Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cole Swensen & David St. John, eds., _American Hybrid_

LAST SUMMER, AS I was reading Against the Day and wondering how many people still actually read 1000-page literary novels, I also started in on this (finishing yesterday), which made me wonder how many people still actually read 500-page poetry anthologies. Surely I am not the only one, but there can't be many of us. I don't imagine poets read them, save for skimming the introductions and tables of contents to see whose oxen have been gored. They must be mainly purchased by libraries, with a few bought by non-poets like myself, but how many of those copies purchased, in either category, actually get read?

Most anthologies have a purpose -- the idea of American Hybrid is that there are two broad tendencies in contemporary American poetry, the relatively traditional, comprised of poets whose work maintains a discernible continuity with the poetry of the past, and the relatively innovative, comprised of poets whose work breaks away from the techniques and assumptions of the poetry of the past.

(This is a much-argued point; is there really such a division, or not? I'm willing to grant there is -- even though there is many a murky precinct between the two tendencies, and attempts to define one approach as against the approach deconstruct themselves in seconds.)

American Hybrid is devoted to work that is innovative/experimental in some respects, traditional/conventional in others. The implied argument is that a lot of vital, worthwhile poetry is emerging from the murky precinct between the two broad tendencies.

Part of me -- the Steve Evans-influenced part, I might call it -- wants to say, "make up your mind! Be one or the other! Quit trying to have it both ways!" If you try to steer between Scylla and Charybdis here, aren't you likely to end up with posing, untheorized gestures towards the avant-garde, or pandering gestures towards the traditional without the honest commitment to craft that would make them work? Aren't you avoiding the challenge of pursuing the logic of your poetic, whichever it may be?

But as we read along, it turns out the work here tends to be good. I didn't like everything -- but I found everything was worth the reading. Just about all of it is by very-well-known to moderately-well-known poets with long publishing histories, and the quality of the work tends to be high. I could not figure out what exactly is experimental in James Galvin or traditional in Alice Notley, but 5-6 pages of either tend to be pages well worth reading, so why complain?

Still... anthologies tend to be more memorable if they are synecdoches of a tendency or movement. The feeling that the poets gathered share a poetic -- even if they would never agree to any explicit statement of what that poetic is -- can make an anthology feel greater than the sum of its poems. American Hybrid is a synecdoche, let's say, of a tendency to blend tendencies. But to appreciate how a traditional poet is embracing innovation, or how an innovative poet is embracing tradition, you have to read a lot of that poet's work. A 5-6 page selection of his or her work does not suffice, even if the poems are excellent. And the poems don't speak to each other, quite. If the goal of an anthology like this is to announce, "something's going on," then American Hybrid leaves us with no idea of what that something is, other than that a lot of strong, interesting poems are getting written these days.

Maybe that's enough. This is a Cole Swensen project, after all. It's hard to imagine her being off base about anything.

I hope neither she nor St. John had anything to do with the author bios, however, which are written in the most dreadful blurb-ese. "Their intense musicality links them to the Romantics and their seventeenth century precursors, while his use of collage, rupture, and fragmentation position his work firmly within postmodernism and its critique of the consolidated subject, which dovetails with his interest in the Middle English notion of the lyric as public song." Oh, does it now? That's a fine thing, indeed, the dovetailing. And thank goodness the musicality is so intense -- were it less so, it might remind us only of the Romantics, without quite evoking their seventeenth century precursors (and who would that be for fuck's sake, Traherne? Milton?). There's a gem like this in almost every bio. If the anthology goes to a new edition, I say out with 'em.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tom McCarthy, _Tintin and the Secret of Literature_

I READ REMAINDER a few years ago and had that giddy falling-in-love-with-an-author feeling I've had on a handful of other occasions: The Ghost Writer, City of Glass, The Age of Wire and String, to limit myself to living novelists. That I have urged the novel on two or three dozen people since with terrible results (none of them liked it nearly as much as I did, and many of them hated it) probably ought to have eroded my enthusiasm, but did not, so I was vibrating with glee when I picked up C. a few months ago -- still haven't read it, though, having impulsively decided I wanted to get through the back catalog first.

