nabokov, Boswell, Tintin, Iris Murdoch, Hopkins, Michael Polanyi, Henry and William James, John Candy, you know, the usual crowd” (67). One could add Proust to the stew, as well as the effervescent excesses of Stanley Elkin, who makes what he refers to in Boswell as “an ethic of filled drawers”;20 Frederick Exley, who will also be noted in U and I for his ruthlessly funny confessional fictions A Fan's Notes and Pages from a Cold Island; progressive rock groups like Talking Heads; and, it would be fair to say, the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Any assessment of the achievement of Nicholson Baker must necessarily be a work in progress, for it traces the arc of an ongoing career, but his critical impact and popular appeal indicate a lasting presence. Yet in spite of the inventiveness and unpredictability of his writings to date, Baker has already crafted a signature style, which unites a jeweler's intensity of focus, a forensic scientist's ferocity for detail, a monk's humble delight in private discipline, and a satirist's sensitivity to oddities and errors. Best of all, despite the width and depth of his learning, Baker is not the starched, dry lecturer who sacrifices interest for information. It is useful to think of him as a sensual lexicographer or as an archaeologist foraging at the cellular level of contemporary culture. He is as alive to nuance and the pleasure principle as anyone writing today. There may be a handful of contemporary American novelists of his generation, including Richard Powers or William T. Vollman, who can compete with his intellectual wattage, but the great swaths they cut cannot be mistaken for Baker's swift, intricate incisions.
Baker's fictions and essays plumb the inner configurations to deliver itemized awe. While the assault of the culture's ephemeral spectacles goes on, conditioning viewers with brief blurs of fame, news flashes, and instant gratifications, Nicholson Baker slows sensation down. Wherever his attentions descend, they return unexpected, and unexpectedly precious, dividends.
Thomas Mallon, “The Fabulous Baker Boy,” Gentleman's Quarterly May 1996, 82.
Nicholson Baker, quoted in “Lifting Up the Madonna,” interview with Laura Miller, Salon 10 (23 March-5 April 1996), on-line, Internet (www.salon1999.com/10/bookfront/salon.html), n.p.
Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things (New York: Knopf, 1993), ix.
James Kaplan, “Hot Vox,” Vanity Fair January 1992, 120, 121.
David Shields, “Ludd's Labors Lost,” Voice Literary Supplement May 1996, 8.
Jorie Graham, “Erosion,” Erosion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), 56.
Nicholson Baker, quoted in Kaplan, “Hot Vox,” 125.
Steven Millhauser, “The Fascination of the Miniature,” Grand Street Summer 1983, 135.
Millhauser, “The Fascination of the Miniature,” 129.
Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (New York: Crown, 1996), 275.
Nicholson Baker, U and I: A True Story (New York: Random House, 1991), 73.
Nicholson Baker, “Exchange: Pennies for Thoughts,” Atlantic April 1991, 20.
Baker, U and I, 28.
Baker, quoted in Kaplan, “Hot Vox,” 121.
Nicholson Baker, quoted in interview with Michelle M. Motowski, “Nicholson Baker,” Contemporary Authors 135 (1992): 21.
Lawrence Norfolk, “Hymn to the Happy Medium,” rev. of Room Temperature, Times Literary Supplement 27 April 1990, 456.
Nicholson Baker, quoted in “Lifting Up the Madonna.”
Nicholson Baker, quoted in interview with Alexander Laurence and David Strauss, Alternative-X (1994), on-line, Internet (www.alt-x.com/interviews/nicholson.baker.html).
See Peter Evans, Tiny Curlicues: Nicholson Baker's “Room Temperature,” Bulletin of Faculty of Letters, no. 37 (Ichigaya, Japan: Hosei University, 1991) which delineates the tributes to Nabokov's love of arcane studies and diction (16-20).
Stanley Elkin, Boswell (New York: Random House, 1964), 203.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877
SOURCE: Kniffel, Leonard. “Nicholson Baker Returns in Prose and Prank.” American Libraries 32, no. 4 (April 2001): 28-9.
[In the following essay, Kniffel discusses Double Fold and Baker's efforts to preserve historical newspaper collections from destruction.]
Author and activist Nicholson Baker has again taken aim at library preservation practices—twice. Once for real, in a new book, and once as the butt of a hoax perpetrated by someone he calls “a misguided supporter.”
Baker's new book, Double Fold, published this month by Random House, is a scathing assessment of the state of newspaper and book preservation. He is incensed by libraries' rush to embrace space-saving technology at the expense of unique print originals and particularly by the wanton discarding of newspapers after they have been microfilmed, based on an exaggeration of their fragility.
“Libraries that receive public money should as a condition of funding be required to publish monthly lists of discards on their websites, so that the public has some way of determining which of them are acting responsibly on behalf of their collections,” says the author, whose book brings together his findings since 1993, when he began researching an article that was published in The New Yorker in April 1994, criticizing the destruction of library card catalogs after the installation of electronic catalogs. The controversial article led to Baker's involvement with the San Francisco Public Library, where he protested the discarding of books to a landfill.
The Library of Congress should lease or build a large building near Washington, where it should store everything that is sent to it by publishers, Baker suggests in the new book. And if LC won't do it, Congress should designate and fund another archive that will. He also suggests that several libraries around the country should be saving the nation's newspaper output in bound form and that the National Endowment for the Humanities should either abolish the U.S. Newspaper Program and the Brittle Books Program entirely or require as a condition of funding that all microfilming and digital scanning be nondestructive and all originals be saved afterwards.
UNIQUE TREASURE MUST BE PRESERVED
Double Fold chronicles Baker's efforts to save the bound foreign-newspaper holdings of the British Library, defying the conventional wisdom that “if a newspaper was printed after 1870 or so, it will inevitably self-destruct or ‘turn to dust’ any minute. …” His solution to that dilemma was to liquidate a retirement account, buy the newspapers himself for about ＄175,000, and establish the American Newspaper Repository in an old mill in Rollinsford, New Hampshire.
“It is really a thrill to open these volumes,” Baker told American Libraries, “Everyone who sees these newspapers, the men who unloaded them from the truck, looks at them and knows they are priceless.” He said student volunteers have sorted 90٪ of the collection, but ＄30,000 still has to be raised annually, just for the rent. Labor is all volunteer. Shelves will cost another ＄12,000, and “in order to save other collections that libraries might want to sell to dealers we will need more than that,” Baker said. “This is an enormous job and not something a private citizen should have to do, but I am willing to do it since the institutions we formed to do this task do not seem interested.”
Among the newspapers deaccessioned by the British Library are a complete run of the New York World—“the most important paper in U.S. history,” and the only complete run left in the world, according to Baker, “in impeccable condition.” The repository's run of the New York Times is better than even the New York Public Library's, which “has enormous gaps.”
LUDD LIBRARY HOAX
In March, reports began to circulate that Baker had formed the Ludd (as in Luddite) Library Foundation to raise ＄20 million and build a library in San Francisco free of computers. A bogus news release claimed to quote Baker as saying, “Public libraries have emphasized gimmickry at the expense of books and reading,” and noting that the Ludd Library would be served by “real librarians” and a card catalog in a “quiet environment free of computers and computer games.”
Baker said he traced the hoax to Joe Schallan, a reference librarian in Arizona, who told American Libraries, “That was a spoof, and I regret ever posting it to Publib [electronic discussion list]. I thought it was so over-the-top that no one would take it seriously. Wrong!”
“I was trying to use a little humor to make a point about libraries having drifted away from their mission,” Schallan said. “The willingness of so many to take it seriously is psychologically interesting, though. It's as if deep down in the soul of every librarian is the realization that in our rush to be hip, ‘give 'em what they want’ infotainment centers, we may have lost our way.”
Baker told AL, “I'm amused by the implication that I'm some kind of wealthy dude who with a few pals can come up with seed money for a ＄20-million fundraising campaign. But when he made up quotes and attributed them to me, and then made up the high-toned-sounding, fictional ‘Lucia Ashton’ as press contact, with phone number, he crossed the line.”
