Category Archives: nicholson baker

Nicholson Baker: On Hearing Voices and Seeing Places You’ve Never Been

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is On Hearing Voices and Seeing Places You’ve Never Been, featuring Nicholson Baker, Iain Pears, Adam Thorpe, David Wroblewski, and host Charles Foran .)

At this event, the very first thing I noted was that it was not nearly full. I’m sure in many U.S. cities it would not be hard at all to get a capacity crowd for Nicholson Baker, but not here. This was a fairly well-attended event, but certainly not what one would think of for a name like Baker. (This is part of a theme I’m noticing this week, of the odd lack of cross-fertilization between Canadian and U.S. audiences.)

The panel was all about where the stories, characters, etc. come from for writers. It started with host Charles Foran asking Baker if after finishing a novel he ever has difficulty getting rid of his characters. Unsurprisingly, Baker noted that for most of his career his protagonists have been so much like himself that this hasn’t really been an issue.

This occasioned a follow-up about The Anthologist, which Baker said was actually one of the characters most unlike himself that he has written. He said he wanted a way to put all his crank theories about poetry into a book, so he started trying to find a voice that could contain all of these ideas. Thus, Baker said, the anthologist, in his opinion, is among his most human characters since it has been one of the biggest stretches for him to write.

As to that, Baker went to some lengths. Baker claimed he wired himself up with two microphones (to be in stereo) and, for three months, wandered through his apartment explaining these theories over and over to help find the character’s voice. (He would then transcribe the recordings.) Baker then summed up with what I feel is, for him, a very characteristic statement: he said that writing was a process of “re-engaging our own excitement in the world around us by going out on a long journey” that he likened to the path of a boomerang, in that you come back to where you started, but different. I say this is characteristic of him, since this completely reminds me of the path of the narrator’s thoughts in The Mezzanine.

From here, the panel moved on to issues of how a writer’s relationship to language shapes the final form of the novel. Adam Thorpe, poet and author of historical novels (most recently Hodd), said that he defined a novel as (in part) an obsession with language. He spoke largely in terms of struggling with language, of being preoccupied by it, and noted that for one of his previous novels, which takes place in the Middle Ages, he confronted the problem of how to write it since he knew he could not write a novel in Middle English. Thorpe came up with the idea of making it a text transcribed from Latin in to contemporary English, which he said created other challenges–for instance, what a text originally in Latin would sound like–but these were more easily met than the challenge of writing in Middle English. He summed up his remarks with the statement, “once you give yourself that frame, you can dance within it.”

David Wroblewski, fairly well known in the U.S. as the author of the recent bestseller The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, picked up this theme: “To me, every problem is one of language.” He likened it to a software programmer, whom he said must search for a way of putting things in computer language so that “the statement of the solution is beautiful.” He also discussed his interest in how humans can have such close relationships with dogs, yet never have that relationship be mediated by language. He thought the relationship between dogs and humans could be as strong as it tends to be because words weren’t there to get in the way. (For those who haven’t read Edgar Sawtelle, there is an extended section told from the perspective of a dog, although not through a stream of consciousness of otherwise first-person narration.)

Novelist and art historian Iain Pears (author most recently of Stone’s Fall), contradicted Wroblewski by saying that he likes that the English language differs from a computer language in that it isn’t precise–he prefers that it makes way for unintended meanings and interpretation. He characterized his take on writing as like “leaving holes for the reader to fill in.” But then, on the subject of interpretation, he claimed that “reading a thesis on oneself is like reading your own obituary.”

A few other questions: the panelists agreed that characters tend to take a novel in directions that surprise them, as authors. There was disagreement about the first draft of a book: some liked the freedom they had when composing it (feeling the more craft-laden revisions to be cumbersome), and others found just the opposite. They were all taken with the question of how to render the non-linguistic linguistic. And Baker closed the session with a great remark on place: after realizing he couldn’t write about Berkeley, CA, since so many other writers were already doing that so well, he discovered that: “The key to being a writer is to find a place where you have the illusion that you live in a desert.”