Which led me to this volume. Tintin is a French comic (ran 1929-1976) about a baby-faced journalist/investigator/adventurer, beloved in France and a cult favorite in the USA and many other places. It had been recommended to me a few times, but I actually had not read a single one of the twenty-odd Tintin collections when I picked up McCarthy's book (a deficit I have since remedied). Add in the fact that I do not usually enjoy laboriously rigorous, theory-heavy analyses of popular culture, and odds that I would enjoy the book were slender...

...but enjoy it I did. McCarthy won my confidence early on by probing the assumptions of the genre to which his book superficially belongs: "All of which raises the question: is it literature? Should we, when we read the Tintin books, treat them with the reverence we would afford to Shakespeare, Dickens, Rabelais, and so forth?" We can (and McCarthy does) train upon them the same sophisticated critical lenses that we use for Shakespeare et al., but does that make them equally worthy of attention? "Or is this bad logic," McCarthy asks, "fit only for cultural theory seminars and Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-as-Postmodern-Signifier conferences?" I barked with joy when I read that.

Now that I knew McCarthy had no plans to clobber me over the head with the High Seriousness of Tintin, I could relax and enjoy the show, and what a performance it is. He keeps a half-dozen or so powerful critical lenses in play like spinning plates: Debord, Bataille, Barthes (especially S/Z), Abraham & Torok on crypts, Derrida's Given Time 1: Counterfeit Money (no Foucault, but perhaps à la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien?). He has a true comics-obsessive's command of the details of the texts and their web of cross-references, patterns, and parallels. His style is a dance on a high wire, witty, nimble but weight-bearing, a breathtaking synthesis of energy and balance.

Hergé (Georges Remi, creator of Tintin) even turns out to have an ambiguous quasi-collaborationist past, like Paul de Man (for the same newspaper, of all things). Is this turning into a turn-of-the 20th-century trope? The King's Speech emphasized Edward VIII's softness on fascism, and it even shows up in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows via Dumbledore's foolish youthful allegiances. Not to mention Remains of the Day or Banville's Shroud. Is naïvete about Hitler now our archetype of the ominous biographical secret?

Secrets turn out to be the secret of literature for McCarthy, or at least the creation of the impression of having a secret, secretiveness without an actual secret. A useful tip when considering Remainder, its plot set ticking by an accident about which one learns nothing, and perhaps even C., according to reviews set ticking by Freud's Wolf Man and Abraham & Torok's re-reading of same. Tintin and the Secret of Literature has nicely whetted my appetite. First, though: Men in Space.

Monday, January 17, 2011

William Gibson, _Pattern Recognition_

THIS IS THE first novel by Gibson I have read. It represents a departure of sorts, I gather, in that it is set in the present rather than the future. It nonetheless gives us a very futuristic take on its present (circa 2002, apparently) -- amazing gadgets, instant global communication, high mobility, and so on.

The main character, Cayce Pollard, is a "cool hunter," making a living thanks to her uncanny ability to know what will be cool next, information for which corporations pay well. Ironically, she is "allergic" to brands -- once she calls attention of commerce to a cool thing, it will be commodified and branded, thus rendering it loathsome to her.

Her great passion of the moment is "the footage," excerpts of some film project, periodically posted on the internet and subject to intense scrutiny by a devoted fan base. The makers and exact nature of the film are unknown, but a big corporation wants to find its provenance -- with a view to making a handsome profit, presumably. Who better to hire to track down the mysterious auteur(s) than Cayce? She takes the job -- even though she thus risks of commercial exploitation of something from which she gets great joy and meaning.