Lucia Ashton is the heroine of Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and when you dial her number the phone just rings and rings.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6156
SOURCE: Darnton, Robert. “The Great Book Massacre.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 7 (26 April 2001): 16-19.
[In the following review, Darnton offers a generally favorable assessment of Double Fold, though finds shortcomings in Baker's rhetorical exaggerations and his view of historical sources.]
When journalists discuss their craft, they invoke contradictory clichés: “Today's newspaper is the first draft of history,” and “Nothing is more dead than yesterday's newspaper.” Both in a way are true. News feeds history with facts, yet most of it is forgotten. Suppose newspapers disappeared from libraries: Would history vanish from the collective memory? That is the disaster that Nicholson Baker denounces in his latest book [Double Fold], a J'accuse pointed at the library profession.
Librarians have purged their shelves of newspapers, he argues, because they are driven by a misguided obsession with saving space. And they have deluded themselves into believing that nothing has been lost, because they have replaced the papers with microfilm. The microfilm, however, is inadequate, incomplete, faulty, and frequently illegible. Worse, it was never needed in the first place, because contrary to another common delusion, the papers were not disintegrating on the shelves. Despite their chemistry—acids working on wood pulp in paper manufactured after 1870—they have held up very well. And now the paper massacre has spread to books. They, too, are being sold off, thrown away, and hideously damaged in hare-brained experiments aimed at preserving them. The custodians of our culture are destroying it.
As jeremiads go, this is an odd one. Wickedness has provided material for lamentation in America since the days of the Puritans. But instead of ranting against the whore of Babylon, Baker aims his indignation at Marion the librarian—not, of course, the small-time, small-town keepers of books, but their high-minded, high-flying superiors: Patricia Battin, for example, formerly the librarian of Columbia University, who led the “assault on paper” from the Commission on Preservation and Access and received an award from President Clinton in 1999 for “saving history.” Baker indicts her for destroying history and makes her into one of the chief villains of his book. The others come from foundations (Ford, Mellon), research libraries (Yale, Chicago), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and above all the Library of Congress.
They make a strange cast of characters: butchers of books from the unlikely world of libraries. Baker describes them as civil, cultivated, and generally genial—the unassuming types you would expect to encounter behind old oak desks in book-lined studies. Making the most of his novelist's touch, he introduces each character with telling bits of description. They wear “quiet silk scarves,” bow ties, and understated suits. They gaze out at you from beneath “wise-looking eyebrows” and “cheerfully bald” foreheads or through “large, rectilinear glasses similar to those Joyce Carol Oates used to wear in pictures.” Such gentle souls could not possibly be vandals, you tell yourself. And that response puts you under the spell of Baker's rhetoric, because he tries to show that the barbarians are not at the gate: they are already in the temple, destroying its treasures and doing so all the more effectively because they pad about in sensible shoes and tweed.
The rhetoric fuels the argument, but what is the argument itself, stripped down to a set of propositions? It goes as follows:
1. Paper holds up well, even the cheapest paper made for pulp fiction from pulped wood according to the manufacturing processes developed after 1850. Baker goes over the chemistry of acidification, conceding minor points: paper with a low pH tends to be weaker than less acidic paper, and newspapers laced with alum-rosin will turn yellow if overexposed to light. But he carries his main point: despite prophecies of doom, paper made in the late nineteenth century has not disintegrated; it can be read today without undergoing damage, and there is no reason to believe that it will not last another hundred years.
2. Microfilm is not an adequate substitute for paper. Its chemistry is worse. Frames that were supposed to last forever have developed blemishes and bubbles. They have faded into illegibility. They have torn and shrunk and sprouted fungi and emitted foul odors and melted together on the spool into solid lumps of cellulose. Microfilmed runs of newspapers often contain gaps where the technicians skipped pages or failed to adjust the focus. The work has been so botched that librarians have proclaimed sets to be “complete” if they lack 6 percent of their issues. And the sets are hideously expensive—about ＄150 a volume. During the first wave of “preservation” through microfilming, the State Library of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia stripped their shelves of complete runs of The Philadelphia Inquirer. A set on microfilm now costs ＄621,515.
Reading microfilms is hell. Hours spent cranking blurry images under a hot light and staring at a screen can turn you off research and even turn your stomach. Baker reports that a microfilm reader in the Archives of Ontario had an air-sickness bag attached to it. Sickening or not, microfilmed copies of newspapers are all we have in many cases, and they are often incomplete. Entire years are missing from important newspapers, and there are no complete sets of the originals anywhere in existence, because librarians have got rid of them. Baker puts it polemically: “A million people a day once read Pulitzer's World; now an original set is a good deal rarer than a Shakespeare First Folio or the Gutenberg Bible.” Baker is polemical, but he is right.
3. Librarians crave space. To them, space, like time, is money; and money is scarce, because their budgets are beleaguered. Yet the newspapers and books continue to pour in, their output growing inexorably year after year. Marion feels like the sorcerer's apprentice. How can she stop the flood? Find the shelving? Fund extensions and annexes? The obvious answer is miniaturization: replace tomes with microtexts, throw away the originals, and expand the library's holdings while keeping its shelf space constant. Baker shows how this notion captured the imagination of the country's leading librarians and led to the stripping of shelves—“deaccessioning” in the sanitized jargon of library science. He makes the point effectively, quoting from speeches, memos, and professional journals. But then he goes further.
4. The obsession with space degenerated into an “ideology.” Driven by the “fear of demon Growth,” key librarians have “demonized old paper.” They hate the stuff and want to get rid of it at all costs—costs so high that they could trigger a revolt of taxpayers, to say nothing of book lovers. To fend off this danger, the nation's leading librarians have spread a panic about the self-destructive quality of paper and then promoted technologies for destroying it in the name of preservation. Here, I think, Baker stretches his argument beyond believability. Instead of providing a credible explanation of what drove librarians to strip shelves, he makes them into villains and does some demonizing of his own—covered up with details about quiet scarves and bow ties. Nonetheless, he carries a crucial point:
5. Preservation meant destruction. Not always, of course. Some institutions, like the Boston Public Library, never harmed their collections. Some, like the New York Public Library, retained some sets of newspapers after microfilming them. But the Library of Congress took the lead in a book and newspaper massacre of staggering proportions. In order to microfilm works printed after 1870, the Library adopted a policy of “disbinding” them—that is, splitting them down their spines so they could be splayed open and photographed efficiently. Although it can be saved, an unbound volume, especially of old newspapers, generally gets trashed. If they don't throw them away, libraries sell them off, often at absurdly low prices, and they find buyers—not, as a rule, among readers who would save the work but among businessmen intent on destroying it further. Baker talked himself into the warehouse of Historic Newspaper Archives, Inc., a 25,000-square-foot structure in Rahway, New Jersey, crammed with newspapers, which are cut apart and shipped out to people who want a memento of their birthday or some other event. He found a monumental set of the New York Herald Tribune in very good condition, which, he surmises, had been given for safekeeping to a library by the Trib's owner, Mrs. Ogden Reid. It was being gutted for souvenirs, and Baker managed to buy two weeks of 1934 for ＄300.
6. The destruction was unnecessary. From 1957, the Council on Library Resources, founded by Verner Clapp, the second in command at the Library of Congress, sponsored experiments to determine the longevity of wood-pulp paper. The experimenters stripped paper out of books printed between 1900 and 1950 and attempted to age it artificially by folding it back and forth in a specially designed machine. After ten years and 500 ruined books, they concluded that most printed matter from the first half of the twentieth century would not make it to the year 2000. The anticipated body count came to 1.75 billion pages, more than enough to spread panic among the keepers of the country's research libraries.
