The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Paul Chowder, a second-rate poet, narrates his story. The story comes in two basic parts. In one part, Paul tells about his life. In the other, talks about poetry. In the part about his life, Paul Chowder needs to write the introduction to a poetry anthology, but suffers from writer’s block. His lack of professional productivity has a deleterious effect on his relationship with Roz:

Roz is kind of short. I’ve always been attracted to short women. They’re usually smarter and more interesting than tall women and yet people don’t take them as seriously. And it’s a bosomy kind of generous smartness, often. But she’s moved out, so I should stop talking about her.

He does not. He only takes breaks during which he sets forth his thesis on poetry:

[T]he really important thing you have to know is: The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry.

When Paul is not talking about himself or Roz or his neighbor, Nan, he expands on that final point, the paramount importance of the four-beat line to English poetry. While he gets more technical than I can either evaluate or explain, the thesis and discussion are extremely engaging. He had me frothing to read some poetry. His poetry discussion is outstanding, even if much of it was beyond my technical grasp. I knew very little about poetry before The Anthologist; I know a little more after.

Of course, a long discussion about poetry is not a novel, it’s an introduction to a poetry anthology. The Anthologist is a novel, so there must be plot. Baker is somewhat famous for his novel Mezzanine which takes place during a single escalator ride; I am saying: do not expect too much plot. The plot in this novel comes in two, intertwined parts: Roz leaving and Paul’s desire to reverse that event; Paul’s attempts to write the introduction to the poetry anthology.

If I expand on these points further, they will likely seem less compelling than they are. Paul is not really a man of action which means there is not much more here than a man riding the emotional escalators of love. There are no big dramatic scenes, but the understated progression of the romantic crisis packs a stronger punch for its subtlety. Even so, Paul is a frustrating character due to his passivity.

Paul’s attempts to write the introduction are equally plagued with inaction.

But every time I actually tried to start writing the introduction, as opposed to just writing notes, I felt straightjacketed. So I went out and bought a big presentation easel, and a big pad of presentation paper, and a green Sharpie pen, and a red Sharpie pen, and a blue Sharpie pen. What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class.

It does not take long to understand that the sections of the book discussing Paul’s ideas about poetry are transcriptions of his practice talks with Sharpie diagrams and all.

I was almost as blank as the freshly purchased pad of presentation paper, so I found the poetry discussion fascinating. Whether Paul is a crank or a visionary, I really could not tell you if I wanted to. I can tell you that Paul’s love of poetry is infectious, his dissection of some truly wonderful poetry engaging, and his theories stimulating. In other words, I quite enjoyed the sections on poetry. The interruptions by narrative helped me maintain my focus on the poetry.

Some readers will likely hate the book. Whether those readers are less susceptible to the charms of allegedly visionary poetry analysis or whether those readers know enough about poetry to see Paul for the scholar he is, whatever that may be, I cannot tell. Other readers, those who want something to happen in their novels, will likely be disappointed too. At least half of the 243 pages consist of Paul’s discussion of poetry. Intrigue and danger are limited to badminton and missed stairsteps.

The strong points of the book include not only discussions of the finer points of metering, but also humor. For instance, Paul frets about ordinary human interactions:

Even now I have trouble looking people in the eye. You’re supposed to “meet people’s eyes.” Meet them how? They have two eyes. You have to choose one. I start by looking at the person’s right eyes, intently; and then I begin to feel that I’m hurting the feelings of the person’s left eye…..So then I shift over, and I stare into her left eye…

My eyes have to skip away, eventually. And when I’m asked a question I look out the window. People assume that I’m failing some kind of test of candor when I’m just not an eye-meeter, that’s all. I’m just not going to meet your eye for any extended period. Period.

Paul is a strange man close-up, but strange in an interesting way.

As for weak points, some of the points I find strong you may find weak; I mean the poetry and the lackluster plot. There are genuine weaknesses. Sometimes Paul’s delivery reminded me, in a bad way, of Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). For instance:

She is very good at taking care of a person who has a hurt finger…..Then I said I thought I would take a nap. [She] patted my shoulder, which felt good. Then she walked Smack and left.

This very literal, logical relating of small events could be jarringly unpoetic at times, but there is purpose in the method of narration. Paul’s thesis on poetry, after all, is a very logical one. He is not autistic, but he could have Asperger’s.