So, the novel turns into Cayce's search for the makers of the footage. After a lot of globe-trotting, clue-finding, and noir-ish hijinks, she finds them.

I wanted to know how being "found" was going to affect the makers of the footage and the project itself. Would it change, be turned into a mere product among products, no longer satisfy the imagination? The novel seems uninterested in those questions, though. Mission accomplished, Cayce finds a soul-mate, gets a bundle of cash (some of which she distributes to the deserving), and discovers that her brand-phobia is clearing up. Presumably, all live happily ever after.

On the strength of this novel, hard for me to tell why Gibson is sometimes hailed as the heir to Phillip K.Dick. Perhaps I'm missing something.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hilary Mantel, _Wolf Hall_

MANTEL HAS BEEN on my short list of truly great historical novelists (not to mention my list of great living novelists of any description) since A Place of Greater Safety, probably the best novel about the French Revolution I have ever read -- its sole serious competitor, for my money, is Anatole France's Les Dieux Ont Soif.

Wolf Hall is every bit as good. It may not be up there with War and Peace or Gravity's Rainbow, if we count those as historical novels, but it need not blush to stand alongside the historical novels of F. M. Ford, Graves, Yourcenar and Vidal.

One great quality of Wolf Hall is that it assumes you already know what an educated person ought to know about Tudor England. Most historical novels assume you know next to nothing about the period when the fiction is set (most readers of historical fiction, unfortunately, justify the assumption), leading to great lumps of exposition, often in the form of one character giving a lecture to another character, catching the reader up on personages and events at the expense of narrative pace and verisimilitude. For reader for whom historical fiction is a substitute for reading history, all this exposition is crucial, even desirable. And thus we have the corpus of James Michener.

Mantel is different. On p. 19, the novel's chief character, Thomas Cromwell, learns from his employer, Cardinal Wolsey, that King Henry VIII has decided his wife the queen will never be able to bear him a son, and so insists on a divorce and a new wife. No mention yet of Anne Boleyn, Martin Luther, Thomas More, etc. -- just a conversation between an ecclesiastical powerbroker and his trusted right hand about how tricky this business could be. Most historical novelists would be in exposition overdrive at this point, or frantically signalling how shudderingly important all this is -- Tudor history, and a lot of European history, teeter on the outcome. But Mantel doesn't bat an eye. No tiresome lectures, no ominous chords on the organ... just two men talking about a troublesome matter that has come up at work. After all, neither Wolsey nor Cromwell knows, Henry does not know, no one knows all that will shake out here...so the narration does not know either. Mantel knows, you the reader (should) know, but leaving the unfolding-drama stuff tacit makes the scene dramatic.

Okay -- second point. Cromwell. Brilliantly imagined. Famously intelligent, brutal, cunning, the English Machiavelli and so on, the blustering heavy of Robert Bolt's Man for All Seasons. Mantel's Cromwell is intelligent, cunning, capable of brutality even, but he is compelling and captivating, too, from the very first paragraph when he rises from the dead -- well, strictly speaking, he comes back to consciousness after a savage beating from his father, but it's as if he is able to learn from every punishment fate hands him and come back stronger, turn adversity into opportunity. What does not kill him makes him stronger -- and for the length of this novel, nothing is strong enough to kill him.

He is a self-fashioner in the Greenblatt sense, his personhood a work of art and learning, not something he was simply born with -- he runs rings around the boobies who think their birth entitles them to place and power. He survives not only his abusive father, but the perils of war and trade, and the perils of loyal service when Wolsey falls -- by staying true to his man as Wolsey suffers disgrace and death, Cromwell ends up Henry's most trusted man, the most powerful non-royal personage in the kingdom.

There was to be, eventually, a fall from which Cromwell could not rise, and it is faintly foreshadowed when Cromwell turns in the last paragraph towards Wolf Hall, home of the Seymours -- again, you have to know some history to catch the tone here -- but we bid him goodbye at a crucial moment, when he has caught More on the hip and sent him to where saints go. Mantel's More is also compelling imagined -- intelligent and of adamantine integrity, as advertised, but arrogant, proud, cold, maddeningly legalistic, fully capable of sending heretics to the stake when he had the power to do so.