In order to estimate the mortality rate in their own collections, the librarians used a simplified version of the paper test: they folded a corner back and forth through a 180-degree are on each side of a leaf. If the paper tore after two or three double folds—accompanied at times with some gentle tugging—it was considered to be doomed and scheduled to be replaced by microfilm before it disintegrated on the shelf. Librarians and student helpers folded their way through 36,500 volumes at Yale. Their conclusion: 1.3 million volumes would self-destruct before the twenty-first century. Yale adopted a “slash and burn” policy of microfilming, which eliminated half the books in its great collection of American history. Those books would be there today had the librarians not fallen for the double-fold fashion, because double-folding creates creases that tear, whereas reading involves nothing more than turning pages. Pages that would flunk the double-fold test can be read hundreds of times without any damage. Books that should have disintegrated long ago, according to the most advanced library science, are still doing very nicely—except for those that the librarians destroyed in order to preserve them.
7. The destruction was brutal. Microfilming can be done without harming volumes, by placing them in cradles and adjusting the camera to the appropriate angle. However, that procedure takes time, and preservationists have been in such a hurry to save books and newspapers from their misdiagnosed deaths that they have killed them by “guillotining”—that is, by slicing them down their spines so that the unbound pages could be photographed rapidly lying flat. Once dismembered, most of them were pulped.
The experts at the Library of Congress and the Council on Library Resources have also guillotined books in order to experiment with techniques for deacidifying paper. Their most spectacular experiments involved a substance known as DEZ, or diethyl zinc. Potentially, DEZ could destroy acidity by creating an “alkaline buffer” in the fibers of the paper, but it has an unfortunate side effect: it bursts into flames on contact with air and explodes if exposed to water. Although it works better in bombs and missiles than in books, the library's experimenters used it as the key ingredient in a facility intended to deacidify a million books a year. In fact, as Baker remarks, they designed “a large fuel-air bomb that happened to contain books.” Sure enough, it exploded in trial runs conducted by NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1985 and 1986. Further experiments produced further disasters, until, thousands of books and millions of dollars later, the program was abandoned.
Meanwhile, however, the preservationists devised other experiments, including a million-dollar project to force rats to inhale zinc oxide dust in order to prove that deacidified books could be sniffed without harm. Together with the microfilmers, deaccessioners, and demolition crews, they razored, guillotined, chainsawed, pickled, gassed, baked, burned, and dissolved vast quantities of printed matter. Baker may overdo the anthropomorphic verbs and slant the technical descriptions in a way that makes librarians look like mad scientists. But he produces enough hard evidence to make a book lover's skin crawl.
8. The destruction was expensive. Baker comes up with plenty of examples of books and newspapers that were discarded or sold at derisive prices by libraries and then sold again for hefty sums by dealers. He also documents instances where it cost more to buy the microfilm of a book than the original. And after citing case after case of expensive solutions to misconceived problems, he proposes a relatively cheap and simple solution of his own: store the originals in air-conditioned warehouses, where they will last indefinitely. Short of that, do nothing: “Leave the books alone, I say, leave them alone, leave them alone.” But the librarians preferred to spend vast sums in order to comply with the orthodoxy of their profession: microfilm and discard. What was the cost? Baker estimates that American libraries got rid of 975,000 books worth ＄39 million. The economics of the whole business seems as wacky as the science.
The cultural loss cannot be estimated. Libraries usually began to strip their shelves of newspapers with issues dating from 1870 onward—that is, beginning at the time when the mass circulation dailies began to develop. By the end of the century, thanks to cheap paper, Linotype, and high-powered printing, the newspapers of Pulitzer, Hearst, and other press barons had become a major force in American life. They brought us more than the Spanish-American War. They shaped the emergence of mass culture, consumerism, professional sports, and great stretches of American literature—produced in large part by reporters turned novelists. How can historians study those subjects without reading daily newspapers? But how can they read the newspapers, if they have disappeared? Microfilm will not do, not only because it is riddled with faults and gaps but also because it fails to convey the texture of the printed page—the way headlines, layout, touches of color, and the tactile qualities of broadsheet and tabloid orient the reader and guide the eye through meaningful patches of print, not to mention the cartoons, comics, and photographs that can be as revealing as print. According to an advertisement of University Microfilms, the stripping of newspapers from libraries was “our own slum clearance program.” Baker comes closer to the truth: “This country has strip-mined a hundred and twenty years of its history.”
9. The librarians may have had good intentions, but they acted in bad faith. Having convinced themselves that they were running out of space and that microfilming was the answer, they concocted a false crisis in order to clear their shelves. The books, they said, were burning. They used other expressions: dissolving, rotting, crumbling. “Turning to dust” was a favorite metaphor, served up with the adverb “literally” to mean that some kind of chemical combustion was consuming the books as they stood on the shelves. What kind? None of the paper scientists produced an accurate analysis.
No one found a single smoldering volume or ashes or evidence of any kind. No matter: Slow Fires, a documentary horror film commissioned by the Council on Library Resources, spread the false notion of combustibility; and false consciousness spread through the ranks of librarians, heightened by hype from their leaders, such as Patricia Battin: “80٪ of the materials in our libraries are published on acid paper and will inevitably crumble. The Library of Congress alone reports that 77,000 volumes in its collections move each year from the ‘endangered’ state to brittleness and thence to crumbs.” After sufficient citation, the figure of 77,000 (or in some versions 70,000) crumbling volumes hardened into solid fact, accompanied by other firm bits of library pseudo-science: collections doubled every sixteen years; 3.3 million volumes will disintegrate within twenty years; and it will cost ＄358 million to rescue them by microfilming, although the expense will actually be a saving, because it will create the possibility of freeing shelf space by getting rid of 16.5 million duplicates scattered needlessly around the country.
These nine propositions add up to a terrible indictment of a venerable profession. Are there no arguments for the defense? Instead of going over them impartially, Baker gives full vent to what he calls his “prosecutorial urge.” He stacks the evidence in his favor, not by distorting it but by rhetorical devices, such as putting quotations out of context and splicing comments into them. In recounting an interview with Patricia Battin, for example, he intersperses her remarks with those of other people, which seem to refute them, and with refutations of his own. At one point, he has her tell him, “I don't think that saving space was the issue.” Then he quotes an article by one of her fellow librarians at Columbia: “Think about space costs. …” He links that quotation with an inflammatory remark about book crumbling from another passage in the same article: “The central stacks of all major libraries will soon be condemned as unsanitary landfill—the world's intellectual garbage dumps.” Then he switches back to Battin: “And yet to me she said, in the sincerest possible voice, ‘I don't think it's your librarians that have ever tried to miniaturize in order to save space.’” Decontextualization of this kind produces guilt by association.
Producing guilt is the object of the prosecutorial urge; but in his determination to damn some of the country's most eminent librarians, Baker sometimes overstates his case. Space is a serious problem for librarians, not one that they attempt to conjure away by “demonization” or by giving free rein to some psychic loathing of paper. Paper can be fragile. Books are often damaged. Microfilming does preserve at least some of the historical record, even if it cannot be an adequate substitute for the original works. Libraries no longer guillotine books in order to microfilm them, and they no longer throw away the originals. Most of Baker's horror stories date from an era that has passed, leaving a trail of destruction, to be sure, but also a reaction against its misguided policies. After some scandals about the loss of precious books, the New York Public Library committed itself to a strong stand against deaccessioning; and other libraries have followed suit. Not that the danger has disappeared. Baker rightly warns that the enthusiasm for digitizing could produce another purge of paper. But he lavishes most of his indignation on practices that have been abandoned—with one notable exception.
In April 1999, Baker read a suspiciously understated announcement by the British Library that it was getting rid of American newspapers printed after 1850—the greatest collection in the world, because it included full runs of the most important dailies, which by then had disappeared from the shelves of American libraries. They were to be replaced by the faulty microfilms that had caused the devastation in the first place, and they were to be auctioned off or pulped. The auction seemed certain to be dominated by speculators who would buy them up at trivial prices in order to cut them apart and sell them off as souvenirs.
