Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s new novel, is a half-successful, nearly broke poet living in New Hampshire. He’s a firm believer in rhyming poems—so much so that he’s about to publish an omnibus volume that, he hopes, will bring them back into fashion. But he’s stuck. The deadline for his introduction has come and gone. He’s tried everything he can think of to provoke inspiration, from watching Dirty Jobs to inventing tunes for poems so he can sing them in his barn. In desperation, Chowder goes out and buys a presentation easel and a big pad and three colors of Sharpie pens: “What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class.” It doesn’t help.
Which is funny, since the same method worked for Baker as he wrote The Anthologist. In fact, he not only bought the presentation kit; he set up a camcorder and recorded himself presenting in various parts of his house. “I would try to rehearse what it would be like to explain something complicated, like iambic pentameter, in a familiar way,” says Baker, who also found himself singing poetry in his own barn, in Maine. “How would you explain it if you’d been thinking about it for twenty years? So I came up with 40 hours of tape and transcribed the audio.”
Wait, did you say 40 hours? “I did. Because when I go to a poetry reading, they tell a little story before they read the poem: I went out for a walk and I got lost, and then somebody gave me this brown paper bag, and in it was … And I’m really interested in the story, because it’s spoken. So I knew this book had to be spoken—everything had to read as if it were actual speech. I wanted to see how the sentences would come out. Of course, actual speech is very sloppy, and this book is sloppy, very loose.”
Such obsessive, Method-y preparation can make Baker sound like the oddball Marlon Brando of literature, and you might expect The Anthologist to be a rat’s maze or a shapeless slog. But it’s tidy and carefully made, and the more eccentric passages (Chowder falls into imagined conversation with famous poets; Edgar Allan Poe chats with him, distantly, at the Laundromat) and showier gestures (the poetry-singing comes with notated music) are neither intrusive nor annoying. Baker says he even wrote a bunch of Paul Chowder poems, though only tiny snippets made it into the book. “Is he good?” I ask. “He may be good,” Baker says, chuckling. “I did not write his best work.”
Beginning in 1988, with his first book, The Mezzanine, Baker has delighted readers with flights of fancy on subjects as mundane as a plastic straw trying to float out of a soda can. A multipage footnote in that first book imagines the experience of being miniaturized and navigating the grooves of a vinyl record as if they were canyons. Most of his books don’t have plots per se, unless you count “lighting a match each morning” as a plot.
Since The Mezzanine was published, Baker’s career has swung back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, midlist critical successes and high-visibility breakouts. The first of those spotlit moments came with Vox in 1992, a short novel that’s one long phone conversation on a 1-900-style sex-chat line. Chat lines were new then, Vox was a sensation, and today it looks uncannily prescient. Monica Lewinsky gave a copy to Bill Clinton, and when Kenneth Starr subpoenaed bookstore records, it sparked a First Amendment case.
In fact, Baker’s career is full of knicker-knotting. Recently, he incited debate with a review in The New Yorker of Amazon’s Kindle; he dismissed it, much preferring Apple’s iPod Touch. He uses the device regularly (he’s currently reading an 1834 sea story, Tom Cringle’s Log), but he’s hardly giving up print. What’s he into now? Baker holds up a paperback. It is, of all things, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner’s 1975 sex thriller. “Never had read it. And it’s totally engrossing. I like reading suspense. I’ve read some Mary Higgins Clark lately, and I’ve had big Dick Francis phases. I like books with a lot of plot, strong lines, forward-moving … ” Baker starts to laugh. “I don’t know why it doesn’t fit with the way I write. I’d love to write strongly suspenseful books—it’s a tremendous talent I’m very jealous of.”