The Missing Link Between John Updike and David Foster Wallace

I wanted to front-page Barrett's comment from yesterday's post on The Mezzanine since it's absolutely brilliant and far better than anything I cn say about this book:

I'll raise your "seems to anticipate DFW" one and say that Baker is actually the missing aesthetic link between Updike and DFW. The manic see-through vision applied to everyday objects is the direct result of Updike's lavish attention to surfaces, and Baker asserts in U&I–a great, wonderfully creepy book–that he wants to take Updikean plot and explore its internal crevices. He wants to pause plot. In each of his fiction books, the plot exists in the margins, or roaring overhead; or to piggyback on one of the great images from The Mezzanine, the plot is like the turntable's needle, overhead and deadly while Baker rappels downward into the grooves of the Significant Plot Points and pans for gold. I think you can see in Infinite Jest the same willingness to suspend forward momentum for ex-ray analysis, while the plot assembles off screen and approaches sideways, its wheelchairs squeaking.

Reading that comment, what Barrett says clicks beautifully with what I know of Updike, Baker, and Wallace. And how wonderful it is to find an author–or maybe even a book–that can link two of the major writers from post-war, 20th-century American fiction.

On Shklovsky and Defamiliarization, with Reference to The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Given the recent conversation about plot and the novel, I thought it was worthwhile to refresh Viktor Shklovsky's thoughts on defamiliarization. This is as quoted in Structuralism in Literature:

Habitualization devours objects, clothes, furniture, one's wife and the fear of war. "If all the complex lives of many go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been."

Art exists to help us recover the sensation of life; it exists to make us feel things, to make the stone stony. The end of art is to give a sensation of the object as seen, not as recognized. 

The technique of art is to make things "unfamiliar," to make forms obscure, so as to increase the difficulty and the duration of perception. The act of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged. In art, it is our experience of the process of construction that counts, not the finished product.

All good art does this to a certain degree, but some art makes a fetish of it, and one of the books I would hold in that category is Nicholson Baker's novel The Mezzanine. With all of its elaborate examinations of everyday objects like shoelaces and escalators, the book that seems to anticipate David Foster Wallace is portraying these objects in rarely seen (and perhaps not-previously seen) ways that makes them seem fresh and new.

The great art in Baker's novel is the variation he pursues across his digressions. Sometimes they read almost like a riff off of Barthelme, a very postindustrial/economic account of the history of a particular aspect of an object. Other times these items become inherently personal (nostalgia is constantly invoked here, as is childhood/adulthood), other times they are simply humorous or entertaining. What unites them all is a great ability to defamiliarize those things that most of us probably have lost any ability to take any pleasure whatsoever in. And so we are lucky to have Baker's good art to help us to liven up our world.

Part of the brilliance of this book is that Baker defamiliarizes those things about life that are so familiar that they go completely unnoticed; e.g., broken shoelaces, the unspoken norms of public restrooms, the form and feel of a cardboard milk carton. Whereas someone like Proust would first have to draw our attention to a detail of life that we might not have been aware of (effectively familiarizing it before defamiliarizing it), Baker has chosen those things that are part of our common consciousness. Thus, first we feel the strange deja vu that comes when were reminded of some part of life that we know intimately but have probably stopped noticing, and then, only after that has been established, Baker places this moment into an entirely new context.

At the same time as he defamiliarizes, Baker puts his digressions into a highly original narrative voice that sounds very authentic and is generally consistent to my ear. Baker dribbles out little bits of humanity en route to making his protagonist a likable person, someone about whom we can be persuaded to follow along for 135 meandering pages that maintain just enough semblance of plot to stake the claim that The Mezzanine is a book with a plot. More than that, though, I'd say that it's a book about the passage of eras (and Baker calmly layers a number of them into this narrator's life), as well as about evoking a very particular time in the history of the United States by discussing the life and death of pop cultural technology.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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