Final point -- Mantel is a magnificent stylist. Take this passage of Cromwell ruminating on the old superstitious England that he, as Self-Made Modern European Man, believes ought to wither, but which is as unwilling either to change or to disappear as More, and like him is ferociously clinging to its existence. More is refusing to swear to an oath that Anne is queen and her children the legitimate royal heirs, and Cromwell imagines the rest of Olde England likewise refusing to swear:

Who will swear the hobs and bogarts who live in the hedges and hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future. (471)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Philip Roth, _Nemesis_

According to the "Books by Philip Roth" list in the front matter of Nemesis, his recent short novels Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis constitute a group with its own name: ""Nemeses: Short Novels." Works for me. In each book, the main character is pursued and brought down by an implacable antagonist, furthermore an antagonist harbored within, a character quirk, an ambition, a weakness, a disease.

We all carry our own antagonist with us, it's true, some hamartia or other, if only in the shape of our own mortality, ticking away, its due date known only to itself, but certain to arrive.

The mortality ticking away in all of us dominates all of Roth's recent work, explicably enough: besides the four "Nemeses" novels, death looms in the last "Kepesh" novel, The Dying Animal, and the last "Zuckerman" novel, Exit Ghost.

Actually, the recent Roth book Nemesis most reminds me of is The Plot Against America. Perhaps because both are set in the mid-1940s, during World War II, but more because both are about fear and the ways fear undoes communities. (Tim Parks, in his review of Nemesis, mentions that the leitmotif of all the recent Roth short novels is "dread.") In Plot, the fear-plague is rooted in anti-semitism, in Nemesis, in a polio epidemic, but in both cases the evil we hope to purge in order to restore goodness, decency, and stability is always already us. The relevance of both novels to their own moment, the Bush II/Tea Party era with its fear of Muslims, immigrants, gay marriage, what have you, could not be plainer.

As for the novel as a novel -- another gem. What can I say? For me, he can do no wrong. The protagonist. Bucky Cantor, has a low cognitive wattage for a Roth protagonist -- the lowest since Ira Ringold, a.k.a "Iron Rinn," in I Married a Communist -- but there's enough to him to make his tragedy resonate. I'm nevertheless grateful for the contrasting perspective provided by the novel's narrator, Arnie Mesnikoff, in the final chapter, hinting that Bucky's tragedy need not have been as tragic as he insisted on making it.

What an amazing writer this guy is. And utterly sui generis.

The "about the author" note concludes by mentioning that Roth is the only living author published in the Library of America series, and then mentions, "The last of nine volumes is scheduled for publication in 2013." What the...? Does Roth know when he will finish his last novel? Does he know when he will die? (It's impossible to imagine him being alive and not writing novels.) How does he know his collected works will be complete by 2013?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ariana Reines, _The Cow_

SOME UNNAMEABLE PLANE in contemporary letters is defined by Selah Saterstrom's The Pink Institution, Lara Glenum's Maximum Gaga, and this volume, with their interweaving of feminism with accounts of industrialized meat production. Which is more grotesque, all three seem to whisper, what men do to women or what men do to cows and pigs? Does either activity tell us something we need to know about the other?

In Reines's The Cow, the answer to the latter question is yes, the answer to the former stomach-churningly open. The book bristles with hurt, anger, and intelligence. It bristles also with appropriated texts, from the Bible, the Koran, Cixous, Ashbery, Deleuze & Guattari, and particularly tellingly from a website giving instructions of how to turn the parts of a cow that are inedible by humans into feed for other cows ("RESULTING CARCASS MEAL CAN SOMETIMES BE USED AS AN ANIMAL FEED INGREDIENT"). This process was critical, as we now know, in the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, "mad cow" disease.

