It’s difficult to think of many writers who manage to be both as distinctive and as resistant to definition as Nicholson Baker. There’s something attractively paradoxical about his writing, in that the more it changes from one book to the next, the more insistently Bakeresque it becomes. Doing things that are out of character has, in other words, become one of the defining characteristics of Baker’s career.
He made his name in the late 80s and early 90s with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, two brilliantly essayistic — and rivetingly plotless — novels about the supposedly trivial odds and ends that clutter our everyday lives; he then solidified his reputation as an entertaining innovator with U and I, a hybrid work of autobiographical criticism (or critical autobiography) on his lifelong relationship with John Updike’s writing. He has written a passionate and intensely researched polemic about how the introduction of microfilm led libraries to destroy countless books and periodicals (Double Fold), a work of history attacking the notion that the Allies had no choice but to engage the Nazis in Europe (Human Smoke), and three exercises in balls-out erotic high jinks (The Fermata, Vox, and House of Holes).
His new book, Traveling Sprinkler, is a sequel of sorts to 2009’s The Anthologist, revisiting that novel’s narrator, Paul Chowder, as he attempts to reinvent himself as a songwriter, win back his longtime girlfriend Roz as she prepares for a hysterectomy, and negotiate his own rage at the Obama administration’s drone warfare policies. Alongside his writing of the book, Baker pursued a parallel songwriting project — some of the results of which can be heard here and here.
The Millions: You’re known for writing fiction that largely does away with the business of plot. I’m wondering at what point you realized that this would be the kind of writing you would do. Did this evolve out of necessity, in that you found you had no affinity for highly plotted narratives, or no ability to write them, or was it a more calculated choice?
Nicholson Baker: I like the beginnings of things. The beginnings of a story, of a poem; I like that moment when the white space on the page gives way to actual type. The early paragraphs of a book have a kind of joyful feeling of setting out, like the sunny moment of merging into morning traffic from the onramp of a highway. And then comes the troubling question, where are we going?
In Traveling Sprinkler, though, some fairly big things eventually happen: it’s a love story involving a hysterectomy, which is a bit unusual. And the barn floor collapses, squashing a canoe. Not “minutiae,” whatever that means.
TM: I was intrigued by Paul Chowder’s attendance at Quaker meetings in Traveling Sprinkler. As someone who’s more or less an atheist, I find there’s something very appealing about the way Quakers practice their faith. Where did your interest in this come from?
NB: I’m an atheist, too, I guess, but the word sounds kind of harsh and aggressive, so I generally just say I’m a non-theist. Quaker meeting is a place where people are trying to figure out how to live better lives. There are no rules. There’s an etiquette, that you should wait a while after someone has said something, to give it a buffer of stillness, when everybody thinks about it. That becomes a sort of a white space. The silence is a powerful force that’s working on everyone. When somebody stands and says something, it’s often incomplete, it’s unprepared. It’s provisional — and yet it’s full of love or hope or grief or sympathy — and then other people think about what’s been said, and then someone else stands and adds something more. This goes on for an hour. It’s like hearing the rough draft of a really heartfelt essay collection.
And there are several hundred years of history to Quakerism, with much suffering and martyrdom; the Friends were people who were willing to stand up to, say, slavery, early on, when it was unpopular, dangerous to do so. And of course there’s the antiwar “testimony,” as it’s called, which always gets me. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.” Utterly deny. Wow. It turns out to be a testimony you can live by. Not that I go every Sunday. I just love the idea that people are agreeing to be quiet together.
TM: So this is something that has taken a significant place in your life over recent years?
NB: I’ve been going to meeting on and off for about 12 years. Actually I come from a Quaker family, a little bit. My grandfather was raised as a Quaker, but he lapsed. He was interested in Renaissance art, and Quakers were a little suspicious of art and music in the past — or Philadelphia Quakers were, at least. He was a drinker, and they didn’t go for that either. My mother grew up in an unreligious household — so that’s how I grew up. I went to a Quaker college, Haverford College, but never went to meeting there except on graduation day.
I’ve learned a lot from the Quakers about incompleteness, about waiting for things to be sayable, about the possibility of reconciliation — and also about discarding certain trappings of eloquence. It’s certainly had an effect on me. As a person, but also on my writing.
TM: Well, now that you bring it up, there’s been a noticeable progression from your early books — The Mezzanine and Room Temperature and U and I — where there’s a luxurious intricacy to the prose. Whereas your last few books have been characterised by a kind of straightforwardness of address.
NB: In U and I, which is a very baroque book full of sentences that twirl around, I said something about how the metaphorically dense style usually has its big moment early in a writer’s life. After a while, if you’re lucky, the complexity of the semicoloned involutions gives way to something else — maybe to a social attunedness. So I was waiting for it to happen back then, and I think it has happened — although in my non-fiction writing, my magazine pieces, sometimes I’m in the middle of a paragraph and I get that old excited feeling of sliding an unexpected word into place or making a clause swerve to the left in a prosily tricky way.
But the real reason that the recent books, The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler, read so differently is because I wrote them by talking them. Both these books are about the audible human voice, about what comes out of silence. They’re all about meter, and melody, and vocal chords, and intonation, and stereo microphones — and I wrote the books by recording myself in various ways — sometimes with a video camera, sometimes speaking into a mini handheld recorder, sometimes typing as I talked. Most of the first draft of the books came out of my mouth, as opposed to out of my fingers, and that’s really the reason why the prose has a different sound.
