Monday, 31 August 2009

B and Me

Nicholson Baker had ordered me a coffee; it was steaming on the table as I arrived slightly harried from yet another panicked dash across London. I thanked him and apologised for both my lateness and my unfortunate reaction to caffeine. His voice was calming, his beard white against his blushed skin, as he suggested I sat down and poured myself some water. It wasn’t quite enough to steady my nerves.

We were sequestered in a chintzy private room, the kind I imagined being used for interviewing supporting actors in action movies. The sounds from Wigmore Street wafted through an open window and I worried that the sound recording function on my mobile phone would prove to be no match for the atmospherics. I had visions of getting home to find that Baker’s rich, sonorous voice was as clear as mulch at the bottom of a well. But it was all I had, so it had to be okay.

We relaxed into a long conversation about technology, dirty realism, David Foster Wallace, Winston Churchill, European literature, modern American literature, poetry, meter and rhyme, and the importance of voice. I would have liked to have talked longer, such was his erudition and interest; but we’d already had two hours and I had already made him late for a lunch date with his agent. I could have listened to him for another two hours without even realising it.

Nicholson Baker’s prose is exacting, personal and distinct: it is his alone. It seems to me that there is a tiny part of literature to which only Baker has access. Take A Box of Matches. Who else could get away with beginning a novel: “Good Morning, it’s January and it’s 4.17 a.m.”? Who else would want to begin a novel this way? The Anthologist begins in the same manner “Hello, this is Paul Chowder and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” Such simplicity is both deceptive and a hallmark of Baker’s writing: as soon as you open one of his books you are immediately into the action, into the meat of the book. U&I begins with a specific time and a specific image (Baker propped up on blood dotted pillow cases, writing on his keyboard). Each one is a study in what it means to be here now.

When I asked him about this, Baker talked fulsomely, self-deprecatingly about how he writes, and how he struggles with plot and suspense, two key elements of all books, especially in these exalted times when story is utterly key to a book’s commercial viability. Baker’s approach is that of an American channelling the formal and textual inventiveness of European Literature. The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, in particular, are the kind of books one could well imagine Perec and Queneau nodding along to, appreciating their structural limitations and Baker’s ducks and feints to keep the prose alive.

But while Perec and Queneau are rightly lauded for their Oulipo games, Baker remains a marginal figure in American letters. His taste of fame came in the early nineties, when his two “sex” books, Vox and The Fermata, steamed up the bestseller lists. He could easily have turned out similar novels for the rest of the decade, become known as America’s pornographer in chief and as the Updike of Generation X. But instead he turned an increasingly strange corner.

Writing first about the life of a nine-year-old girl, then about a middle-aged writer, then an almost comic-book-style novel-in-voices about a planned assassination of George W Bush, Baker’s novels since 1994 have been diverse creatures, but they retain his slightly unbalanced view of the world, one that can take your breath away with the precision of a sentence, or a phrase’s unusual placement. There is a great moment in The Anthologist when Paul Chowder is talking about Longfellow or another dead poet and after a long descriptive passage he adds, “I miss my mum and dad.” It is so simple; so heartbreaking and it’s entirely typical of a writer who appears not to be trying so hard, but is in fact straining to get to some kind of truth. Perhaps not one he can fathom, but one that it is being hunted out nonetheless.

As we sat in that softly furnished room, I mentioned of my love for Richard Yates, and Nicholson Baker nodded and mentioned how he had fallen under the spell of Revolutionary Road some time in the mid-1980s. A few months after he read it, he found out that Yates drank at this one bar in Boston. Baker plucked up the courage to go to the bar to see him. Yates was drunk and surrounded by a crowd of people. Baker sat with a tonic water watching them, then saw Yates stagger towards the door.

Realising this might be his only chance to speak to him, Baker followed Yates out and a short conversation ensued, one of those fan-to-hero exchanges that are both awkward and strangely beautiful. Yates went off into the night, Baker back to his place. “It’s not much of a story,” Baker said, “but there you go.” To me though, the idea that these two authors, both of whom mean so much, meeting for that one occasion is quite a lot of a story, quite a delightful anecdote. Not because, as you might think, that there was an element of passing on the baton, but of the opposite.

Nicholson Baker’s fiction owes little to Yates, nor indeed to Updike, but these writers inspire him to write – just not like them. This is something important, I feel. Just because you admire or even revere a writer, doesn’t mean that you should feel like you have to follow their lead. What Baker has managed to do – despite, or perhaps because of his clutchbag of influences – over the years is to cultivate a style that could only come from his keyboard.

Baker’s lasting legacy will not be the use of footnotes in fiction – though through the prism of David Foster Wallace’s death, this might be a short term effect – but the importance of finding an identifying, clear and natural voice. No one aims to ape his style, because it would be such obvious theft if a writer attempted it. In his fiction, Baker sets the bar for new writers. You might not appreciate his language, or his strictures, or the characters he writes, but each world he creates is his own, very own. It’s a lesson that all writers should consider, and why Nicholson Baker should become every bit as important and influential as Updike, Roth, Bellow and all the rest of those grand-daddies of American letters.

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