The language of the book has an extraordinary range, from the paratactic and traumatized ("Blowhole") to what sounds like feverish improvisation ""In Which She Pays for Her Tardiness") to the relatively controlled and conventional, though not a whit less powerful ("Le Legs de Ses Tristesses").

The strongest impression left by the book is a paradoxical, but in some ways empowering one -- that there is no way mere writing can deal with the harm the book addresses, yet no way to address that harm except by writing.

I'd like to read more of Reines, but her Coeur de Lion, I see, costs several hundred dollars. Probably worth it, but somewhat beyond my means.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Donald Revell, _My Mojave_

THESE POEMS BREATHE an unusual air, desert air perhaps. They sometimes seem to be on a pillar in a desert, subsisting on locusts and honey, waiting for visions. Revell seems aware of the mystical tradition in poetry in English (one of the poems here is titled "For Thomas Traherne"), and the quickest way to describe them, I think, would be to call them modern variations on that tradition... but saying that suggests they sound like Kahlil Gibran, and they are a good deal stranger than that. Dislocation, surface incoherence, the sense of something incommunicable, a message of patience within urgency or urgency within patience...

The other cheek spat on her
O glory of the snow
Go with Mary
Letters of the law
Go with Mary

So ends "Ayre."

In the government of Heaven
The grass is truly higher than here
Stones are warm as a circus
The kingfisher's common name is Abraham Lincoln
My son leaves a mark on everything
A shore of pines and one of birches
Where my rough feet shall Thy smooth praises sing

So ends "The Government of Heaven." (The last line, Google tells me, is from Edward Taylor.)

I don't know why part of me is surprised by the idea of a stone is as warm as a circus -- what do I know about the temperatures of circuses? -- nor why part of me thinks, "Good God, he's right... stones are as warm as a circus." And suddenly it seems all but inevitable that, in the greater scheme, could we know all there is to know, the kingfisher would be commonly known as Abraham Lincoln.

Somehow, none of this ever seems like good old-fashioned surrealism. It all seems like discovery, simply and plainly announced. Or as simply and plainly as it can be announced.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Paul Auster, _Sunset Park_

ONLY RECENTLY LEARNED that Auster was born in Newark -- he grew up in South Orange, but was born in the same city as Philip Roth, nearly a generation later (1933, 1947). As they happen to be two of my favorite writers, I tried to think of other shared traits -- both Jewish, both like to work with a limited palette of favorite themes, both (of late) very regularly productive, with a new novel every fall -- that was about as far as I got, however.

Sunset Park has its share of Austerian themes: Brooklyn, the books and arts world, ruptures between fathers and sons, secret wounds and long lingering guilt, unusual photography projects, bumbling visionaries, the amazing woman whose love might set everything right... and I could continue. But the narration is a departure, for him. Auster almost always uses first-person narration. The only recent exceptions to this rule are Travels in the Scriptorium, his parable-novella about his own career, and Timbuktu, whose protagonist was a dog; before that, you'd have to go all the way back to The Music of Chance and New York Trilogy.

And not only do we have third-person narration, but we have it from a variety of points of view, not only that of Miles Heller, a classic Auster under-a-cloud literary loner, but also those of his father, his mother, and the other 20-somethings with whom he shares a Brooklyn squat. Lots of novels uses multiple p.o.v.'s, but I don't think Auster has written one before.