TM: Maybe this is something you hear from people frequently, but I have these moments that I think of as “Nicholson Baker moments” that are interspersed throughout my everyday life. There are certain objects, for instance, that when I come across them, I find it very difficult not to think of your books. Things like shoelaces, say, and peanut butter jars and bendable straws. And every time I have to dry my hands on a hot air dryer in a public toilet, I inevitably think of The Mezzanine.
NB: I’m so glad. I’m still thinking about the hot air dryer myself. I feel there’s more to say and yet, damn, I’ve kind of done it.
Many of the things I wrote about in the past were things that fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to be an inventor, and I had long talks with my father about new forms of lift and aerodynamic shapes and how refrigerators worked. I guess I didn’t have enough to do in school, which can be a good thing. When I wasn’t on a bike trip or practicing the bassoon or plinking on the piano I spent a lot of time looking at things around the house — at water flowing from the tap, at the spinning washing machine, at the way the molded numbers in a glass peanut butter jar cast their shadows on the peanut butter inside. In the garage there was a beautiful rusty traveling sprinkler that my father had bought at Sears. I made a route with the hose for it to follow and watched it twirl and chuff away, despite the fact that we lived in Rochester, which is a very cloudy city — the lawn was doing fine on its own.
After The Fermata came out I sometimes took on bigger topics — for instance a destructive episode in library history, or the early years of the Second World War. But I still love the sensation of slowing down a moment of observable time with the help of sentences.
TM: There’s quite a lot of political anger in Traveling Sprinkler. Was this anger part of your motivation in writing the novel, or was it something that seeped in from the outside as you were in the process?
NB: The book began as a non-fiction book about trying to write protest songs — songs that objected to things going on under the Obama administration. And then my character Paul Chowder intruded and everything changed. He reads the paper and he also tries to stay sane, and the news is sometimes so overwhelming and awful, especially when it involves some horrific civilian fatality. How do you keep going if you really open yourself up to a terrible piece of news? And we do; obviously, we keep going. We read something, and we think it’s horrible, and then later that afternoon we’re sitting in a coffee shop and there’s noodly jazz playing and we’re sipping a latté, for God’s sakes. It’s a mixed life. It’s got grief in it, it’s got indignation, and demonic laughter and jealousy, and the desire to find someone to love. Debussy’s sunken cathedral is in this world, too. I wanted to include political grief in something that was recognizably a love story.
Obama’s administration has been a devastating disappointment, in so many different ways. Fanatical secrecy, the persecution of whistleblowers, foreign interventions and arms shipments that make things worse, the quintupling of drone killings — it just has to be said. And it has to be thought about in a way that does justice to the complexity of daily life. How does an emotion of political dissent thread through one’s days? That’s one of the real problems that the novel is trying to address.
TM: In the book, Paul’s creative energies are invested in learning how to use music making software and in writing songs, which is something that you yourself did in the writing of the book. Did you write these songs “in character” as Paul Chowder, or as Nicholson Baker?
NB: There are 12 songs altogether, some love songs and some protest songs, and one that uses a stanza from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and one about a street sweeper. There’s a so-called deluxe e-book version of the book where you can hear them, and I’m also putting them up on Bandcamp — what the hell. I’d posted some earlier attempts under my own name on YouTube, protest songs, but what was interesting was that as soon as I started writing the book in the voice of Paul Chowder I also felt more freedom with my songwriting. I could write the music I wanted to write because it wasn’t exactly me. I became more able to sing with more freedom, I guess, than when I was writing it as Nick Baker the writer.
TM: Have you been nervous about sending the songs out into the world?
NB: Yes, there’s nothing more vulnerable than singing, especially if you’re not a terribly good singer. I can’t describe to you how much more sensitive I am to criticism about these musical attempts than I am about the writing. It’s important to me that the songs are not an embarrassment, that they have qualities that make them song-like. I want them to have a certain level of success. It feels like a new beginning, and I have all the anxiety of being an apprentice. Which is really part of the fun of it. One of the things that’s useful to do, I think, is to cut the legs out from under yourself periodically.
TM: That’s something that you’ve done on various occasions throughout your career — you’ve written books that have caused people to throw up their hands and walk away from you. The Fermata would have been the first time that happened in any kind of significant way, right?
NB: It was really Vox where certain people said “Oh, well the first three books, yes indeed, but Vox is just a tiresome little chirp.” Hey, no, it’s a courtship, it’s a love story. The Fermata, though, yes — that one was received very badly, especially in England. “Whatever you do, don’t shake his hand,” said one reviewer. And the odd thing is how people’s feelings for certain books change over time. I now realize that sometimes critics react at first in a kind of affronted way, and then the book establishes its own position, and people say, “The other books are okay, but The Fermata [is] the one I really like.” It’s been a little confusing, actually, over the years, but also reassuring to discover that a book in the end finds its particular sub-group of readers, regardless of whether or not it was universally shunned at the time.
I always think when I’m starting a new project, “I want to do everything in this book; I want it to cover every single thing.” And it doesn’t ever turn out that way. It can’t happen. But that’s always the emotion I have pulling at me. I try to pour in every charged particle, and say all that must be said, and of course I can’t. Which means that the next book has to be about everything. So I give it another shot, and that one also falls short. Each book is in some way trying to correct the state of imbalance and incompletion left by its predecessors — chugging around the garden, watering new tomatoes.