Nicholson Baker: 'The Anthologist'
Have you read anything by Nicholson Baker? He’s a trip. He’s an author that gets recommended a lot. Mainly because his books are kind of unusual. He takes observation to another level. The book you’ll be told to read is either The Mezzanine, in which a man rides an escalator—that’s the whole book—or Vox, which is entirely a phone sex conversation.
I suppose he was first recommended to me because we both kind of write about nothing. And we both like to describe things. Nicholson Baker takes this to an extreme degree, and is very successful in doing so, and I just kind of walk the line so people think I forgot the plot or to finish the story.
The Anthologist has a little bit more going on than just riding an escalator—it actually takes place over a few weeks rather than minutes or hours, and the protagonist, Paul Chowder, is a poet tasked with writing an introduction to a poetry anthology. And his girlfriend left him, so there are a few moving parts. But Paul Chowder (freaking great name, by the way) spends most of the book procrastinating and talking about poetry—essentially writing the whole introduction in his head, and sharing various tangential thoughts about anything and everything. One section starts like this: “God I wish I was a canoe.” It’s kind of like reading someone’s Twitter feed.
This is also how Baker makes us feel that his narrator is a real person—so much so that I had to keep reminding myself it’s not Nicholson Baker. It’s Paul Chowder. He often picks up on common truths—things we don’t necessarily notice or talk about. Like, “Sometimes I’ll spend an hour writing a tiny email. I work on it until I’ve created the illusion that I’ve dashed it off in three minutes.” So true. I’m one of those people who re-reads emails before I send them, God forbid I write “sex” instead of “six.”
It helps to have some interest in poetry to enjoy this book. Paul Chowder talks about the poets he likes, the poets he doesn’t like, and goes into some good detail about rhyming poetry and the mechanics of what works and what doesn’t. I can see how this sounds pretty boring. The reason it isn’t is because it’s deeply funny. I could attempt to explain how funny Nicholson Baker is, but you should really just pick up one of his books to find out for yourself.
Without telling you what happens, I will say this about the ending: It was satisfying in a no loose-ends kind of a way. This is something we’re taught not to do. “Don’t tie it up with a bow.” “Leave questions for the reader to think about.” But Baker manages to end his book in a fairly conclusive way, and I liked it and I’m not sure how he did that. I guess that will give me something to think about.
You can read some good quotes from the book on Good Reads.
Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.