As soon as he got wind of this impending disaster, Baker tried to prevent it. He implored the British Library to reverse its policy, to give the newspapers to some institution that would preserve them, to accept a “preservation bid,” or at least to delay the auction so that he and other bibliophiles could mount a rescue operation. But the library would not listen. In October 1999, it sold the collection off, in large part to the speculators. A priceless treasure was squandered, a public trust betrayed, and only a small proportion of the collection survived, because Baker himself bought it, after cashing in his savings and forming a not-for-profit corporation with the help of a few foundations. Complete, uncrumbled runs of the World, the Herald Tribune, and other great dailies now sit safely in a storage facility that Baker constructed near his house in Maine. “Sometimes I'm a little stunned to think that I've become a newspaper librarian, more or less, and have the job of watching over this majestic, pulp-begotten ancestral stockpile,” he concluded. It's a great story, told with zest and humor: Don Quixote tilting against the British Library and winning at least one round. But how does it stand up as history?
Excerpts from Baker's book giving a short version of his argument originally appeared in The New Yorker. This worked well as investigative journalism, but the book-length version raises the problem of blending reportage into a general account of library stewardship since World War II. The result is not conventional history. The text does not follow a chronological order or any clear organizational pattern at all. Instead, it consists of vignettes, brief, brilliant essays strung together in a way that is intended to stun the reader and stoke the indignation as one bizarre episode follows another.
Implicit in it all, however, is an argument about institutional change, which can be summarized as follows: In 1944, an influential librarian named Fremont Rider propounded a “natural law” of library growth. It seemed to prove by impressive mathematical formulas that America's libraries were hurtling into a spectacular space crisis. The only solution, according to Rider, lay in the technology developed by the Office of Strategic Services during World War II: books could be replaced by microcards or some other product of miniaturization. Verner Clapp, the number-two man at the Library of Congress, took up the cause and proselytized from the Council on Library Resources, where he became director in 1956. During more than thirty years at the summit of the library world, Clapp promoted experiments in “preservation” that led to the microfilming and loss of millions of newspapers and books. From 1968 to 1984, the Preservation Microfilming Office of the Library of Congress filmed ninety-three million pages and “threw out more than ten million dollars' worth of public property.”
It took some effort, however, to wean other librarians away from the notion that preservation meant keeping books. So Clapp's successor at the council, Warren Haas, mounted a PR offensive, and he enlisted Patricia Battin, the powerful head librarian at Columbia University, to spread propaganda from the Commission on Preservation and Access. By articles, lectures, colloquia, congressional hearings, Slow Fires, and gossip through grapevines, they spread the word that the country's libraries would turn to dust if the shelves were not purged of paper and filled with film. And they perpetrated the double-fold test, just the thing to justify the librarians' desire to save space by getting rid of books. The microfilming and deaccessioning frenzy came to a climax in the 1980s. But the tide turned around 1994, when Patricia Battin retired from the commission. A reaction set in, led by sensible bibliographers like G. Thomas Tanselle; and the annihilation of the newspapers at the British Library provided a final scandal, which brought the story to a close in 1999.
As stories go, it is surprisingly simple. Misguided zealots misdiagnosed a problem, and produced a national catastrophe by spreading misinformation. The disparity between cause and effect cries out for explanation. What fundamentally was at work in the process—sheer stupidity? flaws in institutions? the influence of one or two powerful personalities and the appeal of a few striking ideas? Questions of that sort differentiate history from most journalism. Baker does not ask them; he merely points his finger at the guilty parties. But there is an interpretation implicit in the finger-pointing.
A surprising number of the villains in the plot turn out to have had some connection with the CIA, Operations Research, missile defense, the Pentagon, or a branch of the military-industrial complex. Baker emphasizes that the obsession with microfilming developed, like the CIA itself, from the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Verner Clapp spread it from the Library of Congress while secretly working as “a consultant for the CIA,” and the line of consultants leads right up to the present librarian, James Billington, whose earlier CIA connection is flagged in a long and rather irrelevant endnote. The “war scientists and CIA consultants” were thickest on the ground at the Council on Library Resources—so thick, in fact, that Baker's poker-faced summaries of their c.v.'s suggests a Dr. Strangelove lurking at every water cooler.
His account of the mad experiments with book baking and DEZ conjures up something nastier—systematic annihilation, or what he calls “destroying to preserve.” A quotation from The Washington Post evokes the same associations: “Must the Library of Congress Destroy Books to Save Them?” The reader cannot help but think of the most haunting remark from the Vietnam War: “It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” And the chain of associations turns still darker, when Baker talks about “putting old books in gas chambers.” Here the argument by innuendo has got out of hand. The librarians did not butcher books in the way that the Nazis annihilated people.
Should the librarians also be condemned, as Baker claims, for destroying history? Perhaps, if newspapers really can be counted as history's first draft. Baker seems to adopt this view through the vivid use of metaphor—for example, when he describes a shipment of 4,600 volumes of newspapers including a complete set of the Chicago Tribune as “sixteen pallets, ten tons of major metropolitan history.” But just as microfilms should not be confused with original documents, history should not be equated with its sources. It is an argument from evidence, not the evidence itself.
Had Baker pursued this line of thought, he could have strengthened his case, for newspapers, studied as sources, open up vast possibilities for deepening our understanding of the past. Not that they are transparent windows into a world we have lost, as Baker seems to think. They are collections of stories, written by professionals within the conventions of their craft. But if taken as stories—news stories, a peculiar kind of narrative—they convey the way contemporaries construed events and found some meaning in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world around them.
For many readers today, the front page of The New York Times provides a map of what happened yesterday. They read it as they read a map, for orientation—usually from right to left, or from the lead story to the off lead, following clues from headlines, pausing over pictures, wandering below the fold or into interior pages, according to suggestions from layout and typography. The editors of the Times take those anticipated reactions into account when they design page one every day at their 4:30 PM conference. An implicit dialogue develops between the producers of the cognitive map and the consumers who put it to use. The style of the stories and the conventions of the layout change over time, suggesting subtle shifts in ways of viewing the world—nothing that can be pinned down with precision but something that undergirds experience and that historians need to understand. They can never reach an adequate understanding if they have to work from microfilm.
To be sure, a history of worldviews requires more than careful reading of original sets of newspapers. Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga showed the way by consulting evidence of everything from table manners and death rituals to forms of speech and styles of dress. Anthropologists have demonstrated how such material can be worked into rigorous reconstructions of attitudes and value systems. But the evidence thins as the anthropologically informed historian attempts to penetrate further back in time. Chapbooks and broadsides were the most popular kind of printed matter in early modern Europe—so popular, in fact, that libraries did not deign to collect them. Historians such as Robert Mandrou have picked through their remains in an effort to reconstruct mentalités collectives, but the result is disappointing. How will historians piece together a picture of American mentality in the Gilded Age if they have no newspapers—real newspapers, full-size and in full color—to consult?
In short, Baker is correct to condemn the deaccessioning of newspapers; and he could have made his case still stronger if he had worked with a more adequate notion of history. His own strength lies in literature, particularly in his ability as a novelist to summon up emotion by descriptive passages of minute, marvelously fashioned detail. If read for its literary qualities, his book succeeds even better than it does as reportage. It belongs, as mentioned, to a peculiar genre, the American jeremiad. But that raises problems, because Americans have been told that the sky is falling, the ocean rising, the earth quaking, the economy recessing, the presidency degrading, and the family disappearing, while the cosmos is running out of time. How can they work up a lather about old newspapers and books? Cows are going mad, whales are being beached, glaciers are melting, forests are burning, species are vanishing, lungs are collapsing, the ozone layer is about to go, and social welfare as we knew it has gone. Why should we get mad at librarians?
In order to whip up indignation, Baker deploys a formidable array of rhetorical devices. He has perfect pitch in his choice of narrative voice. Essentially, he adopts the tone of Innocence Abroad. How did I get into this mess? he asks the reader with false naiveté: “In 1993, I decided to write some essays on trifling topics—movie projectors, fingernail clippers, punctuation, and the history of the word ‘lumber.’” Before we have a chance to ask why Baker should be writing about fingernail clippers, we are swept up in a mad tale about librarians destroying books.
