Rendezvous with Nicholson Baker

Vineet Gill talks about the writing style of the novelist Nicholson Baker, his reorientation of the tradition of nouveau roman and his meeting with the novelist at the Jaipur Literary Festival…

“Realism made the strange familiar. Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a Soviet-satellite newscast of the Berlin Wall’s fall – i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar – it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious Realist fiction is going about trying to make the familiar strange.”       –          David Foster Wallace

Defamiliarisation – to make the familiar strange – is a critical buzzword that belonged to the twentieth century. This was an era marked by fatigue, when old, familiar forms, whether political or creative, were beginning to be seen as tiresome, even suspect; and everyone was being called upon to join in the chorus of the new. The first call to arms for novelists was issued from France sometime in the 1950s. Critics like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute demanded from succeeding generations, and themselves delivered versions of the nouveau roman, or the New Novel. Their literary manifestoes expressed disillusionment with the traditional novel’s regard for conventions of plot and characterisation, recommending instead a negation of the ‘human’, of the bogus psychological insight. The nouveau roman concerned itself not with the man in the world, but with the distance between the man and the world he inhabits: a world where each man and every object is devoid of significance. “Things are things,” as Robbe-Grillet said, “and man is only man.”

Nicholson Baker’s fiction is animated by similar forces that pushed the New Novelists onward, namely a hunger for originality and an interest in ordinary ‘things’. But his is not a dispassionate voice. Baker’s theme could be summed up thus: man surrounded by, affected by, and uplifted by a world of objects. And his novels succeed because he did something the Europeans, disabled by a kind of high seriousness, couldn’t: he gave us, as it were, the new New Novel, refreshingly avant-garde and yet rooted in the form’s comic origins.

“I read those people in college,” Baker told me, referring to the French theorists named above. “And I was sort of interested in them, but they seemed so unhappy, you know. They didn’t seem to be having any fun.”

Baker was among the first writers to tap into the comic potential of experimental fiction, opening up new doors for the countless others struggling with questions of form. The Mezzanine, published in 1988, was Baker’s first novel, where the comedy begins on page zero. The book’s setting is a moving escalator, its plot the escalator’s upward pull. A fine enough literary joke to get started with. Then, upon entering the world of the novel, we find that the narrator is a post-adolescent man, a corporate professional, ruing the loss of his childhood, whose happy glimpses he finds in common objects.

The blank pages in my own copy of The Mezzanine are filled with handwritten notes: names of things which are the ‘stuff’ both of Baker’s novel and its narrator’s life – stapler, shoelaces, date-stamper, milk carton, ice cube tray, coffee mugs, paper towels – all the neglected symbols of modernity. Quite aside from the comedy, Baker is able to channel a hidden metaphorical richness through this domestic repertoire. The way a man hurriedly jots down his signature after having a glass of wine is compared in The Mezzanine to the “accelerating wriggle that a vacuum cleaner cord makes in retracting into its coiled place of storage”.

According to what Baker told The Paris Review, this particular novel, an acclaimed masterpiece of American letters, was turned down by “nine or ten publishers”: “They all said they thought it wasn’t a novel.”

I asked him whether it was a conscious decision on his part to reject conventional style when he started writing The Mezzanine. “I rejected it,” he said, “because I had tried to follow the conventions and failed. I always felt embarrassed – soon as I got to the plot, I just sort of felt ashamed; like I was doing something that was false. The plot was not what was interesting to me – what interested me was riding the escalator, going out to buy shoelaces.”

When I met Baker during a lean hour at the Jaipur Literature Festival a few weeks ago, the first thing I noticed was his mustard-yellow duffel bag, on which the stitching had come apart. What could it have been, I thought? A recent minor accident or was it a sign of general indifference to the norms of public appearance? More importantly, I thought, has he written a passage somewhere about duffel bags? For I was more than certain that he alone, of all those writing today, could sense the poetry of duffel bags.

Up close, I saw the stark ruddiness of Baker’s face, caused perhaps by the Jaipur sun. Wearing his full white beard, he looks like a leaner version of the philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett. But besides this, there were two other things about him that struck me as odd, both foregrounded by Martin Amis in his 1992 essay on Baker.

First, that Baker is ‘fabulously and pointlessly tall’ (in Amis’ words) and indeed he is. Second – and this is crucial – that Baker comes across as a surprisingly normal man. The coherence of his spoken sentences, the soft baritones of his voice, the Middle American politesse – all clearly belie the imagination that is at work.  “The novels,” as Amis wrote, “suggest a helpless egghead and meandering pedant whose mind is all tangents and parentheses.” Baker in person led one to wonder where the mad inventive genius was hidden.

