November 14, 2010


by Nicholson Baker
242 pages, Pocket Books

Review by Marc Nash

The previous book I read was Patrick Gayle's "Notes from An Exhibition," and I had intended to review it for Booksquawk. A novel sold to me by recommendation because it dealt in themes of madness and artistic creativity. On reading, it was in fact a family saga and barely grazed the two themes that had lured me to it and I felt I couldn't review a book on the lines of not being what I had anticipated.

While interested in artistic creativity depicted in fiction, I normally shun books that are specifically about writing and the writing process. But Nicholson Baker is far too subtle of a writer to deal in tired old tropes. Although not always, since his previous fiction, "Checkpoint," was a searing and not terribly subtle tale of two men discussing the killing of George Bush (so enraged was one of them by the Iraq War). Baker's early novels such as "The Mezzanine," were forensic studies in detail of buildings, decor and small technologies such as milk cartons and hot air blowers in cloakrooms. Very male, in other words. But The Anthologist is far more gentle, even though it absolutely forms an inquiry into poesies; that creative touchstone at the heart of all human imaginative outpourings.

Paul Chowder is a middling poet, commissioned to compile an anthology and write its introductory essay. He is blocked. He invokes the deities of the form. He propounds rhyme and metre over free verse. He lectures and pontificates to the reader on how poetry works and doesn't work. So didactic is he, at one point he even gets out a whiteboard and sharpie pens and takes them out into nature in an attempt to write his intro and yet stay true to poetry's inspirations. And this represents the delicious duality woven throughout the weft of this book. How the mundane both drags down and yet transforms the sublime and how that feeds into the lyrical.

Paul will ramble about some domestic focal point, but then incisively bring it back to the poetry under scrutiny with one line counterpointing it. And inversely, he can be holding forth about Ezra Pound or Louise Bogan and then cut them off at the knees with some remark about the mouse he has loose in his kitchen, or the difficulty of finding real bristled brooms rather than plastic ones (echoing his early books' obsessiveness). And that pretty much is the whole book. It's like sitting on a beach as the tide comes in, gently rolling over the shore and back out again, as each meander through poetry, creativity and the banal (we can't use the word prosaic, since this is about verse) laps at our feet with a fetching playfulness.

There are some very cutting lines in among Chowder's musings: "Death is the only health insurance" and "defining me as an anthologist - i.e. as a lost soul who turned in despair to the publishing of other people's work". The book is an utterly charming treat, so light and easy compared to Baker's other, quite intense works. The only criticism I have is that some of the didacticism about poetry itself had me skimming through those sections, partly because it's not my field and also most of the American poets referenced were unknown to me. But even with that, the book was a complete pleasure. A paean to procrastination in the form of one Paul Chowder. Did he ever get his introduction written? Read and find out.

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