The Boredom Artist: Nicholson Baker Is the Great Chronicler of Indolence

Nicholson Baker. (Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star)

Nicholson Baker. (Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star)

It is not easy to begin writing about a book about a man who is having a hard time writing a book. In Traveling Sprinkler, a sequel of sorts to The Anthologist (2009), Nicholson Baker resurrects the incorrigible procrastinator Paul Chowder, a somewhat successful but aimless poet who, having finally finished the introduction to the Only Rhyme anthology that plagued him over the course of his first appearance, now wrestles with more elemental problems. He’s turning 55, he’s broke—though Only Rhyme is a “minor success,” appearing on a few undergraduate syllabi—and his girlfriend, Roz, who had just left him in The Anthologist, is still gone. There are two major developments in his life. Paul has taken to writing in his trash heap of a car (a Kia Rio) instead of the barn behind his house. And kill lists and drone strikes have soured him to his profession. “If I wrote a poem against drones, would that help? Not a chance,” he says, echoing Adorno’s adage that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” He has purchased an acoustic guitar and traded in poems for song lyrics. For example, (sung vaguely to the tune of “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who): “I’m eating a burrito, and I’m not killing anyone./I’m eating a burrito, and I’m not killing anyone./I’m eating a burrito, baby, and I’m not killing anyone.”

Strange that Mr. Baker, one of our more prolific writers—and perhaps the most idiosyncratic bestselling author in recent memory (see his last book, from 2011, the sci-fi porno House of Holes)—is also the great chronicler of indolence. The action of The Mezzanine (1988), his first novel, unfolds over the course of the protagonist’s lunch break. Vox (1992) is set during a pay-per-minute phone sex conversation. The climax—if you can call it that—of The Anthologist comes when Paul Chowder sees Paul Muldoon, The New Yorker’s poetry editor in real life and in the novel, at a reading, and the book ends with Chowder, quite unceremoniously, emailing his finished introduction to his editor. Not since Alexander Pope has a writer mined so much heroism from the relatively trivial.

Traveling SprinklerStranger still is that Mr. Baker thought to write a sequel to The Anthologist, a novel that throws out the standard rules of narrative and replaces them with a total lack of progression. (The literary sequel is a rare beast to begin with; Mr. Baker here joins the ranks of D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh and—I suppose if we wanted to go there—John Milton, all writers who dared to pen a follow-up to a masterpiece.) It’s safe to say no one’s going to turn any of Mr. Baker’s books into a summer blockbuster, but in his total eschewing of plot, his work is a running epiphany of the loneliness and boredom that go hand in hand with writing, that to sit down to write is, in fact, to spend far more time not writing anything at all. In Traveling Sprinkler, Paul performs all kinds of tasks to avoid his trade: He eats a tuna and artichoke sandwich with his friend Tim. He takes up smoking cigars. He works in his garden. He unloads his thoughts on a variety of cultural references. Some of these ruminations are proof that Mr. Baker is as good a cultural critic as he is a novelist. Paul calls the bassoon solo that opens Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

a joule of sunlight hitting the cane marsh. Grubs and aphids stir cuntily in the bass clarinet. Night soil decays into a broth of fetid but nutritious water and is pumped high in the xylem vessels. Virgins in muddy ballet shoes press Miracle-Gro tablets into the roots of the chosen canes.

Stravinsky’s introduction is nothing short of the birth of the universe, and it has produced a far more impactful passage of writing than, say, Paul’s thoughts on the 2004 Zach Braff film Garden State, from a little earlier in the book:

Radiohead reminds me a little of the songs in the Garden State soundtrack. Now, that’s a soundtrack. They were all just songs that Zach Braff liked, so he put them in his movie. And there’s that beautiful moment near the beginning where Natalie Portman hands him the headphones and she watches him listen to the song and she smiles her huge, innocent Natalie Portman smile.

Questionable taste in cinema aside, this does inject Paul with a dose of humanity. Mr. Baker developed the character by filming himself in front of a video camera talking off the cuff, growing “quite a huge beard” and doing his best impression of a poet, which accounts for the novel’s stream of tangents. Like a kind uncle trying to relate to you and failing, Paul is not above any middlebrow topic: the Jeff Bridges film Crazy Heart, a Youtube performance of the Canadian folk singer Stephen Fearing, and “that big tree in Avatar” are all given real estate alongside Debussy’s Preludes and Tennyson’s “Maud.” This range of ideas also ties the book thematically with its predecessor, the distracted tone of which can be summed up by the following: “Coleridge says that Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man. Did it really do that? John Fogerty says that the old man is down the road. Is he?”

Mr. Baker seems to explain the reasoning behind these referential contrasts, albeit slyly, by way of a digressive speech by Paul, in which he essentially lays out the meaning of the book’s title. Paul is describing metaphorical interference, “when two or more strong metaphors are podcasting in the same room together and they mess with each other,” adding that it is a “serious problem, at least for me.” As an example, he mentions trying to write a poem about a traveling sprinkler, a very specific domestic object that becomes a “controlling metaphor.” He veers off at that point, his mind wanting to include Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” in the poem as well, “a metaphor of submergence” that then reminds him of the yellowjackets that have nested in the hose reel of the sprinkler.

Now your poem is in trouble. You’ve got wasps in the hose reel, you’ve got the sprinkler twirling at the end of the hose, and you’ve got Debussy’s cathedral sunk under the waves. You’ve got fish, you’ve got tomatoes. You’re starting to get strange purple interference patterns, fringe moiré patterns, at the edge of each metaphor, where it overlaps its neighbor…This is the moment when your creative writing teacher may say: “You’ve got an awful lot going on here, Paul.”

Which, of course, is exactly what you could say about Mr. Baker’s book. The traveling sprinkler is both the subject of writing—life itself, so to speak—as well as life itself getting in the way of writing. How appropriate that both The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler are books that call attention to their composition ironically. There is a suggestion at the end of The Anthologist, when Paul hands in his introduction and mentions the page count—roughly the same amount as the book the reader holds in his hands—that this novel about writing the introduction has actually been the introduction itself all along. There’s an equally significant moment in Traveling Sprinkler, when Paul, thinking once again about “The Sunken Cathedral,” notes how “each chord has a little positive or negative ionic charge in it that moves things forward with colorn;;;;;”“’n[.]” “I seem to have fallen asleep,” he continues.

So now this book about not being able to write, about a man trying to think through his writer’s block in order to deny it, is instead framed as being written, deconstructing the book’s very premise. Is an act still aimless once it’s written down, or does that give it a purpose? Or is writing just one long procrastination from doing something more important—eating a meal, doing the laundry, finding a job with a more stable tax bracket? Mr. Baker provides no answers to these questions. He merely confronts his readers with them.

mmiller@observer.com