The Barnes & Noble Review
Nicholson Baker burst upon the literary scene in 1990 with The Mezzanine, a powerful meditation on the familiar that takes place during a ride on an escalator. Box of Matches reinvigorates the formula in this short, quiet tale about 44-year-old Emmett, a married father of two and a textbook editor, and his new regime of getting up at four in the morning to reflect on his life. Very little else takes place. We witness Emmett's daily ritual of striking a match and lighting a fire. We watch him bump into furniture, blind himself by turning off the lights too soon, set his sock on fire, and sit and drink his coffee. And we listen to him think -- about work, his father, what he ate last night, something funny his wife said, or how his pet duck likes to peck the cat on the rear end.
Baker's straightforward prose captures with razor-sharp precision the minutiae of daily life and the uninspired thoughts that occupy most of our time, raising them into the realm of poetry and encapsulating Emmett's life as the essence of the collective human experience. Emmett's solitude and its trappings -- the fire, the coffee, the silence -- become a sort of divine experience, and his daily reflections turn into the most devout secular prayer -- poetry without pretense. A Box of Matches offers extraordinary insight into the sovereignty of the individual human experience; this unusual novel's quiet power will strike a fire in your heart. Stephen Bloom
Los Angeles Times
A writer must be more than ordinarily talented and skillful to be able to keep the reader interested in an account of such ordinary things. Baker is certainly talented and skillful, and in this book his fans will recognize his distinctive characteristics at work: limpid writing, a detached yet affectionate focus on the simple details of mundane life and a homey, rambling style that many readers find refreshingly unassuming, though some may find it a shade too self-conscious in its modesty. — Merle Rubin
The science of the insignificant has always been Baker's field of study. Treading a fine line between microcosmic dazzlement and banality, he has carved out a minuscule kingdom for himself. After his recent excursion into nonfiction (the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Double Fold), he returns to fiction with a novel in the classic Baker tradition. For Emmett, a 44-year-old father and textbook editor, the predawn wintry darkness is an invitation to musings and meditations on life's events-make that nonevents. Each chapter begins virtually identically ("Good morning, it's 4:45 a.m...."), with Emmett reflecting on something as he sips coffee and warms himself by the fire: the family's pet duck, outside in the cold; a well-worn briefcase; an alternative career as a lichen expert; the idea of collecting paper towel designs. His family-two children and wife Claire-occasionally appear in his ruminations, and his love for them is palpable. But they never emerge as more than background figures, because Emmett's preoccupation is with himself; at one point, he (literally) gathers lint from his navel. Baker struggles to manufacture drama ("Last night my sleep was threatened by a toe-hole in my sock"), and his prose is evocative (a match bursting into flame becomes a "dandelion head of little sparks"). He is such an excellent writer, a master of descriptive detail with an unusual perspective on the world, that he can almost be forgiven for his tendency to focus on the mundane-almost. Emmett's life may seem rich to him, but it isn't rich enough to propel an entire novel. Even readers with a weakness for Baker's particular brand of minutiae may find themselves hoping that next time he will find a subject worthier of his prose. Agent, Melanie Jackson. Author tour. (Jan. 14) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Baker specializes in quirky, small-scale novels that flout most of the accepted rules of fiction while at the same time retaining an old-fashioned, reader-friendly accessibility. His books are not so much anti-novels as anti-blockbusters, intentionally pitched in a minor key. His new book is a comic monolog in 33 chapters written on a series of winter mornings in Maine. Emmett, the middle-aged narrator, lights a fire in the fireplace using just one wooden match, drinks his coffee, and jots down his thoughts before the rest of the family wakes. The novel ends when the match box is empty. Emmett writes about his wife and kids; his pet duck, Gertrude; and his doomed ant farm. He evaluates technological improvements in paper towels and toilet plungers. He tests the combustibility of various types of kitchen trash. Baker is clearly trying to recapture the wide-eyed wonder and laugh-out-loud humor of his celebrated debut, The Mezzanine, after the overly clever sex novels Vox and The Fermata. Fans will love this book, but newcomers may find it too flimsy and insubstantial to take seriously. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/02.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles
Baker (The Everlasting Story of Nory, 1998, etc.) applies his fine-tooth comb-or magnifying glass-to a short and tightly controlled meander through the hyper-dailiness of domestic life-in a kind of extended prose haiku. Emmett begins getting up very early each cold morning to start the fireplace and sit in front of it-say, around four or five o'clock. This habit may have started after his wife took the family "to see the sunrise on New Year's morning," and it's going to continue only as long as Emmett's box of matches holds out-for 33 short little chapters, each beginning with "Good morning." "What you do first thing can influence your whole day," says Emmett. His own regimen is to make coffee, light the fire, eat an apple (all in the dark), then touch-type on his laptop the day's batch of words, the ones we're reading. What does he talk about? His belly-button lint (he tosses it in the fire), urination (whether to stand up or sit down), beards (he shaves his, then changes his mind), the almost-clogged shower drain. There are, admittedly, other matters, conveyed often with considerable charm: amusing descriptions of the family's pet duck (named Gertrude), the tale of a doomed ant farm, tender observations about Phoebe (14 and self-conscious), a recounting of Emmett's first date with wife Claire (a walk to a cash machine), of getting the flu ("My head swivels listlessly, like a brussels sprout in boiling water"), of Henry's desire (at eight) to be close to his father, even memories of Emmett's first typewriter (an Olivetti) and first briefcase (good quality). But somehow Emmett fails, throughout all his associative maunderings, to grow deeper, or weightier, or therefore engaging. Heobserves as much as thinks; treats all things in a single tone; and seems gratuitous and inflated when he says, "I want to take care of the world." Skilled. Often charming. Minor.