This development has at least a couple of noteworthy consequences. One, while the style is still mostly lean, it's more relaxed, a little more writerly, more exploratory. Since Auster is rendering a character's consciousness, not what he or she might utter or write down, the sentences get longer, more meandering. The focus shifts, the course changes; sometimes the sentences are so full of detail they become virtual catalogues. For instance, Miles's father, Morris, at one low point imagines becoming an alter ego he calls the "Can Man," whose life is imagined in a sentence that runs the bottom of p 178 to the bottom of p. 180. An excerpt:

...in his mind the Can Man is a Mohawk Indian, a descendant of the Mohawks who settled in Brooklyn in the early part of the last century, the community of Mohawks who came here to become construction workers on the tall buildings going up in Manhattan, Mohawks because for some reason Mohawks have no fear of heights, they feel at home in the air and were able to dance along the beams and girders without the slightest dread or vertiginous wobble, and the Can Man is a descendant of those fearless people who built the towers of Manhattan, a crazy customer, alas, not quite right in the head, a daft old loon who spends his days pushing his shopping cart through the neighborhood, collecting the bottles and cans that will fetch him five cents apiece, and when the Can Man speaks, more often than not he will punctuate his remarks with absurd, outlandishly inappropriate advertising slogans....

And that's only about a sixth of it. Has Auster ever resorted to a two-page sentence before? It's not his characteristic mode, certainly. A new trick for an old dog? I found myself enjoying it, actually.

The other noteworthy consequence is that the novel does not have the claustrophobic, walls-closing-in feel that Auster is so good at rendering as his main character runs out of options. That unfinished story-within-a-story in Oracle Night, of the character locked in the archive, is quintessential Auster. But in a novel with more than one point of view, the reader does not (thankfully, perhaps) have the same sense of foreclosed possibilities.

As the novel opens, Miles Heller has been out of touch with his parents for more than seven years, indirectly as a consequence of his feelings of guilt over his role in a stepbrother's fatal accident, which he has kept secret since the accident occurred in his early teens. Having dropped out of Brown after his junior year, he has been living nomadically and scratching out a marginal existence. He is living in Florida, holding down a job cleaning out foreclosed homes, when he meets and falls in love with a high school student, Pilar Sanchez. This sets in motion events that take him back to New York City. Living in dodgy circumstances in a squat, he reunites with his parents, resolves to go back to work on his degree, and plans to marry Pilar, who has won a scholarship to Columbia, once she turns eighteen. Despite some ominous moments, everything is coming up roses -- then, in the novel's closing pages, catastrophe descends. In the final sentences, Miles is headed out of town, on the lam after having assaulted a police officer, everything lost...

... but since Miles's perspective is not the only one allowed in the novel, you wonder if everything is really as lost as it seems to him. By including other consciousnesses than his, the novel has more room in it, room enough perhaps for him eventually to realize he need not flee. The ending is far from hopeful, but the narrative structure of this novel conveys that there is always more going on than Miles knows, so the loss and desperation of the final pages do not seem utterly final.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Tony Tost, _Invisible Bride_

THIS HAS BEEN sitting on my shelf for what must be seven years or so -- why I finally picked it up, I do not know, but turns out it's excellent. All prose poems -- and they really seem to be prose poems, not "short shorts," not lyrical essays, but poems. Why is that? Well, let's say the poems conjure up their own space, their own time, seem to belong to a universe of their own that lies on a tangent to ours...

...a lyrical essay might do as much, perhaps? True. Inserted into my copy is a brief interview with Tost, who cites as influences not only a long list of poets and a few musicians (including the Kinks, good for him), but also examples of what he calls "internally-charged and/or visionary prose": Keats's letters, A Season in Hell, Alexander Theroux's Primary Colors, Cyril Connolly's (!) Unquiet Grave, Ben Marcus's Age of Wire and String (good for him again), Joe Wenderoth's Letters to Wendy's.

People are still coming across The Unquiet Grave these days... good to know.

So, um, yeah, they could be lyrical essays, but they unscroll with a certain intuitive illogic that I myself associate with poetry. It's also fun, if I can call it so, that one doesn't know quite what the structure of the book is. Some poems have titles; some simply occupy the top of the page. Should one respond to two or three untitled pieces on succeeding pages as related, or not? There is no table of contents, but there are six sections -- are they six sections of a whole? Or is each section a whole of some kind? The three texts of section 6 seem to belong together; perhaps the texts of section 5 do as well, although none too insistently. The texts of section 3 initially seem to go together, but then seem not to. For some reason, I found this tending-to-cohere-then-refraining-from-cohering not irritating, but delightful. Patterns would kaleidoscopically align, then, with a quick shake, disappear.

