Jim Schley's Essays

The Anthologist. A novel by Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, 2009

Nicholson Baker is the author of eight ruminative "novels," all oddities, all with plots that might be synopsized as "a guy is thinking about _x_," where x is a variable as in a math equation.

Baker's settings are also various, but each is as tightly constrained as a one-room stage set, for example an office building's escalator (The Mezzanine, 1988); a rocking chair where a baby is given her bottle (Room Temperature, 1990); a pair of telephones and the wire between, where two pay-per-minute phone-sex customers converse (Vox, 1992); and a D.C. hotel room where an aspiring assassin and his old high school friend debate the merits of killing the President Bush (Checkpoint, 2004). Baker has also written idiosyncratic, unapologetically polemical nonfiction books, defending the archiving of actual newspapers, not mere microfiches, in Double-Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), and meditating upon the largely untold story of pacifists' resistance to World War Two in Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008).

The narrator of Baker's new novel, The Anthologist, is a fifty-ish fellow named Paul Chowder who is a bedraggled veteran of the American literary "scene." By his own estimation, Chowder is a middle-grade, middlebrow poet, well enough connected to know personally the most influential editors and broadly conversant with Anglo-American poetical history, from which he fluently quotes. Chowder has published poems in many journals and authored two books that were (more or less) well received, and he can name drop like a casino waiter, but he's reached an impasse, savvy enough to recognize that he'll never be a literary giant, as youthful dreams of grandeur dissolve like antacid tablets in a tumbler of tepid water.

Like previous Baker novels, The Anthologist's plot is skeletal. The reader of watches and listens as Chowder lavishly and energetically procrastinates, wittily busying himself in all sorts of scattershot ways in lieu of sitting down to write a long-promised and now seriously overdue introduction to a major new collection of rhyming poetry.

What else happens? Very little. Chowder's woman friend (and his main source of financial support), fed up with his time-wasting and lack of focus, moves out; he misses her, and frets over ways to woo her back, but keeps putting off what she'd asked him to do, which is finish the (damned) introduction. The lonesome Chowder spends a little time with his suburban neighbors, helping with household chores and playing badminton. He gets his expired passport replaced and goes off to a conference in Switzerland. And so on. All of the other characters in this novel are like manikins, seemingly present only as prompts for the first-person, center-of-his-own-universe narrator to ponder in passing.

The book's narration "takes place" entirely in Chowder's thoughts, which page after page can feel smothering. In a short story, this character could be distinctly engaging, but at novel's length, his impossible-to-suppress joviality grows tiresome. Even so, at a time when acidic irony is the common currency of social commentary, the sweet decorousness of Baker's Chowder is undeniably beguiling. And he's frequently funny enough to spark laughs out loud.

But for this reader, a more significant problem with The Anthologist is that its axe-grinding on behalf of rhyming poetry sounds overblown and misdirected.

Though often with wisecracking cogency, Chowder reprises again and again his lament that contemporary poets have abandoned intensely musical phrasing and the acoustic glories (and virtuosic challenges) of rhyme. As if fancying himself a rumpled St. George swinging his lance at the dragons of academic obtuseness and literary stylishness, he assails "free verse" (which he himself writes, unenthusiastically) on behalf of those he considers the betrayed, discouraged, disenchanted True Readers of Poetry, whom he's sure are craving rhyming poems.

There's verve in his crusade, and some of Chowder's theories make a kind of audible sense (as when he describes a certain poetic meter as a waltz beat instead of belaboring the mystified Greek terms for metrical "feet," iambs and trochees and dactyls). Yet Chowder (and therefore Baker) sound like those people endlessly complaining, "Oh, they don't make movies (or songs, or cars, or miniskirts . . . choose your grievance) like they used to . . ."

In actuality, more contemporary poets are utilizing "traditional" elements and pattern strategies, including rhyme — in many cases in combination with "experimental" approaches — than at any time in the past century. The supposed conflict between use of received forms and rhyme schemes that during the 1980s and '90s tended to be portrayed as ideological strife, as if rhyming poems were poetic equivalent of nostalgic Reaganism, has essentially vanished. Today American poets are exuberantly romping in all directions through their formal and thematic legacy, reverently or mischievously or both.

Moreover, poetry has never been more available to readers of every age and inclination, with huge numbers of new poetry books published every year, and good new editions of classic writers whose works are in the public domain, and new ways of exploring poetry, for example the website PoetrySpeaks.com, which is a sort of internet jukebox for poems, cleverly incorporating features of iTunes and Facebook and YouTube and devoted entirely to poetry.

On the other hand, poetry polemics aside, the greater value of The Anthologist may be its vivid portrait of a particularly hyperactive intellect, flitting like a chickadee from fascination to flirtation to fixation. Baker has dramatized a man unable to concentrate —unable to think through one idea or task at a time, methodically and sequentially — but whose crackpot mannerisms jackknife into genuine insights and lovely descriptions of what's right at hand but easily unnoticed:

Another inchworm fell on my pant leg. They germinate in quantity somewhere up in the box elder. It was still for a moment, recovering from the fall, and then its head went up and it began looping, groping for something to climb onto. It looked comfortably full of metamorphosive juices — full of the short happiness of being alive. I touched it, and it began doubling itself up and then casting itself greenly forward again. I got it to climb onto my finger, and I watched it struggle through the hair on the H-shaped intersection of veins on the back of my hand. It went quiet there. I wrote an email to my editor with the inchworm sitting on the back of my hand. I said, "Worry not Gene, I'm going to write it. It's coming along. —Paul."

Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted that "A poet is no rattlebrain, saying what comes uppermost, and because he says everything, saying, at last, something good. . ." Truly, "rattlebrain" describes quite well the pitch and texture of Paul Chowder's voice, and at times his author seems determined to have him say "everything."

Nicholson Baker is more of a soliloquist than a novelist, by almost any measure, and The Anthologist exhausts its pretty thin premise well before its final (243rd) page. Yet Paul Chowder is a likeable, at moments adorable schlemiel, never hateful for attributes that in someone else would seem pretentious because he's so forthright in acknowledging his foibles and foolishness. And while Chowder's dodges and feints can be exasperating, his deep-rooted care for poems is charming.

Alas, in supposedly aiming to celebrate the power and beauty of poetry, Baker's will probably reinforce many readers' conviction that poems they would love simply aren't being written today. Not so!

—This review appeared in the Valley News (central New Hampshire/Vermont largest daily newspaper) on March 11, 2010.