What Nory Knew: Baker Bares a 9-Year-Old’s Brain

The Everlasting Story of Nory , by Nicholson Baker. Random House, 226 pages, $22.

Nicholson Baker is a freaky case. He’s a big-time talent, smart, stubbornly perverse, sleazily, lewd–and now, with his chaste new novel about a 9-year-old girl, deep-snooze dull. Is there an exotic syndrome that causes good writers to skid off course and then overcorrect with disastrous results? Maybe Oliver Sacks could be called in for a diagnosis.

Maybe it’s some rare disease of the inner ear. In remission, the author dances across the page like Fred Astaire; the next moment he stumbles, lumbering like Frankenstein’s monster.

For Dr. Sacks’ benefit, the patient’s history. First, there was The Mezzanine , an odd, delightful exercise in “microscopy.” Mr. Baker trained a bionic eye on escalators and self-consciousness, milk cartons and esthetics, corporate bathrooms and maturity. He made the trivial entertaining and significant, and was rewarded with critical rapture. A second novel in the same vein, Room Temperature , confirmed initial impressions. Here was a writer with an enviably pliable prose style and a quirky, ingrown imagination, a brainy guy, scholarly but funny, too, an enthusiast gripped by bizarre passions–for the history of punctuation, say, or the design of those air nozzles above your seat in an airplane.

Then came U and I , a wildly eccentric confession of his desperate obsession with John Updike. Dazzling, hilarious, pathetic, full of sharp ideas about reading and writing and memory and desire, U and I looped around and around, endlessly asking a silly question: Will Nicholson Baker ever be as good a writer as John Updike?

Next, a lurching U-turn (forgive the pun). Vox , the phone-sex novel now infamously implicated in Zippergate, was touted by Random House back in 1992 as “the most sexually provocative novel of our time.” The New York Times Book Review dubbed it “a masterly work of art,” though in the same breath suggested that “the book’s origins lie in a decision by Mr. Baker to harness his considerable talents to a subject of commercial appeal.” In other words, he cashed in with some artsy porn.

Vox was a tawdry book–it was tawdry even before Kenneth Starr forced us to picture Monica Lewinsky using it as a how-to manual. Mr. Baker’s next novel, The Fermata , another pelvic thrust in the same direction, dashed the hope that Vox was just a wrong number. The Fermata (which caused Michiko Kakutani to uncork perhaps her most impeccably humorless tirade), featured a sex-obsessed narrator equipped with the power to stop the flow of time. He could freeze a woman in midstride, undress and fondle her. He used this talent often, purely for masturbatory purposes.

To get from the wankfest in The Fermata to The Everlasting Story of Nory , Mr. Baker didn’t bother with another U-turn. He just slammed his writing unit into reverse. With a hideous screech, we career from the sex-obsessed to the sex-oblivious. The new novel gives us one school term’s worth of Eleanor Winslow’s inner life. Nory, as she’s called, is an American girl living with her family in England. She’s a nice child, imaginative and compassionate, a little too “chatty,” she admits, but mostly very ordinary.

Nory likes to tell herself stories, and she knows a thing or two about narrative craft: “You really need something to fail in a story, because then when it fails it has to get better.” Mr. Baker ignores this advice. Nothing happens. All he offers is the flow of Nory’s thoughts, linked by association or triggered by the daily round at school. She thinks about language (“‘Neverending’ and ‘everlasting’ were good words for the job because they last and last when you say them, like ‘forevermore'”), about her teachers, about her terminally cute 2-year-old brother (“who had gotten into the usual habit of walking up to a stranger in the toy store and saying ‘Hello, I’m shy'”); she thinks about Barbies, about becoming a dentist and about how if “you lie there on your bed with your tongue out for long enough it will get so totally dry that it glues itself to your mouth when you pull it back in.”

In some ways this mind-meander takes us back to the first two novels, except here we are boxed in by the perceptions, interests and understanding of an unexceptional prepubescent girl. Her ignorance is charming but banal. She believes, for example, that the “Catholic Religion … was one of the most popular religions of the world, though Christianity was probably slightly more popular.”

Mr. Baker seems to have exhausted his creative energy on the tricky business of getting Nory’s voice exactly right, in which he succeeds brilliantly. When Nory mentions “a little horrible airplane,” you recognize that by reversing the expected order of adjectives, Mr. Baker created an authentic 9-year-old. Micro-precision allows him a little artistic license elsewhere. Why complain when Nory notes with fine poetic feeling that a cathedral “smelled very coldly of stone,” or that when you feed goats “their lips were soft and speedy over your hand”?

Sentence by sentence, it’s all relentlessly convincing and beautifully done. You read along thinking, yeah, this is what it’s like inside this kid’s head. So, too, in the earlier books, the pedantry was real, the crackpot obsessions were real, the smut was real. But after a while you wonder, Why sweat to nail this stuff?

Most 9-year-olds think about sex, if only in a dim, confused way. Not Nory. She’s hardly aware of boys, totally unaware of lust. In the novel’s only risqué passage, she reports on a classmate’s schoolyard taunt. Said the classmate, “‘Nory bad-worded Belge Coleman.’ Using the most horrible bad word there is.” Nory hesitates before denying the allegation. “For a tiny second she thought about saying, ‘Well, maybe I did, but I don’t think I did,’ because you forget so many tons of things in your life and you don’t want to tell a lie about a thing you mistakenly forgot, but then she thought, ‘No, in this case I know for sure.'” The idea that Nory could fuck Belge Coleman and then “mistakenly” forget about it is worth a brief, wry smile. The point is that there’s no hook for sex to hang on in Nory’s mental wardrobe. And the point of the novel seems to be to wipe sex off the page, to wipe away a mess of horrible bad words.

If indeed you were to delete Vox and The Fermata from the list of Mr. Baker’s books, you might come to see him as the author of something like outsider art. You might think of him as a cousin of the oddball who can’t stop building in the backyard fantasy palaces assembled out of crushed Dr. Pepper cans. Mr. Baker is a compulsive character, alternately naïve and hyper-sophisticated, often madly original, with a skewed sense of proportion and only minimal allegiance to convention. His nonpornographic books are not just out of synch with market forces, the banal demands of the bookstore buyer, but totally unrelated, way off in an uncharted universe.

Sounds wonderful, maybe, in theory. If Mr. Baker needs to indulge in willful oddity in order once more to produce novels like The Mezzanine , I say let it rip. But there are limits to even the most hopeful reader’s patience. Mr. Baker’s kiddie hour is even more boring than his adults-only phase.

I think I can guess what Dr. Sacks will call his best-selling case study: The Man Who Mistook 9-Year-Old Nory for a Novel . I’m less certain whether he will discover a cure.

What Nory Knew: Baker Bares a 9-Year-Old’s Brain