One more indication of the contemporary flourishing of poetry -- I can discover a great new book of poetry without even leaving my office.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Nicholson Baker, _The Anthologist_

NOT SURE WHY I waited slightly over a year to read this; I bought it right away, and Baker is among my favorite writers. Pages 121-23 of The Anthologist reminded me why he is. The narrator describes going down a flight of stairs carrying a heavy-ish computer; he misjudges the final step and stumbles: "I was really falling. If I dropped the computer I could catch my fall. But I didn't want to drop the computer. So I did a strange low dance of clutching the computer and running forward. I was like a mother chimp fleeing with her baby." He collides with the door, not dropping the computer, whew!, but catching a finger between the computer and the doorjamb. As the pain subsides, the narrator realizes he now has a perfectly good reason to (continue to) delay in writing the introduction to his otherwise complete poetry anthology, the non-composition of which is the main MacGuffin of the novel: "And I knew that I was going to be fine, but that I might not be able to type for a while, which would give me a reprieve on writing my introduction. A great whimpery happiness passed through me like clear urine."

Who else is going to give you either of those two amazing similes about the mother chimp or the clear urine, to say nothing of "strange low dance"or "whimpery happiness"?

I have read all of Baker books -- in the spirit of full disclosure, following Baker's own example in U&I, I should note that I did not finish Double Fold -- and they seem to me to fall into three categories: (1) lengthy, minutely detailed tours of the narrator's/writer's idiosyncratically furnished mind (The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, U & I, The Size of Thoughts, A Box of Matches), (2) dialogues (Vox, Checkpoint), and (3) careful arguments in favor of positions that almost no one else holds, such as that libraries should hold on to all their old newspapers rather than preserve them on microfilm (Double Fold) or that World War II was unnecessary (Human Smoke). The Fermata and The Everlasting Story of Nory don't fit anywhere in my scheme, although the latter is among my very favorites).

The Anthologist is mainly a first category Baker book, a dérive through the consciousness of Paul Chowder, a reasonably successful poet (three books, one poem read on the radio by Garrison Keillor), who, having demonstrated his utter unfitness for teaching creative writing, is hoping his almost-ready-to-publish anthology, Only Rhyme, will repair the hole in his fortunes.
Here is where The Anthologist almost turns into a third category Baker: Chowder believes that rhyme and meter, after a century's eclipse, are about to regain center stage in English language poetry, and a good deal of the novel consists of his making this case. He has a lot to say about rhyme's role in the acquisition of language ("Rhyme taught us to talk"; see pages 106-12) and the needs it satisfies, and also makes an elaborate case that iambic pentameter is actually "a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto. Really. I mean it."

Despite a superabundance of opinions about rhyme and meter in poetry, Chowder is having a terrible time writing the introduction to his anthology; his partner, Roz, has said she will leave him unless he gets it done -- indeed, as the novel opens, she has already, somewhat reluctantly, carried out this promise. When he is not thinking about rhyme, or the wrongness of the label "iambic pentameter," or the departure of Alice Quinn as poetry editor at the New Yorker and Paul Muldoon's accession to the position, or Louise Bogan, or Theodore Roethke, or Sara Teasdale, or Vachel Lindsay, or his bête noire Ezra Pound, he is thinking about how to win Roz back. Which -- spoiler alert -- he does, having turned in a 230-page draft of an introduction to his publisher.

Is the novel itself that draft? (It's 243 pages in print.) I like to think so. And I hope Baker actually compiled Chowder's anthology and that it will be turning up on the shelves one fine day.