Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Nicholson Baker, _Traveling Sprinkler_

PAUL CHOWDER, THE closed-forms poet from The Anthologist is back, as are the indignation over the USA's murderous foreign policy from Checkpoint and the daily-journal-like pacing and oblique forays from A Box of Matches and the love of Debussy from any number of places in the oeuvre of Nicholson Baker.

In the course of The Anthologist, Paul's beloved, Roz, left him for failing to finish the overdue introduction to his poetry anthology, Only Rhyme. That novel's closing pages, once Paul finally does get the intro drafted, hint at reconciliation, but when Traveling Sprinkler opens, Roz is seriously involved with a serious fellow with the serious first name of Harris.  Paul is about to turn 55, is stuck with his latest manuscript, is drinking too much, has taken up cigar-smoking, and is Roz-less.  He is in a parlous state, in short.

His solution is to re-invent himself as a songwriter.  He gets a cheap acoustic guitar, gets nowhere with it, then discovers Logic (I'm a GarageBand person, myself, but I understand the allure) and begins composing protest songs to dance beats. Well, why not? What he mainly needs to do, as is blindingly obvious even to him, is to get back together with Roz. Just as he somehow found a way to get his introduction written in The Anthologist, so in this novel he takes a lot of twists and turns and feints and dodges to get exactly where he was bound to be going all along, just like a…traveling sprinkler. Ah, ha!

We do not read Nicholson Baker for his plots, though, do we? No, we read Nicholson Baker because no one else is going to give us sentences like:

On top I snuck in a flatted sixth chord for an extra magic-ass squirt of funkosity. (165)

You're starting to get strange purple interference patterns, fringe moiré patterns, at the edges of each metaphor, where it overlaps its neighbor. (41)

I went to Planet Fitness and parked next to an empty beer bottle. (204)

I admired him very much even before we played basketball together, because of how well he drummed on his algebra textbook. (211)

Up through the tractor the water goes and out the little holes at the ends of the spinning whirlies, flying in a glittering bagel of sinusoidal shapes out over the garden. (239)

You do not, as a reader, worry much about Paul; he will muddle through, or he won't, and if he doesn't, it's his own damn fault. You will keep reading, though, for always around the next corner will be another authentic Bakerian gem.

It also turns out the Baker has really good taste in modern songwriting. Hey, Nicholson Baker!  Check out Julie Byrne!

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