From the Publisher
“[Baker’s] most affecting and satisfying novel yet.” —Newsweek
“Wonderful. . . . An opportunity for heightened mindfulness. . . . Baker has made an astonishing specialty of showing just how much is going on in life, and in our heads, when it seems that nothing is.” —Walter Kirn, The New York Times Book Review
“Hypnotic. . . . By simply striking a match, Baker has traveled through space and time to set a world on fire.” —The Village Voice
“Tender, melancholy . . . As Virginia Woolf did, Baker has genuinely transformed the way fiction can render our experience on the page. There nothing else like A Box of Matches out there.” —The Seattle Times
Read an Excerpt
Good morning, it’s January and it’s 4:17 a.m., and I’m going to sit here in the dark. I’m in the living room in my blue bathrobe, with an armchair pulled up to the fireplace. There isn’t much in the way of open flame at the moment because the underlayer of balled-up newspaper and paper-towel tubes has burned down and the wood hasn’t fully caught yet. So what I’m looking at is an orangey ember-cavern that resembles a monster’s sloppy mouth, filled with half-chewed, glowing bits of fire-meat. When it’s very dark like this you lose your sense of scale. Sometimes I think I’m steering a space-plane into a gigantic fissure in a dark and remote planet. The planet’s crust is beginning to break up, allowing an underground sea of lava to ooze out. Continents are tipping and foundering like melting icebergs, and I must fly in on my highly maneuverable rocket and save the colonists who are trapped there.
Last night my sleep was threatened by a toe-hole in my sock. I had known of the hole when I put the sock on in the morning–it was a white tube sock–but a hole seldom bothers me during the daytime. I can and do wear socks all day that have a monstrous rear-tear through which the entire heel projects like a dinner roll. But at night the edges of the hole come alive. I was reading my book of Robert Service poems last night around nine-thirty, when the hole’s edge began tickling and pestering the skin of the two toes that projected through. I tried to retract the toes and use them to catch some of the edge of the sock’s fabric, pulling it over the opening like a too-small blanket that has slid off the bed, but that didn’t work–it seldom does. I knew that later on, after midnight, I would wake up and feel the coolness of the sheet on those two exposed toes, which would trouble me, even though that same coolness wouldn’t trouble me if the entire foot was exposed. I would become wakeful as a result of the toe-hole, and I didn’t want that, because I was starting a new regime of getting up at four in the morning.
Fortunately last night I had an alternative. I’d brought a clean white tube sock to bed with me to use as a mask over my eyes, in case Claire was going to read late. I have to have darkness to go to sleep. I have one of my grandfather’s eye masks, made of thick black silk probably in the thirties, but it smells like my grandfather, or at least it smells like the inside of his bedside table. The good thing about draping a sock over your eyes is that it is temporary. The sock slips off your head when you move, but by then you’ve gone to sleep and it has served its purpose.
So when the hole in the sock on my foot became intolerable, I reached down and pulled it off in a clean, strong motion and flipped it across the room in the direction of the trash can–although I have to say there is something almost painfully incongruous in the sight of an article of underclothing that one has worn and warmed with one’s own body for many days and years, lying bunched in the trash. And then onto my naked foot I pulled the fresh sock that I’d had on my face. It felt so good: oh, man, it felt good, really good. I moved my newly sheathed foot back into the far region of the sheets and pulled the heavy blankets around me and I took my hand and curved it and draped it over my eyes where the sock had been, the way a cat does with its paw. Eventually Claire got into bed. I heard her bedside light click on and I heard the pages of her book shuffle, and then she twisted around so we could kiss good-night. “You’ve got your hand over your eyes,” she said. I murmured. Then she turned and shifted her warmly pajamaed bottom towards me and I steered through the night with my hand on her hip, and the next thing I knew it was four a.m. and time to get up and make a fire.
Excerpted from A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker Copyright© 2003 by Nicholson Baker. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.