Endearing, self-concious dithering: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler

Two novelsThe best way to describe Nicholson Baker’s writing is unhurried. He has a beautiful way with tangents without derailing the narrative; while these novels could easily meander or drag, Baker keeps a firm and subtle hand pushing the reader in the right direction. This makes the perfect read for lazy days – nothing too serious, but still honest and sweet.

Both novels are narrated by aging poet and expert procrastinator Paul Chowder – and it’s easy enough to draw parallels between the protagonist and the author. Do we have a Kurt Vonnegut / Kilgore Trout situation, where the character is only a few steps away from the creator himself?

But perhaps its better not knowing. I’ve read most of Nicholson Baker’s work and I’ve grown rather fond of him. I like to think better of him than I do of Paul Chowder, who rambles knowingly and endearingly, but also edges on pathetic. He’s the sort of character you are willing to indulge – but wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with.

In The Anthologist, Paul finds himself in charge of an anthology of rhyming poetry, but has come up short against the introduction. How to write it? What to include? He agonizes over it and avoids anything to do with it, despite his editor’s fraying patience and the fact that his frustrated girlfriend moves out.

But he can’t resist baring himself to the reader – explaining in tender detail exactly why rhyming poetry (versus free rhyme or, God forbid, haiku) stirs the very cockles of his heart. He reaches into well-known poems and pulls out rhythm, music, sense of all kinds. The result is half-novel and half poetry textbook:

The Anthologist, pages 162-163

It’s no surprise when Paul begins winding down and realizes that he’s written the introduction after all – it’s the book you’re holding in your hands. (We, the readers, are quite clever and saw this coming a mile off. But we find it sweet that Paul didn’t.) The best part of the book is the end: it burbles to a quick, clean stop, ending exactly as it should.

Traveling Sprinkler picks up a few years after The Anthologist ends; Paul’s anthology has become popular, at least for a book of poetry, and he has a new brassiness gilding his self-doubt. This is, unfortunately, not a good look for him – his blathering has lost its endearing, blundering honesty and become contrived. Once again he finds himself under pressure to produce another book, which evolves from a collection of poetry into an account of an aging poet’s exploration of pop music. Does that description thrill you? “An aging poet’s exploration of pop music”? It doesn’t thrill me either. I would much rather see another friendly history of poems, but instead I’m stuck with Paul Chowder’s terrible dance lyrics: “Take a ride in my boat / take a ride / take a ride in my boat.”

It’s a little insufferable, to tell you the truth. But when he leaves his synthesizers and new, expensive microphone at home, we remember that he’s the same old Paul Chowder as ever: lost, dithering, and at least a little sweet. His tangental anecdotes pepper the text with truthy jabs, tapping you softly in the sternum. Yes, you might think, as he once again observes the world from his white plastic chair in the driveway. The world is exactly like that. 

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