Nicholson Baker rose to fame largely on the basis of a single masterful stunt: his idiot-savantish ability to whip himself into ecstatic spasms of eggheaded poetry about the tiniest possible minutiae—fingernail clippers, shoelaces, ice-cube trays, plastic straws. He once compared the shape of a comma to “the pedals of grand pianos, mosquito larvae, paisleys, adult nostril openings, the spiraling decays of fundamental particles, the prows of gondolas, half-spent tubes of antifungal ointment, [and] falcon or airplane wings in cross section.” (Few other writers would have thought to modify “nostril openings” with “adult.”) Baker’s first novel—the slim, aggressively digressive The Mezzanine—tells the story of an ordinary man riding an escalator on his lunch break; his second, Room Temperature, tells the story of a man bottle-feeding his baby for twenty minutes. (Baker once described his ideal fiction as “a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers.”) Although his subjects have branched out a bit over time—phone sex, library science, the assassination of President Bush—the sermon Baker preaches is always the same: Too often we squander the incalculable treasure of our daily experience—the rich trivial magic of car washes and tuna sandwiches and houseplants; true living requires a rigorously hyperaware, fully conscious ethics of attention. But while Baker’s obsessive microanalyses are almost always breathtaking, they also tend to be frustratingly narrow, chronically and willfully ignorant of any sense of context or history or society. Baker, in other words, has always suffered from a serious problem of “Where’s the beef?”
His new book, Human Smoke, seeks to answer this question once and for all by tackling the biggest, rawest slab of beef in the freezer: the origin and ethics of World War II, a subject Baker has admitted to being entirely unqualified to discuss. He approached it, therefore, in a typically Bakerian way. In an effort to capture what he calls “the grain of events,” he underwent a monkish immersion in the primary sources of the thirties and forties—newspapers, diaries, memoirs, memos, speeches; his bibliography lists 384 sources—and emerged with what he considered the anecdotal pith of the era: prime ministers dancing while eating sandwiches at 2 a.m., bureaucrats issuing memos, dictators frothing, reporters reporting, flying aces committing suicide in their bathrobes. Instead of sorting and blending these nuggets into a standard history, Baker simply laid them out, discrete and uncontextualized, as a chronological series of vignettes:
At an air pageant on Long Island, Ernst Udet did amazing stunts in his red and silver Flamingo, and a fleet of U.S. Army airplanes bombed and strafed a papier-maché village. The demolished village was named “Depressionville.” It was October 8, 1933.
Human Smoke contains, by my count, 830 of these anecdotes; the longest is just under two pages, the shortest only thirteen words. (“Winston Churchill was Time magazine’s Man of the Year. It was January, 1941.”) It’s the WWII sampler platter. As the nuggets accumulate, they form an idiosyncratic mosaic history of the war.
Baker’s style is notoriously ornate— Victorian-scented belletrism, with Nabokovian phrase-density—but in Human Smoke it’s pointedly restrained. Here, his subjects verb their objects with startling directness: “The Prime Minister began thinking about the thickness of bomb casings.” “Hitler’s army invaded Russia.” “Life magazine published an article on how to tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person.” He reduces the messiest, most obscenely violent episode in the history of the world to a series of Dick-and-Jane stories. It’s a project of pragmatic recovery. Baker wants to strip away all the muffling impersonal layers of popular history—abstraction, officialese, jingoism, allegory—and to insist, instead, on human causality: these actual people, in these documented moments, taking these recorded actions. (The approach recalls Hemingway’s famous dismissal of rhetoric in A Farewell to Arms: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”)
To shock, of course, is the nature of war books, but it’s especially the nature of Nicholson Baker’s war book, which carries an unusually heavy revisionist payload. It becomes clear quickly that Baker is no neutral curator of factoids: He’s a raging pacifist. The spirit of Gandhi hovers over Human Smoke, which implies again and again that violence—even supposedly “good” violence—always thwarts its user’s intentions, and increases suffering, and circulates evil. In Baker’s anecdotes, even the most admired politicians twist themselves into ugly hypocritical pretzels in the name of war. The book’s most controversial aspect is its portrait of Winston Churchill, who comes off as a war- mongering, anti-Semitic, alcoholic supervillain: a manipulator of the press, imprisoner of refugees, refuser of the peace, and equal- opportunity murderer who tells villainous jokes (“You and others may desire to kill women and children … My motto is ‘Business before Pleasure’ ”), denies food to a starving Europe because the Germans might use it for weapons (“The plastic materials now so largely used in the construction of aircraft are made of milk”), and dresses up mass murder with alliterative rhetoric: “We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst—and we will do our best.” (Baker recently said that his book’s austere tone was, in part, a reaction to this rhetoric: “Churchill’s endlessly flowing eloquence temporarily turned off my adjectival spigots.”) “Bombing was, to Churchill,” Baker writes, “a form of pedagogy—a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.”