Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker has never been an easy writer to figure out.
After some well received novels, the American writer came to prominence in the early 1990’s with Vox, a slim, erotically charged tale of two strangers conducting an entire relationship only by phone.
Throughout his career Baker has largely eschewed a traditional narrative insofar as he is more interested in character and a diffuse description. Not much “happens” in a Nicholson Baker novel, but the joy is in the small details that reveal character and motivation.
I’ve not read any of the author’s non-fiction, but it seems that it also follows a path less trod upon.
The New York Times notes that “there is, it seems at first, a sort of madness in his method. He does not offer a straightforward narrative as a historian or a polemicist might do, but instead his book is made up of a set of vignettes, each containing a fact or a quotation from one of the main participants, or from someone who kept a diary. Most vignettes carry a date. Sometimes these entries come three to a page, sometimes they are slightly longer. Slowly, as you read, because of the variety in the tone and the shocking or tragic nature of the quotation, and because of how well chosen they are, “Human Smoke : The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization” becomes riveting and fascinating. It is as though a brilliant film editor, with an urgent argument to make, began to work with gripping newsreels.”

And so to Nicholson Baker’s new novel due in September, The Anthologist.
The reader is introduced to Paul Chowder, a minor American poet who is writing an introduction to a new anthology of poetry dedicated to rhyme and metre. Paul submitted an outline, got an advance and can’t bring the forty or so page introduction into focus. After frittering away time and money with no results, Roz, also a writer and Paul’s girlfriend leaves him.
“And that was it. My beautiful, patient, funny, short, loving girlfriend-the woman I’d been with longer than anyone else-moved out. She was right to leave me, but it felt really bad. Horrible, in fact.
Plus I was broke.”
In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it.
What follows is a beleaguered and lonely guy fending off a largely absent editor, drinking with a couple fictional (that is to say made up) writers, doing some remodeling for a next door neighbour and holding forth on the nature of poetry for the imagined reader.
The two hundred pages hence is in fact, the introduction that Chowder is fretting over, it’s just that prospective readers get to see the proverbial sausage getting made.
From here, the Anthologist acts as a dog whistle would. For lovers of poetry, the rest of the novel is a love letter to the English Romantics and the American modernist poets, a heartfelt and mannered appreciation to their lives and craft. For those whom poetry matters not, the rest of the Anthologist may read like biographical data and minutiae about a bunch of people named Tennyson, Swinburne and W.S Merwin.
I’m squarely in the former camp because poetry is elementally necessary in its own right, and even if it’s not often acknowledged-is the blood in the veins of the modern novel.
Without it too many novels read like fleshy movie scripts.
For a solid and entertaining appreciation of some of the major poets, the Anthologist is a great read, but it’s gratifying to see an author of Baker’s caliber continue to challenge himself with a fresh and daring work.

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