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U and Me and Nicholson Baker

by John Bloner, Jr.

Pay attention. This phrase sums up the work of author Nicholson Baker, as his novels and essays deal with the quiet moments in our lives when seemingly nothing is happening and find instead that they are filled with wonder. You've heard that our lives flash before our eyes at the moment of death, but I'll argue that the past is actually being played over and over in our minds at every moment. What we focus on is important.

Take for example, the Hubble Telescope. Over Christmas 1995, astronomers aimed it at a seemingly empty piece of the heavens and discovered 3,000 new galaxies. This image was not captured casually. It took ten consecutive days with an exposure time of about 100 hours for Hubble to deliver
its treasure.

Or, consider Japanese film. Critic Noel Burch coined the term "pillow shot" to refer to serene shots that reside outside the plot in pictures by Yasujiro Ozu. During a pillow shot, the camera rests its eye on a teakettle or rooftop, before the story engine takes control once more.

These images may linger longer with us than the twists and turns of a narrative and remind us to pay attention to the pillow shots in our own lives, for in them lies the depths of being alive.

Nicholson Baker (right) and his "imaginary friend," John Updike
Baker calls pillow shots by another name: clogs. In his third book, U and I, he purports to write an essay about his fellow East Coast writer, John Updike, but his approach is far from linear. Instead of a critical analysis of Updike, he takes his readers on a serpentine path, clogging the narrative with recollections of his in-laws' sewer, which is clogged itself with tampons, and on how he scored a free McDonald's Big Mac during New York City's penny shortage of 1981.

"The only thing I like are the clogs," he comments in U and I. "I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers." To this goal, he succeeds. His inaugural effort, The Mezzanine, is about a man who breaks his shoe lace and uses his lunch break to buy a pair of new ones. His second book, Room Temperature, is about a young father who is giving a bottle to his infant daughter. Both books search the mundane and find galaxies there.

They also demonstrate Baker's rebellion against (in his words) "the straightforward suspense that is built into a certain kind of novel--a first order plot anxiety." In U and I, he expresses his distaste for the "condition of the novel, it's obligation to generate suspense."

His admiration of Updike leans to the phrases that the elder author employed, such as the image of "a rain-wetted screen...like a sampler half-stitched" and of himself when he would "lean into the feeble glow of the radio dial as if into warmth." 

It's the snapshots like these, rendered in prose, that hold a book forever dear to us in our memories of it, long after we have forgotten whodunit. Our mind's memory reel plays out in similar ways. We forget names and petty wins and losses, while (as Baker writes) "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 seen from characteristic angles . . .all miraculously expand, and in this way what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed."

My admiration of Nicholson Baker extends beyond the page. In my early encounters with his work, I found we had a few things in common. We were both born in 1957. Neither of us plays golf, and we were fathers of young daughters in the 1980s. I'm also in his debt for a few things.

In 1997, I applied for admission into an advanced creative writing workshop, where, as a pre-requisite, I had to call the instructor to convince him that I should be one of his students. During our talk, he asked me about favorite books and writers. I mentioned Nicholson Baker, which had a favorable result. 

When the workshop was underway, I met a woman who was enrolled in a beginner's course, but it quickly became apparent by hearing her work and talking with her about famous and not-so-famous writers that she did not belong there. She told me that she had also called the instructor, heard the same question about favorite books, but had panicked in that moment. 

"Romance novels," she replied.

She did not know why her lips had formed those words and didn't have the presence of mind to retract them. She was like Ralphie in the film, "A Christmas Story," who only wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas, but finds himself saying "football" while he's on Santa's knee.

She was undone. Her brain may have been crying, "Wake up, stupid! Wake up!" but the message wasn't getting through. Her fate was sealed.

I am also in Baker's debt because of armpits . . . specifically, the applying of underarm deodorant to my hairy atria after I'm fully dressed. One of the things that my wife did not bargain for when we wed was my custom of applying deodorant after I had buttoned my shirt and tucked it into my trousers. I did not consciously decide to place this duty as dead-last on my list of grooming habits. It just turned out that way.

I lived in quiet shame for years, which was easier than relinquishing my routine, until I read Baker's first novel, in which the narrator shares this revelation:

"I had my coat on when I remembered that I had forgotten to put on antiperspirant. This was a setback. I weighed undoing the belt, untucking the shirt, untucking the T-shirt from the underpants: was it worth it? I was running late. Here was where I made a discovery. An image came to me--Ingres's portrait of Napoleon."

My voice trembling, I read this passage aloud to my wife, feeling justified, at long last. If Nicholson Baker--or at least one his characters--can slather on some Old Spice High Endurance Pure Sport Scent just before he heads out, what else might I have in common with my literary hero? 

I wanted to talk to him about the beauty of a closed door or the health benefits of eating the pith of an orange, but first I wanted some acknowledgment from my spouse that my grooming habit had been elevated from quirk to noble because the author of The Mezzanine practiced it, too.

She was not impressed, even when we both learned that my oldest sister had been doing the same thing for far longer than me, but not nearly as long as Napoleon.

Over 20 years ago, when I first put on a pair of glasses, I saw a world that had so subtly retreated from my sight that I did not notice its absence for a long time. Suddenly, leaves contained a universe. Letters in a book seemed to hover above the paper's grain.

Reading Nicholson Baker is like putting on eyeglasses. I see details I did not know existed. Baker observes and reports like an embedded journalist on the front lines of life, while at the same time, he's a sensualist, delighting in the body electric.

My Dinner with Andre (1981)
When I read his books, my mirror neurons fire. I'm no longer looking at letters, but instead have dropped into my own version of the film, My Dinner With Andre, replacing Andre Gregory with Baker and Wallace Shawn with myself. "Tell me more," I ask him, and he obliges with esoteric facts about drinking straws and hand dryers, and rants about the disappearance of card catalogs.  "Nick, calm down," I want to say, but really I don't want him to stop.

Nicholson Baker (b. 1957) and Joris-Karl Huysmans (b. 1848 d. 1907). Kindred spirits separated by over a century
Nicholson Baker's work has its roots in the novel-essay genre of late 19th century and early 20th century France. In his book, The Novel-Essay 1884-1947, author Stefano Ercolino credits Joris Karl-Huysmans with the genre's genesis. With the publication of Huysmans' book, Against Nature, Ercolino states that "a tear in literary history took place."

Huysmans himself said he felt a need "to open the windows . . . to break the novel's limitations, to bring in art, science and history . . . to do away with the traditional plot . . to do something new at any price."

Baker carries forward the banner of the novel-essay genre, avoiding story arc diagrams, in order to talk directly to us, as old friends.

I first read Nicholson Baker's work twenty-five years ago. A few days before I finished this 2FL article, I completed his latest novel, Traveling Sprinkler, and look forward to where his attention may turn next. I know I'll be ready to read about it.

Final Notes

In 2015, author J.C. Hallman published B and Me, his story of discovering and reading Nicholson Baker.

If you're new to Nicholson Baker, start at the beginning with his first novel, The Mezzanine, and read all of its footnotes, even if college textbooks caused you to swear them off forever. You'll thank me later.

If you've heard about Baker's connection to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and want to read the book they shared, find a copy of Vox and then press on to The Fermata and House of Holes, his so-called Sex Trilogy.

To visit the author's page at his publisher's website, click HERE.

Thanks for reading.