Renovation and the Sequel to The Anthologist
By Nicholson Baker
Blue Rider Press, 2013
Review by Evan P. Schneider
The day I learned about my wife’s kitchen plans was also right about the time I got Nicholson Baker’s new book, Traveling Sprinkler, handed to me by my editor at a book release event. My editor is also my friend, Dan. Dan brought his children to the event and so I talked with his daughter Maddy for a long while about her third grade teacher Mr. Robby and his system of in-classroom economics. She told me about the weekly duties she has as part of the mock society and also explained accrual and debt and I told her I was very familiar with those concepts and their destructive power. Anyhow, Dan had asked if I would review the new Baker book, and I told him yes. I used to review a lot of books. I used to do author interviews, too. There are only a few writers I idolize, and Nicholson Baker is one of them, and Dan knows this, which I imagine played into his asking. That, and he published my novel, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever, that I’d pitched at the time as an homage to Baker’s The Mezzanine. The only problem is it seems as though I’ve become a home-owning gardener person and may have stopped writing things. Growing potatoes and carrots feels, right now, like a responsible thing to try to do.
hen I sat down to write this I wondered how long it’d been since I last reviewed a book and it turns out that the last book I reviewed was Baker’s The Anthologist, the prequel to Traveling Sprinkler. How’s that for coincidence? In my estimation, I reviewed that book sometime last year. I actually just now had to Google that review to figure out when I wrote it. That was back in 2010. Four years ago! Boy, was I wrong. What have I been doing?
f you asked me, I’d say Nicholson Baker writes three types of books: sexy books (Vox, The Fermata, House of Holes), pacifist books (Human Smoke, Checkpoint), and slow motion books (The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, Box of Matches, The Anthologist). Though I like sexy things and dislike war, my favorite type of Nicholson Baker book is the latter, the ones in which narrative is far less important than thoughts, details, observations, and the tiniest truths of life being revealed through something like the quilted pattern on paper towels or how your tongue swells up if you smoke a cigar too aggressively. In beginning to read Traveling Sprinkler, though, I found myself resisting Baker’s slow motion style, the one I’ve loved for so long, and then found myself avoiding the book because I did not want to dislike it, especially in a review. In The Anthologist, Paul Chowder, our main man, a poet trying to write an introduction to an anthology of poetry, barely keeps his quirky little life afloat because he can’t pull himself together long enough to write something he’s been commissioned to write. Traveling Sprinkler picks up where The Anthologist left off, but my main worry was whether or not the shtick had been played out. Can you really write two entire novels about a poet who eddies alone in middle age?
ometimes you just need to smoke a cigarette, eat some apples and oranges, and do house chores. Maybe I’m overthinking things here and I should just tell you what Traveling Sprinkler is about. In Paul Chowder’s own words, “It seems to be about trying to write dance songs. And protest songs and love songs. Pop songs in general.” I’d say that’s pretty accurate. Chowder has at this point, in the beginning of the book I mean, finished his introduction to the poetry anthology and has decided to not write poems anymore. His ex-girlfriend Roz has moved onto dating a new man and instead of being a poet, Chowder wants to be a musician, so he buys a cheap electric guitar at Best Buy as well as some recording equipment and later, a $700 stereo microphone, and spends the better part of a year thinking about music and trying to write songs, all the while unemployed. One song he thinks about constantly is Claude Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral.” I had never heard “The Sunken Cathedral” and kept telling myself while reading that I should queue it up, so I just now opened Spotify on my computer and typed “The Sunken Cathedral” into the search bar. Over 50 results came back! The one I’m listening to is from an album called Hi-Fi Classical: Relaxing Piano, which seems like an awful album to be featured on and I hope Debussy is spared knowledge of this insult in the afterlife. I don’t know a lot about Debussy other than what I learned from Chowder, who knew pages and pages and pages worth of information (I wanted to insert a particularly good bit of quotation here about the feud Stravinsky and Debussy had, but you probably get the point without it), so I guess I do know a little now. Even without knowing too much about Debussy’s music, in “The Sunken Cathedral” you can easily spot motifs from his other works, like “Claire de Lune.”
’ve been busy with a few things lately. We finally ripped everything out of the kitchen and the redo has begun in earnest, which means the world I’ve been inhabiting is a disorganized replica of itself that is slightly out of focus. Right now I have my computer perched on the front edge of my desk, just far enough onto the wooden tabletop that it won’t fall into my lap. Stuffed between the computer and the wall is a regular #10 envelope bulging with receipts from Mr. Plywood that I would like to go through and check against my bank statement, but I haven’t had the time to do so yet. There are also a few old stripped flathead screws that I don’t remember removing or where I removed them from, a light switch cover, some loose change, and a small green slip of paper from the USPS explaining that today I missed the delivery of a package from my sister and they’re sorry about that. Since we are now without a stove, or a sink, or cabinets of any kind, this morning I made coffee in a percolator over our camp stove in the garage.
At this point I wanted to quote some of the Baker book for you, but I can’t seem to find it. I thought it was in the piles behind me, but it is not. Oh, wait. No, there it is. It was under the Scandinavian orange “My New IKEA Kitchen” folder. I’ve already told you that Paul, in Traveling Sprinkler, has begun to experiment with writing and playing music, and I hope I’ve explained that he has taken up cigar smoking in his Kia Rio, and if I haven’t, I should have, because cigar smoking, music playing, and wanting badly to stay up with a woman talking about everything is what this book is about. Did I mention our main character goes to Quaker meetings? At one point, Paul, who is quite lonely throughout 281 of this book’s 287 pages, says, “I want to forgive everyone. I want to do better with my life. Maybe doing better is somehow finding a way to make people’s imaginations work better.” And I believe him. I think that’s probably true. But Paul feels “like a traveling sprinkler that’s gotten off the hose.” He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s unprepared. These are his words, not mine. “I want it all to seem easier for me than it is.” We all do, Paul. We all do.
fter sanding and painting the entire kitchen with my wife all day Saturday and part of Sunday, in preparation for the final stage of the “reno” (that’s what this process is called on HGTV), we went over to Dan’s house to watch the Super Bowl. It was not a fun game to watch, but we watched it anyway and near the end, without Dan asking, I kind of blurted out that I think I finished the Baker review. Paul Chowder might be a little lost, but Nicholson Baker knows exactly what he’s doing.
Evan P. Schneider is the author of the novel A Simple Machine, Like the Lever.