Loads of Learned Lumber

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.

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