Simon & Schuster, c. 2009; 256 pp.
My personal library
I couldn't stand Nicholson Baker at first. The novel was The Fermata, a book whose concept - a man who can stop time uses the opportunity to undress women and put them in compromising positions - provoked in me a visceral reaction of disgust. I wasn't thinking, "oh, how well-written this is," but, rather "what a typical MAN, taking an interesting concept and turning it into something sexual."
I'm no prude but neither am I a fan of sexual gusto in prose. Gives me the creeps, on general principle. It's the same reason I so violently disliked Portnoy's Complaint the time I skim-read it, why it took about four tries to get through Lolita. It barely needs saying, but I did not, nor was I tempted to read Fifty Shades of Gray. Not beyond the "sample" on the book's Amazon page, an extract so poorly written I fear for what it says about a world full of people who've kept it on the bestseller lists for months, surpassing the record set by Harry Potter.
Makes me weep for humanity. Are there really so many readers with such low expectations?
Still, I decided to give the man another chance with The Anthologist, because the title referred to literature and books, the plot concerning a man at loose ends, unable to summon the ambition to write the introduction to an anthology of poetry. No sex, just a poet with writer's block. That I can deal with. Better yet, since I didn't let past prejudice prevent me I found out what an excellent writer Nicholson Baker truly is:
"I have no one. I want someone. I don't want the summer to go by and to have no one. It is turning out to be the most beautiful, most quiet, largest, most generous, sky-vaulted summer I've ever seen or known - inordinately blue, with greener leaves and taller trees than I can remember, and the sound of the lawnmowers all over this valley is a sound I could hum forever."
His prose is sublime. The book is, by turns, funny and poignant, overall just lovely. It has more to say about poetry than I've ever been interested in hearing but I can't count that as a drawback. There's a demographic out there who'd find that a plus. I skipped over a bunch of it; poetry's never been my thing. I studied rhyme and meter to pass undergraduate courses. When the test was over, with it died the tiny bit of my brain charged with retaining that information.
Baker's portrayal of a writer putting off writing I can identify with. You know you have a deadline, it sounded great when you received the assignment, but time goes by and before you know it the date is HERE and you've done little or nothing. So you scramble, pull out your hair, approach the computer then back off, approach, back off. Eventually you give in and start writing. It may be stiff at first but then it begins to flow. Before you know it you've finished a draft. After a quick re-read, you have a second draft. After a third, you save, attach it to an email and hit SEND. It's in your editor's hands. You wait. But it's okay, because you've tossed that hot potato right back. You have prevailed!
A writer only loves writing once it's done. Thinking about a project may be exciting, the finished product satisfying but the process is really kind of like having hot coals put down your pants on a day you forgot to wear your asbestos underwear. Writers who try to tell you otherwise are trying to make the rest of us feel like shit. Don't buy it. There's no natural writing gene, no rational reason a person sits down to write who doesn't feel overwhelmed. None. Not a one.
That's what makes Baker's character Paul Chowder so endearing. He lets everything and anything come between him and writing, until the woman he loves packs up and leaves, sick and tired of his complete lack of ambition. And he misses her but is so paralyzed at the prospect of sitting down to write that's still not enough to get him moving:
"It's time for bed. And here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to get in bed, and I don't have anyone to sleep with now, so what I do is I sleep with my books. And I know that's kind of weird and solitary and pathetic. But if you think about it, it's very cozy. Over a period of four, five, six, seven, nine, twenty nights of sleeping, you've taken all these books to bed with you, and you fall asleep, and the books are there."
[Confession: I do this all the time. When my husband's not on one of his rare business trips I may wake with one or two books tangled in the sheets with me. When he's away, I take at least one or two books to bed with me every night. By the time he gets home the bed looks like a printing press gone awry.]
So, does Paul Chowder ever write that introduction? What do you think? Only one way to find out, my friends. And, if you're as squeamish as I am, let me assure you the water's fine.