Baker makes us his traveling companion in the strange world of librarianship, nudging us confidentially in the midst of interviews by parenthetical remarks and editorial comments. For example, after showing us a beautiful discarded volume of the Chicago Tribune with the seal of Harvard University and a bookplate proclaiming it to be purchased from the bequest of Ichabod Tucker, class of 1791, he calls up a librarian at Harvard in order to find out whether it was sold off as a duplicate. “Oh, we would never have hard copies going back that far—they just don't keep,” she replies. He then shoots back, not to her but in an aside to us: “They don't keep, kiddo, if you don't keep them.”
The colloquialism and the gotcha mode of quoting makes us complicit with the author and eases our way through esoteric detail about chemical formulas and microphotography. After explaining how scientists devised tests and designed charts to trace a non-phenomenon, the degradation of paper, with mathematical precision, Baker explodes: “This is of course utter horseshit and craziness.” “Right,” we want to say to him. “Right on.”
The esoterica matters, however, because Baker needs to establish his bona fides in the labs and to give the reader a sense of being there—“there” being above all the Library of Congress:
Diethyl zinc (or DEZ, as it's jauntily acronymed) was the active ingredient in a patented technique developed at the Library of Congress in the early seventies. You arrange your acid-beset books in milk crates, spine down, up to five thousand of them at a time, and stack the crates in a ten-foot-high retrofitted space-simulation chamber that bears some resemblance to a railroad tank car; then you shut the round door at the end, suck out the air, and let the miracle DEZ fog creep in.
The description has enough science to make it believable and enough rhetorical spin to bring out the absurdity of the whole process.
Baker uses the same techniques in his novels: microscopic detail, served up straight but with enough disconcerting language to make it hilarious or shocking or merely intimate in a way that increases the bond between author and reader, as in this passage from his 1988 novel, The Mezzanine:
… Sometimes it is more satisfying to wait with your hand on your own pen in your shirt pocket until the end of a story you are being told, and then, nodding and laughing, remove it from your pocket, hearing the click of its clip as it slips off the shirt pocket's fabric and springs against the barrel, followed by a second click as you bare the ballpoint—these two sounds being like the successively more remote clicks that initiate a long-distance call that you come to associate with the voice of the person who will answer—audible even in loud restaurants, because the burble of voices is of a much lower frequency.1
The all-seeing “I” has a very good ear, and in Double Fold it picks up audio clues of the same sort, except now they are faintly sickening. Thus an account of a newspaper butchery run by Timothy Hughes in Williamsport, Pennsylvania:
He is an undemonstrative man with a small mustache, honest in his business dealings, who was formerly on the board of the Little League Museum in South Williamsport. His usual practice is to “disbind” the newspapers—that is, cut them out of their chronological context with a utility knife (you can hear the binding strings pop softly as the blade travels down the inner gutter of the volume)—and sell the eye-catching headline issues (Al Capone, the Lusitania, Bonnie and Clyde, Amelia Earhart) or issues containing primordial Coke ads or Thomas Nast illustrations, shrink-wrapped against white cardboard, at paper shows (where buyers gather to look over vintage postcards, baseball cards, posters, and other ephemera) or through his printed catalog or website.
The long sentences, parenthetical piling up of associations, and direct play on the senses—here the soft “pop” of the binding strings carries the whole passage—mark Baker's variety of virtuoso hyperrealism in reportage as well as fiction. But knifing newspapers in real life is not the same thing as clicking ballpoint pens in novels. It is vandalism. Yet the vandals, as Baker describes them, are a congenial lot, set off by reassuringly small mustaches and professorial bow ties. (Baker seems to have a thing about bow ties. He introduces his chief villain, Verner Clapp, as “polymathic, bow-tie-wearing,” and describes another bad guy, Daniel Boorstin, a former Librarian of Congress, as “a chronic bow-tie-wearer.”) The details make the indictment believable, because Baker does not ascribe evil motives to the villains of the plot. He simply records the disasters produced by their misguided policies. As Innocence Abroad, he seems to take in the entire landscape with trustworthy neutrality. His narrator's “I” is a camera. It sees through everything, and exposes the whole system to be rotten.
Hyperrealism as a morality tale: it is a tour de force and a great read. But is it true? On the whole, I think it is, although it is less innocent than it seems. It should be read as a journalistic jeremiad rather than as a balanced account of library history over the last fifty years. And it also should be read for its policy recommendations. Baker makes four. All deserve support:
1. Libraries that receive public money should as a condition of funding be required to publish monthly lists of discards on their Web sites, so that the public has some way of determining which of them are acting responsibly on behalf of their collections.
2. The Library of Congress should lease or build a large building near Washington, and in it they should put, in call-number order, everything that they are sent by publishers and can't or don't want to hold on site. If the library is unwilling to perform this basic function of a national repository, then Congress should designate and fund some other archive to do the job.
3. Several libraries around the country should begin to save the country's current newspaper output in bound form.
4. The National Endowment for the Humanities should either abolish the US Newspaper Program and the Brittle Books Program entirely, or require as a condition of funding that (1) all microfilming and digital scanning be nondestructive, and (2) all originals be saved afterward.
What of the wonderful runs of newspapers that have disappeared from the library shelves? A few have survived, but most have been lost, irretrievably lost. Unlike bison and forests, they cannot be revived. The moral of the tale stands as a corrective to the lore of the journalists: Nothing is more dead than yesterday's newspaper, except yesterday's destroyed newspaper.
See the excellent essay by Adam Thirlwell, “The Life and Embarrassments of Nicholson Baker, Gentleman,” Areté, Autumn 2000, p. 123.
P.S. The Council on Library and Information Resources, based in Washington, D.C., has just issued a draft report recommending a nationwide effort, backed by Congress, to save original copies of books and newspapers. It also proposes steps to be taken toward a national preservation policy that would include audiovisual and digital materials, which are even more endangered than print on paper. These proposals were discussed at a public meeting in the New York Public Library on March 22. They coincide with some of Nicholson Baker's recommendations and represent a repudiation of the policies that he condemned and that were propagated by the former Council on Library Resources.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3747
SOURCE: Star, Alexander. “The Paper Pusher.” New Republic (28 May 2001): 38-41.
[In the following review, Star compliments Double Fold, but finds flaws in Baker's narrow defense of print artifacts and his failure to consider content value as a criterion for preservation.]
In the opening pages of The Mezzanine, his first novel, Nicholson Baker speculates that the world changed suddenly sometime around 1970. He is referring to the unfortunate moment when “all the major straw vendors switched from paper to plastic straws, and we entered that uncomfortable era of the floating straw.” How did this come about? Presumably the engineers had supposed that because a plastic straw weighed more than a paper straw, it, too, would rest on the bottom of a can. But the engineers were wrong. They had forgotten that paper straws were more porous than their plastic cousins, and therefore “soaked up a little of the Coke as ballast.” As a result of this miscalculation, the “quality of life, through nobody's fault, went down an eighth of a notch, until just last year, I think, when one day I noticed that a plastic straw, made of some subtler polymer, with a colored stripe in it, stood anchored to the bottom of my can!”
This is Nicholson Baker in a nutshell: a squinting attention to the tiniest specifications of everyday life; a half-satirical, half-maniacal expression of outrage; and a certain childish wonder and joy at the way things, in the smallest sense of the term, hold together. In his new book [Double Fold], Baker once again protests the abandonment of paper. This time the scope is larger: he writes as a self-proclaimed “library activist” who has composed a spirited polemic against the errant romance of librarians with technology. Examining the microfilm vogue of past decades, as well as the digitalization boom of today, Baker contends that librarians have too often preferred paper substitutes to the real thing. As a result, they have discarded and destroyed countless books and newspapers and have done irreparable damage to the very artifacts that they are pledged to protect.