I will be reading more Nicholson Baker. He writes with rare perspicacity; he writes with attention to psychological, aesthetic, and literary detail. He is an author who takes his art seriously. I am pleased the Tournament of Books has introduced me to this author. I am only part way through the full list, but already I have made acquaintances that I hope will turn into friendships. This is one of those.

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10 Responses to The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

  1. Sarah says:

    Wonderful review, Kerry! You had comprehensively talked me out of ever even considering reading this book (or, indeed, the author)and then, in the last few paragraphs, you turn it around completely, with a marvellous quote (the eyes) and an account of intriguing characterisation.

    As you say, the parts you find strong (the poetry) do sound appalling to me, but the perceived weakness (ie Christopher Boone-like delivery) fascinates.

    Thank you for sharing a potential friendship.

  2. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Thanks. I am not so sure it was good for me to talk you out of “ever considering reading this book” (and the author? I’ll bet he never blurbs for my blog!). I am glad the quotes at the end I chose helped turn it around. The one about the eyes is great and there is more of that type of socially-awkward, but very logical, humor. If you do try it, I will be very interested in your reaction.

  3. anokatony says:

    Hi Kerry,
    I remember reading and very much liking a previous Nicholson Baker novel, I think it was “Vox”. This one sounds like it is right up my alley. I like authors who take unnecessary chances with their writing. Thanks for the fascinating review.

  4. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Tony. I will try Vox as my next Baker, because there will be a next Baker for me. And I think “take unnecessary chances” is exactly what he does. For me, those chances paid off in this work.

  5. Sarah says:

    Kerry, Baker may not blurb for your blog, but he could do worse than to ask you to blurb for him! The less positive parts of your criticism give credibility to the praise that also comes his way.

    As to the rest, guilty as charged. I am lazy in my reading choices; extremely unlikely to ever be a literary ground-breaker and more than happy to choose books that come commended by someone in whose taste I trust. I would be sorry to miss good books this way, but sorrier to miss excellent books by virtue of reading less good.

  6. Kerry says:

    Sarah, Thank you. I always want to be fair to both the author and to potential readers. Even very good books are not good for some readers. If I am going to say anything, I believe I should help readers decide not only if the book is good, but if it might be good for them.

  7. I’m not sure that for a novel there must be plot, in fact I’d say I’m pretty sure it’s optional unless pot just means that there’s something that happens but not necessarily anything of any consequence. Some novels just pretty much ignore plot and focus on character and language. This sounds like one of those.

    It does sound quite fun, a novel length examination of procastination. I can’t honestly remember if I’ve read Nicholson Baker, but this sort of tempts (sort of, I’m not sure if I’d be better off knowing more about poetry than I do, or less). I wonder if it works on multiple levels, for you or me it’s about procastination and character and poetry and all that stuff, but for someone with a knowledge of poetry there may be levels of humour that we wouldn’t pick up.

    Probably impossible to know. I think my concern is that I might lack the grounding in poetry to properly appreciate it, which is sort of offputting in a way.

    Hm, you can tell I’m tired at the moment, I’m rambling…

  8. Kerry says:

    That is a good point, Max, about not really needing a plot. And Baker is the fellow who wrote a novel about a ride up an escalator. This is not that, but Baker is definitely a character/language guy, not so much a plot guy.

    The Anthologist is quite good. You are absolutely right that there absolutely must be “levels of humour” that I did not pick up. Baker has a great sense of humor, and an intelligent one. 90% of the poetry analysis could have been bunk and I probably wouldn’t have “gotten” it. Still, I think there is enough poetry in this novel for gnats like me to sip and for elephants to bathe.

    I know everybody’s TBR is overflowing, but if you were enticed by the review, I have no qualms in heartily recommending it as one of the better 2009 offerings.

  9. […] HW: “Nicholson Baker…writes with rare perspicacity; he writes with attention to psychological, aesthetic, and literary detail. He is an author who takes his art seriously.” […]

  10. […] place. Tiebreakers were not a factor. His prize was two books. For his TOB 2010 selection, he chose The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. The Anthologist was my second favorite of the 16 contenders (Wolf Hall being first) and a book I […]

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