This wasn’t so with Baker’s contemporary David Foster Wallace. Hearing Wallace speak, watching him make a TV appearance and reading him are all experiences similar in nature. The anxiety that propelled Wallace’s writing inhabited every casual sentence uttered by him; and his physical idiosyncrasy – the fidgety impatience – reflects in his prose.

Baker was doubtless an important influence on Wallace. It was in The Mezzanine that the footnote, now considered a hallmark of Wallace’s writing, was first conscripted for literary – and not journalistic – ends. Baker told me: “Well, Flann O’Brien, in The Third Policeman, has some small footnotes. And Updike, in A Month of Sundays, has a footnote. But writing The Mezzanine, I thought I should really run with it and use footnotes as part of the formal scheme of what I was doing.”

Though Wallace stayed with the footnote in his attempts to explore the perpetually distracted state of the post-TV mind, Baker had moved on by the time of his second novel, Room Temperature, which can be read as a sequel to The Mezzanine. Stylistically, the two novels are similar, except for the lack of footnotes in Room Temperature.

This book is about a man sitting on a rocking chair with his six-month-old daughter in his lap, on a Wednesday afternoon. That’s that. But what is the novel really about? Well, it’s about the “the implosive atmospheric instauration of a newly opened jar of peanut butter”; about “the opaque port shades that slid down from inside the wall of the plane (like the either-or eyelids of one of my sister’s dolls…)”; about “all the transitions between all the subjects”.

The expansive sentences in Baker’s prose – the tangents and parentheses that Amis refers to – take surprising turns; they make random, playful leaps from Debussy down to Magic Markers, from William James to Big Macs. Baker told me that he borrowed the lush openness of the sentence structure from the nineteenth-century writers:

“See, when I started writing, there were all these people, like Raymond Carver, writing these short little sentences. I mean, it was horrible…not horrible in a bad way. But it was very flat. And in the nineteenth century, it was many things but not flat – the sentences went here, and they spiralled around over here and they went here, you know. So I wanted to bring that back in. Writers like De Quincey, Trollope and George Saintsbury, put together a long sentence that really went somewhere.”

Yet it wasn’t to the 19th-century masters that Baker went on to devote a full-length book. He wrote instead about the reigning literary celebrity of post-war America: John Updike. U and I (1991) is a work of what Baker defines as “memory criticism”: “a form of commentary that relies entirely on what has survived in a reader’s mind from a particular writer over at least ten years of spotty perusal…”

Page after page in U and I, we’re given an account of what Baker remembers – or “misremembers” – of Updike’s work. Yet again, something of a literary joke, albeit a very serious one (the best of jokes are intensely serious). In just over 170 pages, the book gives us one of the most memorable assessments of Updike’s talent, warts and all, dealing incidentally with two important themes: literary aspiration and literary envy. But this is not to say that these are subjects central to the book. Nor, for that matter, is Updike. The real point of this book, as of all the other’s written by Baker, lies in the author’s fevered imagination, as well as in the “carefree bounce” (to borrow Updike’s phrase) of his long sentences.

Today, while he believes that the spirit of boldness and adventure seems to be missing from contemporary novels, Baker confesses that he doesn’t read much literary fiction. When I mentioned Jonathan Franzen and his bid to revive the Tolstoyan novel, Baker said: “Franzen… I am very jealous of him. He is very successful. He wears beautiful suits. I remember that last time I saw him, he had a beautiful suit on. He is a good writer. But I haven’t read his books all the way through, because I am terrible at reading novels. I get impatient.”

Beyond this impatience, as Baker went on to state, lay a typically writer-ly form of insecurity. “I guess, I like to write my own novels and strengthen the misapprehension, the illusion that I am the only novelist in town. It’s helpful to think that. Because it’s so frightening to look around and realise that, no no no, there’s 850 other people looking at the same world you’re looking at. That’s scary.”

Baker, who turned fifty-eight this year, has written prolifically and variously on issues as grand as sex (Vox, The Fermata, House of Holes), poetry (The Anthologist) and war (Human Smoke). His next book, he told me, tackles the difficult subject of education in America: “I want kids not to be tortured basically.”

After the interview, and after getting my copy of The Mezzanine inscribed by the author – “With thanks for an interesting line of questioning” were Baker’s polite words – I walked away recalling what he had earlier said to me about how a writer ought to look at the world: “The world is full of interesting, complicated, lovable things, you know.” That’s what Baker’s writing teaches us: that this world of familiar things – woollen sweaters and hand-driers and brown paper bags – can yet be rendered pleasantly strange by a unique eye.

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