A cabal of self-aggrandizing technocrats and philistines has taken the historical record out of circulation and stamped it for destruction. Together with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, the Library of Congress in particular has been responsible for the greatest government-led destruction of books since Henry VIII sacked England's monasteries. And how did this happen? In Baker's view, modern librarians are unaccountably eager to be released from the burden of their possessions. They are mesmerized by the lure of technology and by the ideology of “steady space.” Rather than increase the size of their buildings, they have preferred to decrease the size of their books. If microfilm did not exist, they would have had to invent it.
In fact, microfilm was already being used in the 1870s, when it was employed to send military documents by carrier pigeon during the Franco-Prussian War. By the 1930s, it had become a business: the Recordak company promised libraries that it could replace their crumbling newspapers with tidy rows of boxed microfilm. With World War II, the prestige of the technology increased. University Microfilms received a contract from the Office of Strategic Services to photograph German scientific papers. The government—also reduced and sorted thousands of old postcards showing images of Bavaria or Berlin. When Allied bombers needed to know what a particular bridge or village looked like, they could consult the archives. In 1956, the microfilm revolution began in earnest when the Ford Foundation helped to organize the Council on Library Resources. A coalition of cold war strategists, library bureaucrats, and photo-emulsion entrepreneurs set out to make the world safe for the technologies of miniaturization.
Baker has a great deal of fun with the “grand old men of microfilm,” the patricians and the technocrats who combined an old-fashioned horror of waste with a futurist's enthusiasm for sleek gadgetry. Quite sincerely, they believed that the photographing of written text was as revolutionary an invention as the printing press, and that microfilm rolls would one day be as ubiquitous as eyeglasses or toothbrushes. In the service of this vision, they concocted a number of bizarre schemes that add up to a memorable inventory of technological failure.
Fremont Rider was perhaps the most eccentric of them all. An assistant to the great classifier Melvil Dewey, he later wrote ghoulish poetry, and immersed himself in spiritualism and real estate, and quite possibly suggested the phrase “new deal” to Franklin Roosevelt. As the librarian of Wesleyan University in the 1930s, he went to great lengths to act on his belief that waste is a “venal sin.” Enraged by all the white space in wide-margined books, Rider had the books cropped. In The Book on the Bookshelf, Henry Petroski adds that Rider was also consumed with making library shelving more efficient. To minimize the empty space on a shelf, he grouped Wesleyan's books by width and shelved them with their bindings facing up.
It was Rider's steadfast belief that library collections were doomed to double in size every sixteen years; and he believed that this iron law of increase was nothing less than a “problem … of civilization itself.” His solution to the problem was a variation on microfilm: the Microcard, which would reduce an entire book to tiny lines of script on the back of its own catalog card. By the mid-1950s, some 1,600 microcard readers were in use around the country. But the resolution of the image was not very good; the film stock was damaged by heat; and it was not long before the fad came to an end.
Among Rider's most ardent admirers was Verner Clapp, the first president of the Council on Library Resources. An amateur classicist, Clapp was proud of his old-fashioned erudition; but this did not stop him from complaining that books were “dingy, dreary, dogeared, and dead!” While human beings are thoughtful enough to die and decay, the “world's books have a way of lingering on.” The librarian's mission, Clapp maintained, was to extract the “profit and usefulness” from printed volumes while preventing them from “clogging the channels of the present.” (It is a sentiment that Emerson or Nietzsche would have understood, though Baker understandably finds it disturbing in a librarian.)
Disdainful of paper, Clapp wished to see little-used books “retired to microtext.” Ingeniously enough, he sponsored the exciting idea of combining an automatic page-turning device with closed-circuit television. In this way, patrons at one library could read a book that was located at another library with little need for human assistance. The television-reader went nowhere; but the Library of Congress did spend considerable amounts of money on other dubious gadgets. Deputy Librarian William Welsh promoted the “Optical Disk,” a highly efficient substitute for rolls of microfilm. Indeed, he boasted that the disk was so compact that its adoption would allow the Library of Congress to shrink from three large Washington buildings to one. Once again, the technology proved wanting.
These efforts are amusing failures; but less amusing is the story of microfilm itself. Even in the 1950s, it was clear that microfilm was not very reliable: the color of the original image was lost; the film buckled and snapped; the text was blurry; and often entire pages of an original source were simply absent from the rolls. (In a fit of what Baker calls “redefinitional insanity,” the Library of Congress deems a microfilmed newspaper run to be “complete” if “only a few issues per month are missing.”) Most important, readers did not like operating the machines. As Baker aptly puts it, reading a newspaper was like “mowing an endless monochromatic lawn.” Some terminals even came equipped with airsickness bags. Microfilm, one commentator would later explain, was an “information burial system.”
Even so, Clapp and the Council on Library Resources pushed ahead. Libraries, they believed, were eager to free up space on their shelves, and to be relieved of the need to care for old, dusty objects; one advertisement promoted microfilm as a “slum clearance program.” The 1970s became the “gilded age of microforming.” Before filming, printed volumes were typically sliced apart by an electronic guillotine, so that they could be photographed more rapidly and without any “gutter-shadow” between facing pages. Once disbound, the resulting heap of pages was unlikely to go back into a library collection. At the Library of Congress, entire runs of The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, and The Chicago Tribune were thrown away or sold off to dealers, who would cut them up for the satisfaction of memento seekers. Books, too, were re-formatted and retired. Baker estimates that, between 1968 and 1984, the Library of Congress's Preservation Microfilming Office filmed 300,000 volumes and discarded a great number of them.
As the disbinding continued, the motives for microfilming began to shift. Microfilm, it was argued, not only saved space, it would also keep embrittled texts from disappearing. Beginning in the 1870s, newspapers and books had been printed on highly acidic paper made from wood pulp instead of rag pulp, and with time this paper tended to crumble and to curl and to become discolored. In 1957, the Council on Library Resources asked a document laminator named William James Barrow to look into the problem. Barrow promptly devised a “fold test”: he would measure the durability of old paper by bending the corner of a page back and forth until it broke.
Barrow believed that the number of bends a page could withstand provided an adequate measure of its expected life. According to his first calculations, some ninety-seven percent of the “non-fiction books printed between 1900 and 1939 will have deteriorated to the point of being useless by the end of the century.” Later tests were not quite as dramatic in their results, but even so they seemed to make a self-evident case for “re-formatting,” and “the eighties became the decade of the Barrow-inspired statistical-deterioration survey.” In 1985, Yale University found that forty-five percent of the library books that it sampled failed the test after four folds and were therefore ripe for replacement.
Baker attacks the fold test with considerable vigor. Obviously enough, the important thing is not how many times you can bend a page, but how many times you can turn it. If Barrow's numbers proved to be egregiously wrong, it may be because he failed to realize that books were not designed for origami. Conducting his own homemade experiment, Baker tried to crease a page of Edmund Gosse's Questions at Issue, and found that the corner broke off right away. But when Baker applied his “Turn Endurance Test” to the seemingly embrittled 1893 edition, he found that it survived eight hundred page turnings without any trouble. Barrow's fold test might be appropriate for maps or dollar bills, but why apply it to books?
The reason, Baker believes, is that libraries were eager for a “marketable preservation crisis.” By warning of an imminent book disaster, they could win impressively large grants and continue to pursue their favored technological schemes. In the 1980s, the library-industrial complex turned the notion of a “brittle books crisis” into gospel. Warren Haas, the president of the Council on Library Resources, commissioned a report recommending that 3.3 million books be microfilmed within the next twenty years to save them from their own acidity. Since microfilming a book could cost ＄60, a considerable amount of money would need to be raised.
Fortunately, Haas convinced William Bennett to open an Office of Preservation at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Now the librarians could lobby Congress for the funds to pay for microfilm and other paper rescue operations. At a congressional hearing in 1987, the guardians of the nation's cultural heritage gathered to warn that the brittle books crisis had become a “national emergency.” Vartan Gregorian explained that seventy-seven million books faced imminent extinction unless action was taken. Lynne Cheney graphically added that “every day, Dan Boorstin gets 6,000 more bodies brought into the Library of Congress,” and announced that the NEH favored “intellectual content” over “the book itself.”
