The Anthologist

In a career stretching back more than two decades, Nicholson Baker has repeated himself only once. Room Temperature, his second novel, was arguably a refinement of the navel-gazing technique he brought to near perfection in his first, The Mezzanine. But since then, the only consistent thing about his work has been its delightful, sometimes loopy inconsistency. In a 1999 interview, he compared his zigzagging output to a buffet table: “Sometimes you’re at the soup trough, sometimes you’re at the salad. It would be nice to be thought of as offering a variety of things, on different kinds of silver salvers.”

This is all by way of saying that his follow-up to Human Smoke — a crazy quilt of anecdotes meant to make the case for pacifism — is not a thorough debunking of the Spanish-American War. No, Baker has changed gears on us once again. With The Anthologist, we are back on fictional turf, and the focus has shifted from such larger-than-life figures as Churchill, FDR, and Hitler to a minor poet with a savory surname: Paul Chowder.

Baker’s protagonist is beset by two major crises. First, he has signed a contract to write the introduction to a new anthology of rhymed poetry: a quasi-impossible task, given his longstanding writer’s block. Second, he must win back the affections of his girlfriend Roz, who has recently abandoned him.

As Paul explains, the two crises are not completely unrelated. “She moved on, period,” he tells us. “I know why. It’s because I didn’t write the introduction to my anthology. And I was morose at times with her, and I was shockingly messy. And I had irregular sleeping habits. And she was supporting us, and I was nine years older than she was.”

The bill of particulars actually goes on longer than that, and includes Paul’s tendency to get gassy after a Caesar salad. But the big picture is clear. We’re dealing with a depressive — a cousin, perhaps, of the nameless narrator in Baker’s last novel, A Book of Matches, whose intense pleasure at the tiny increments of experience is persistently overshadowed by the thought of death.

And what is Paul depressed about? To some extent, he argues, such feelings are the poet’s occupational hazard.

“Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing,” we read. “We’ve got to face that. And if that’s true, do we want to give drugs so that people won’t weep? No, because if we do, poetry will die. The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. All these poets, when they begin to feel that they are descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will come next.”

Rhyme, in other words, is nature’s Prozac. And the singing regularity of the four-beat, balladic stanza is something out of the same medicine cabinet: bardic Benadryl.

But this brings us to the crux of the matter. For Paul, like all of Baker’s narrators, is a man with an idée fixe — a man firmly mounted atop his hobby horse. (The same might said of Baker himself, whose fascination with, say, old newspapers led him to accumulate an entire warehouse of them. But his fixations keep changing, as per his smorgasbord metaphor above.) And what Paul really hates is blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter, the sort of thing Shakespeare found perfectly serviceable for 18,000 lines of dramatic poetry. The modern, footless, freewheeling stuff favored by so many American poets is bad enough, “merely a heartfelt arrangement of plummy words requesting to be read slowly.” But blank verse (and even rhyming iambic pentameter) is worse: another kinky French import, like structuralism or Béarnaise sauce. In Paul’s view it has warped the progress of English poetry, by drawing it out of its natural four-beat orbit.

It will do no good to brandish your roughly cubical copy of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, with its tiny type and tweedy abbreviations, and read aloud the bit that identifies blank verse as “the most prestigious and successful modern rival to the greatest meter of antiquity.” (This strapping volume also notes that Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and among the earliest practitioners of blank verse, called it a “straunge meter”: point to Paul.) This is not a scholarly argument, and Paul won’t be swayed by the “mind-forged shrivelments” offered up by the standard critical histories.

No, his attachment to the tetrameter is intensely emotional. It is the meter of childhood, of nursery rhymes, of Edward Lear’s sublimely nonsensical “Pelican Chorus,” which was the first thing to give Paul “the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry — the feeling that something wasn’t right, but it was all right that it wasn’t right.”

Fine. That leaves the awkward matter of the last four centuries of English poetry: the gazillions of iambic pentameter lines cranked out by Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, Bishop, and Lowell (which sounds like the most forbidding law firm ever assembled). Has Paul perversely thrown all these worthies overboard? Not in the least. Instead he’s found an ingenious mechanism to let them in the back door: at the end of every five-beat line, he insists, there is an additional, silent stealth beat. This evens out the wicked, sprawling irregularity of the pentameter. In fact, the extra beat transforms it into an elastic sort of waltz, which is ultimately a tetrameter in three-beat clothing, since Paul has tacked an extra beat onto the trimeter, too.

