Baker ponders novelist John Updike in this alternately self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing essay. (Feb.)
In this extended essay on the anxiety of influence, Baker ( The Mezzanine , LJ 11/1/88; Room Temperature , LJ 3/15/90, one of LJ' s ``Best Books of 1990'') explores his intellectual and emotional debt to John Updike. His obsession with Updike most closely resembles Frederick Exley's Edmund Wilson fixation in Pages from a Cold Island ( LJ 5/15/75), a parallel that occurs to Baker himself and troubles him briefly. Baker's essay, however, is more narrowly focused, more concerned with wordsmithing and literary craft. It is a highly subjective, even self-indulgent work that reveals little about Updike but overmuch about Baker. Nevertheless, the writing is clever and some of the ideas presented are engaging. The audience will be limited, most likely, to those with professional literary interests.-- William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY
Nicholson Baker has published five novels–The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, Vox, The Fermata, and The Everlasting Story of Nory–and two works of nonfiction, U and I and The Size of Thoughts. He lives with his wife and two children in Maine.
An elegant writer who has taken stream of consciousness to dizzying postmodern heights, Nicholson Baker has produced a body of work that is eccentric, inventive, and extremely difficult to categorize. In his virtually plotless novels, characters ruminate on the minutest details of everyday life and lose themselves in memories of Proustian intensity. His nonfiction is equally unconventional, filled with meticulously researched minutiae and passionate polemics on topics of great personal interest -- perhaps only to himself.
Baker's quirky brilliance was evident early on in several convoluted short stories that appeared in The New Yorker and Atlantic. But he hit his own idiosyncratic stride with his 1998 debut novel. Essentially one long, loopy digression riddled with footnotes nearly as long as the narrative, The Mezzanine traces a young man's meandering thoughts during a brief escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine of the office building where he works. The "action," such as it is, takes scant minutes, but it's time enough to lay bare the protagonist's entire inner life. In his review for The New York Times, Robert Plunket singled out for commendation "...the razor-sharp insight and droll humor with which Mr. Baker illuminates the unseen world."
In other novels, Baker has taken us inside the heads of many characters: a young father bottle-feeding his infant daughter (Room Temperature); a middle-aged man whose early-morning ritual begins with lighting a fire (A Box of Matches); a man who stops time in order to fondle and exploit unsuspecting women (Fermata); two people a continent apart who indulge in graphic sexual fantasies over the telephone (Vox). (Fermata and Vox were widely criticized as "literary pornography." Vox created additional buzz, when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky had given a copy to President Bill Clinton.)
Although Baker can never be accused of dispassion, the peculiarity of his nonfiction has led to mixed reviews. In lengthy essays and articles and wildly discursive books, he has paid extravagant tribute to his literary hero John Updike (U and I: A True Story), decried the destruction of library card catalogs (an essay in The Size of Thoughts), led a crusade to preserve and archive entire collections of American newspapers (Double Fold), and challenged the traditional view of World War II as "inevitable" (Human Smoke).
Baker's brand of erudite obsession may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is easy for literate readers to fall in love with his glittering prose. He is, above all else, a lover of language; and in his deft and capable hands, even the most mundane objects and events spring to glorious, full-bodied life. Summing up the singular, seductive charms of Baker's writing, Salon critic Laura Miller may have said it best: "...dazzling descriptive powers married to a passionate enthusiasm for the neglected flotsam and jetsam of everyday life."
Good To Know
A two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California jump-started Baker's writing career.
His great-grandfather Ray Stannard Baker served as press secretary to president Woodrow Wilson and won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Wilson.
Baker's first area of interest was music, rather than literature. A talented bassoonist, he attended Eastman School of Music with an eye to becoming a classical composer. Midway through his first year, he changed his major to English. He transferred to Haverfod College in Philadelphia, graduating in 1980.
One of Baker's most passionate concerns is preserving complete runs of newspapers as a valuable record of American history. To that end, he founded the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he learned the British Library was selling off or trashing its bound volumes of post-1870 newspapers.