Soon after, the producers of the documentary film Slow Fires employed the talents of the man who wrote The Asphalt Jungle to create “the most successful piece of library propaganda ever.” In the film, the chief of conservation at the New York Public Library laments that many books are “so brittle and deteriorated that they simply fall apart in your hands.” Baker retorts that this is nonsense: nobody has ever seen an embrittled book actually turn to dust. For Baker, the preservation crisis was essentially a hoax. Brittle books are fragile, but they are not about to disappear. Baker even speculates that their acidity might help them to survive in the long run, since it “discourages paper-eating bugs.”
Today, of course, microfilm is no longer very popular. And as Baker himself acknowledges, libraries have abandoned the worst excesses of their disbind-and-destroy policy. Many librarians have protested against “slash and burn preservation,” and there is some skepticism about the brittle books crisis. The fold test is rarely used. Even so, Baker fears that “a second major wave of book wastage and mutilation” is now beginning. The reason, quite simply, is digitalization. All that was once to be microfilmed will now be scanned. Once again, books are at risk of being disbound and discarded in order to undergo “reformatting” and “platform migration.” Everywhere librarians are heeding the “digitarian dog whistle.” And this time the threat to libraries is even more acute. Some members of the “scan clan” wonder why libraries need to exist in physical spaces at all.
Baker provides various examples of the digital library in the making. At Cornell, old math textbooks and works of history have been scanned and discarded; the university calculated that the scanning would only be cost-effective if the originals were given away to save shelf space. (The discarding stopped after a faculty member complained.) Baker also raises questions about JSTOR (an acronym for “journal storage”), a Mellon Foundation program that converts scholarly journals into digital files. JSTOR adheres to high standards of quality control; there are no missing pages, and the screen resolution of its scans is excellent. Still, Baker protests that JSTOR is marketed to university libraries as a substitute for, not a supplement to, their print collections. Libraries are advised to move back issues of journals to remote storage locations, or to discard them altogether.
Why is this disturbing? For one thing, digital documents may be far harder to preserve than paper ones. Hardware needs to be replaced, and software programs are continually altered. The maintenance of a large digital database can be extremely expensive. A true archive, as Baker points out, needs to be able to survive protracted periods of neglect and inattention. Can we count on every generation of future librarians to upgrade the relevant hardware and software? Even if the most popular items are safeguarded, many others may simply vanish.
Baker's book is an entertaining and in large part convincing exposé of the misdeeds of librarians. Microfilm certainly failed to live up to its promise, and it may have done more harm than good. And Baker is right to worry about the digital librarians and their dream of a day when the management of databases will replace the maintenance of books. Everywhere libraries are eagerly competing to reinvent themselves as information resource centers. They are cluttering their reading rooms with computer terminals even as their acquisitions budgets decrease. It is not foolish to worry that close reading and idle browsing, as well as actual books, will be squeezed out by all the modems and the power cords.
But Baker sometimes lets his passions get the better of him. Even an ardent bibliophile ought to be able to distinguish between a book guillotine and the other kind. It is also worth acknowledging that even microfilm brought some enlightenment to library users, especially at regional universities lacking large collections. Since he focuses on the fate of paper, Baker's assessment of the digital library is myopic. If digital text poses a greater threat to libraries than microfilm, it is as much because of its virtues as because of its vices. The ease with which text files can be searched and distributed is nothing to sneer at. (The keyword search “unquestionably helps researchers in their truffle hunts,” Baker writes.) Unlike microfilm, on-line search engines and databases are quite popular with library users. If libraries are metamorphosing rapidly, it is not due entirely to the machinations of a tiny cabal.
Whatever the fate of a library's paper documents, this metamorphosis raises questions. Does the very abundance of easily accessed information on the Web lead researchers to ignore more-valuable information that is not on the Web? How can digital text be catalogued and preserved when it is constantly being updated and altered? Should libraries grant the same access to their virtual collections as to their actual collections? Right now, libraries are battling the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires all libraries that receive federal funds to install clumsy filters blocking their patrons' access to pornography websites—and much else besides. Many libraries have refused to install the filters. In turn, a New York state senator is threatening to sue the Brooklyn Public Library for “providing a taxpayer-funded peep show for our kids.” It all sounds like something out of a Nicholson Baker novel. (In The Fermata, Baker's narrator leaves a sex toy in a library's garbage bin so that he can watch a woman walk away with it.)
Baker does not address any of this. Instead he puts most of his energy into arguing that libraries should acquire more space and preserve more paper. He recommends that some libraries begin retaining current newspapers in bound form. In his estimation, “a century of newsprint” could be sheltered in a Home Depot-sized warehouse. It's a big country, after all; there must be room. He also urges the Library of Congress to keep everything it receives from publishers and the NEH to fund only scanning that is “nondestructive”: the original newspapers and books must be kept intact and “saved afterward.”
These are sensible ideas. But in arguing so eloquently for the preservation of original sources, Baker leaves open the question of how many original copies of a book or a newspaper must be kept, and by whom. For most libraries, this is the essential question. How tragic is it for a library to discard back issues of a scholarly journal if original copies of the journal are kept elsewhere and the library has access to high-resolution scans of its pages? What is the difference between hastily photocopying an article in a library and printing out a high-resolution image of that article from one's desktop? Should nobody ever discard a bound volume of anything? Baker seems to imply that everything is worth keeping.
Now that books are rumored to be obsolete, they have attracted new lovers. Historians rightly stress that a book is a meaningful artifact and not simply a disposable container of words. Readers exclaim about the ecstasy of turning the page or using a bookmark. Software firms attempt to secrete digital ink or to reproduce the look of a water-marked page onscreen. The book is a marvelous invention, and it may be better to fetishize it than to seek its replacement by multimedia displays and hand-held reading devices. And yet bibliophilia, too, has its vices. It is a form of piety. It is frequently indiscriminate. The appreciation of fine bindings and antique bookplates can become an exercise in preciosity. It is much easier to admire a book's embroidery than to wrestle with its meaning.
Baker is not a snob, though he sometimes poses as one. He can be marvelously attentive to the uses of language in everything from seventeenth-century prose to junk mail. In his eagerness to defend old newsprint or calfskin, however, he sometimes forgets that finally it is the experience of contemplative reading and the availability of valuable information that are most worth safeguarding, not the sheer quantity of paper in the world. Of course, any decision to value one piece of paper more than another may turn out to be mistaken; but this hardly means that such decisions can be avoided altogether.
If all the money spent on microfilm and scanning were used instead to build warehouses of print, librarians would still have to make some choices about what to keep and what to discard. The assumption that space is limited is not only an artifact of their stinginess and their aversion to paper. As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out in 1993, an increasing number of books are printed every year, and a vast number of them have little obvious intrinsic value: “They are parts catalogs, census reports, Department of Agriculture pamphlets, tide tables, tax codes, repair manuals, telephone directories, airline schedules. … Who would have any reservations about putting texts like these into electronic form, if it will make the world a roomier and greener place?”
Baker would probably have plenty of reservations about this skepticism. The brittle pages of old repair manuals and tide tables are just the sort of things that he savors. Indeed, a reader of his previous books might think that there is nothing at all that he would willingly discard. In U and I, his account of an obsession with John Updike, he regrets peeling the price sticker off a pair of clogs: “It is a piece of information I will always want to have.” Later, he reflects on a page of Proust “stained with drops of … suntan oil.” Baker imagines “the near transparency that the drops of lotion must have created in the paper as methylparaben portholes in Marcel's prose through which we glimpse for a moment the knowable, verifiable life we have now, in America, with spouses and deck chairs and healing sunlight, as opposed to the unknowable life of a homosexual genius in France before the First World War.”