Far be it from me to decide whether Paul’s theory holds water. Ideally he and James Fenton, cited approvingly in the book as our best modern love poet, would settle the question by arm-wrestling at Westminster Abbey. But the beat that Paul has appended to so many indelible lines — the poetic pause that refreshes — seems related to one of Baker’s most enduring obsessions. Yes, I will now dabble in a Baker-like inconsistency of my own, and argue that many of his variegated books are about the same thing: stopping time.

His earlier, insanely mandarin novels sought to dissect things — shoelaces, milk cartons, staplers, a baby and her bottle — down to their very atoms. To his detractors, this marked Baker as a connoisseur of trivia, unable to see the forest for the trees, and possibly unable to see the trees for the bark. (Along these lines, Stephen King called one of his novels a “meaningless little fingernail paring,” a thrust that Baker effectively parried by writing an entire essay about fingernail clippers.) But there was always a purpose behind his microscopic approach. Study a thing closely enough, linger sufficiently over its delicious details, and you impart to it something like eternity.

Baker wrestled with this idea most directly in The Fermata. Since it was published on the heels of Vox — whose steamy yet cigar-free sexual fantasies caused the young Monica Lewinsky to buy a copy for Bill Clinton — it was widely viewed as an encore performance by America’s dirtiest mind. Certainly the novel, Baker’s longest, is not Sunday school fare. It is crammed with erotic woolgathering, with masturbatory sequences of such deep-dish lyricism and flagrant absurdity that they seemed to have been scored by Richard Wagner, if Richard Wagner had been hanging around the Playboy Mansion a little more often. But The Fermata is, literally, a book about stopping time.

And so, in a different way, is The Everlasting Story of Nory, an attempt to freeze-dry the mental processes and the springy, Silly-Putty-like vocabulary of a nine-year-old girl. Most novels are works of preservation, of course. But Baker was especially methodical in this book, which I would call the runt of the fictional litter, about capturing the likeness of his own daughter. In the same interview mentioned above, he described how “her childishness was on the brink of vanishing. I knew her quite well as a 7-year-old and as an 8-year-old and as a 9-year-old, and if I didn’t try to create a fictional world that was true to her personality, I’d lose it.”

All of which brings us back to that phantom beat at the end of each line. Paul Chowder is quite correct to insist that when we get to the end of All human things are subject to decay, we stop. But we are not stopping out of a compulsion to even things out, like frantic hosts filling an empty chair at a dinner party. We are in the midst of a fermata: a pause of indefinite duration. The mind is, at that instant, a kind of reverberation chamber, in whose boomy confines we absorb the information we have just read. And during that instant we are somehow outside the poem, outside its insistent cadence and pedal-to-the-metal urgency. Time has stopped. The preceding syllables, no lengthier in their aggregate than a popsicle stick, mingle with what came before and point to what will come next. It’s like Wordworth’s gloss on eternity in The Prelude, whose five iambic stresses would make Paul Chowder’s scalp itch: “Of first and last, and midst, and without end.”

Needless to say I’m advancing a theory as idiosyncratic as Paul’s. And needless to say I’m convinced that they secretly overlap. His stealth beats are the same as my everlasting pauses. Readers, meanwhile, may wonder what happened to the plot of The Anthologist –you know, Paul’s wooing of the absent Roz.

“Oh, plot developments,” says Paul, toward the end of this slender book. “Plot developments, how badly we need you and yet how much we flee from your clanking boxcars. I don’t want to ride that train. I just want to sit and sing to myself. I want everything to be all right.” Folks, the poetry is the plot. The Anthologist is itself Paul’s introduction, over which he has sweated and wept and whined, with his personal life creeping in around the margins. The romance is a thing of sweetness and delicacy, but the events are small, as they so often are in Baker’s books. In his hands, remember, even World War II, the Greatest Generation’s greatest epic, turned into a string of anecdotal pearls, most of them no longer than a paragraph. Like watching paint dry, is the dismissive phrase some might apply to his micro-narratives, which is exactly the wrong one, since I’m sure Baker could write a charming, brilliant book about paint drying if he felt like it.

But it would probably be a small one. That, again, is no complaint. I’m reminded of Gore Vidal’s lofty, backhanded swipe at The Great Gatsby, which he called “a small but perfect operation comparable, say, to Grant’s investiture of Fort Donelson.” (That battle, incidentally, marked the last time Grant ever listened to his council of generals — which is to say, his critics.)

Small is good, small is beautiful. Baker, I think, has taken his cue from the inchworm that falls onto Paul Chowder’s pant leg in the early pages of The Anthologist: “It was still for a moment, recovering from the fall, and then its head went up and it began looping, groping for something to climb onto. It looked comfortably full of metamorphosive juices — full of the short happiness of being alive.”