It is this intense effort to extract meaning from even the most ephemeral things, and to turn willfully away from the reality of oblivion, that gives Baker's writing its energy and its wit. But it also renders him incapable of considering what is worth saving and what is not. Oblivion sometimes has its uses. Given that libraries really do encounter more words and more paper than they can handle, this reluctance to make judgments of value is a serious lacuna for a library activist. Sometimes, one imagines and even hopes, ephemera are just ephemera.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1807
SOURCE: Baker, Nicholson, and Andrew Richard Albanese. “Double-Edged: Is Nicholson Baker a Friend of Libraries?” Library Journal 126, no. 10 (1 June 2001): 103-04.
[In the following interview, Baker discusses his arguments for book and newspaper preservation, as put forth in Double Fold, and the controversy among librarians in response to his condemnation of library policies that promote the destruction of print collections.]
Since its publication in April 2001, Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper has generated a hailstorm of controversy in the library community. It is somewhat ironic then that Baker, sitting in a New Hampshire warehouse among the more than 60 pallets of newspapers he recently rescued from destruction at the hands of the British Library, says he is beginning to feel a little like a librarian.
In spite of his damaging indictment that librarians invented a crisis of brittle paper to justify the destruction of huge numbers of rare books and newspapers, it is evident in speaking with Baker that he does indeed harbor a great deal of respect for the work of librarians. Baker will bring his argument directly to the library community at this year's ALA meeting in San Francisco, addressing librarians in a speech that is certain to generate a heated response. What can librarians expect to hear there? LJ caught up with the author and talked to him about his book, about librarians, and, of course, about paper.
[Albanese]: Double Fold has generated a great deal of press and a lot of reaction from both inside the library community and from the public. What kind of personal reaction have you received?
[Baker]: Generally, the reaction I receive is positive. The truth is, what I'm saying in Double Fold isn't very extreme. I'm just pointing out a series of related mistakes that have happened. Now, there are some angry people who don't want those mistakes pointed out. And there are occasionally people who will stand up at a reading or call into radio shows saying I'm bashing librarians. But that is the kind of response you make if you haven't read the book. One of the things I do in the book is single out for praise heroic librarians, who did right by what was on their shelves and actually have increased their collections. The library profession isn't a monolithic thing. I'm not attacking the library profession.
Why would Nicholson Baker, a major voice in American fiction, choose to write a nonfiction book about libraries?
I've used a lot of libraries. I used the MIT library when I was writing The Mezzanine, and I found a lot of great stuff there. And I worked in the University of Rochester [NY] library almost every day when I was a high school student. It's worth spending so much time writing about libraries because once the past passes from human memory, once the people who lived through a certain time period are gone, the only way we have of knowing history is by reading the documents in libraries. These places, in which we have put our trust, are the sources for all our attempts to understand the past. If you want to learn about history, where are you going to go? You're going to go to the library.
But one gets the sense from your writings, from the initial New Yorker articles to Double Fold, that librarians have been at worst criminally irresponsible and at best incompetent. Does this reflect some underlying view of the library profession?
Oh, no, no. My view of the whole profession? No. But I do think there have been some librarians who had a different idea of the direction libraries should go. Patricia Battin is one example. In my opinion, she hugely inflated a crisis in order to extract what was essentially disaster relief money from Congress. I don't think she acted with ill intentions, it's just that what she wanted to do resulted in the destruction of things libraries ought to be hanging onto. I would hesitate to use the words criminally irresponsible. But there were people who acted irresponsibly because they were caught up in the excitement of revolutionizing the distribution of information. And as a result things that we can never get back were destroyed.
We at LJ have received a lot of feedback from the library community indicating that you have portrayed unfairly the work of librarians. Why do you think that is?
It seems like what some librarians do is read, say, [Princeton University historian] Robert Darnton's review [in the New York Review of Books] and conclude that that is what's in the book. Darnton is a smart guy, and he gives a precis of the book. But he is in error. He has misrepresented some of the points the book makes.
So what exactly was your intention in writing Double Fold?
I wanted to change the way librarians think about some of these collections and the nature of keeping things. I wanted to get the truth on the page so people could begin discussing these issues in an intelligent way. We have to learn what actually happened to these collections, so I wanted to tell the story in great detail of who did what and why. Having told that story, I would like libraries around the country to take seriously what's on their shelves.
You mention the Darnton review—how would you characterize the press coverage of your book? Does it accurately reflect what's in it?
The reviews that talk about there being an ugly conspiracy are not true to the book. I don't think there was a conspiracy. I don't use the word conspiracy anywhere. And if the review concludes that librarians are evil, that's also a mistaken inference. I couldn't have written this book if people in libraries hadn't told me that the Brittle Books Program was wrong. I just think we have to discriminate a little bit.
In hindsight, do you think you could have saved librarians some angst by offering a more detailed delineation between the handful of research institutions you chronicle in your book and the other thousands of libraries in this country to which your claims do not apply?
As I say in the preface to the book, the illustrious institutions I hold up for criticism “employ a great many book-respecting people who may not know of, or approve of, what their superiors or their forebears have done.” There's an awful lot of stuff in this book. It is not the kind of fierce attack that it is being portrayed to be by the people who want to defuse it. There is a beleaguered feeling among librarians because people are assuming that I'm saying things I'm actually not saying. There's this idea that Nicholson Baker says we have to save every issue of every edition of every newspaper. Well, that's silly. I never say that. But because the story is unpleasant and we will be contending with these losses forever, people think I am stacking the deck. On the contrary, I'm just trying to tell the history of some mistakes that we ought to be able to learn from as we go into this major phase of digital scanning.
A number of librarians note your argument for preservation comes at the expense of the primary mission of libraries—providing access to information. What do you see as the primary mission of libraries?
It depends on what kind of library we're talking about. A small suburban public library for example has a different mission than a large research library. They have to provide things like children's programs and other valuable resources. Their collections are fluid, one book in, one book out, and that is totally justifiable. Their task is not keeping the historical legacy. In my book I'm talking about large research institutions. I think librarians at the large research institutions have to respect what the librarians before them saw fit to collect.
There is nothing wrong with taking pictures of any library holding; it's what you do with the thing itself after you're done taking pictures that occupies my attention. So if you just take a picture of the thing, say a brittle book, and then you put the thing back on the shelf so you have a scroll of plastic and you have the book, then, yes, that increases access. And with newspapers there is unquestionably an argument that if you make microfilm of a newspaper you can mail around those rolls of microfilm and increase access. But what has happened is that the existence of microfilm, often terrible microfilm, has been used as an excuse to discard the originals. In that case, you have a net loss of access.
But with limited dollars, space, and staff and the limitless mission of providing wide access and service to patrons, how can libraries be expected to keep up with patron demands and also act as artifact repositories?
Yes, OK, but if you have the National Endowment for the Humanities pumping over ＄100 million into the library system all for one purpose, to microfilm things, you can't say there hasn't been a lot of money spent. It was just spent in the wrong direction. How did we come up with this strange feeling that a quarter of the books in U.S. libraries were brittle and crumbling to dust? Because people found that if you create a crisis, the money will flow. And at the time, those people found that there was only one way to spend that money. Not on book repair, not on storage, but on microfilming. I really do love libraries. I want them to be funded. And I want them to have enough money to store what we want them to store and have the kind of invaluable reference services that they have offered in the past.
While you do raise the important issue of preservation, librarians say you also seriously damage the public's confidence in libraries, which ultimately may make it harder for libraries to actually get funds in the long run.
This book does do a certain amount of damage to a philosophy of library administration that is terribly flawed. But I hope the long-term effect is that people will want to right these wrongs. I am not a librarian, but the people who ran the big research libraries did betray the public's trust. … It really is a level of irresponsibility that deserves a certain amount of public reproach.
There is already a great buzz surrounding your scheduled talk at the upcoming ALA conference. What are you planning on talking about there?
Well, I'm just going to expand on some of the same things I say in Double Fold. But I really want to hear from people. I'm resigned to the fact that many librarians don't agree with me, but, the truth is, many do.