Friday Column: Room Temperature

I was in the rocking chair giving our six-month-old Bug her late afternoon bottle.

So begins Room Temperature, Nicholson Baker’s second novel. Like his first, The Mezzanine, the entire novel spans just a brief few moments, in this case while our narrator (Mike) feeds his infant daughter. It’s one of those books you can pick up and read on a whim, a brief torrid night of prose, as opposed to those books you have to gear up for, prepping and training and emotionally girding yourself (like Infinite Jest, which in a previous column I admitted to not having completed, like some marathonist who crapped out at the seventh mile).

Recently, I picked up Room Temperature and read it for a third time, and what amazes me is that the book still frankly amazes me. My bald plot description above sounds like a modern art joke: a novel where nothing happens. But in this brief novel—a mere 116 pages in my Granta paperback edition—it’s not that nothing happens but that there’s an incredible amount of nothing happening. Like much of Baker’s other work—specifically, The Mezzanine, parts of The Fermata, a great deal of U and I, and A Box of Matches—the narrator here is compulsively distractable, constantly digressive, immaculately interested in the seemingly most mundane contemporary trivia—the coils of a toaster, the transition from paper to plastic straws, the particularly knuckly pleasure of glass doorknobs, the sonics of opening a glass peanut butter jar, the finger-feel of washing a used dish in pre-dawn darkness . . . and on and on and on. This is a world of dust motes and dishwasher moans. This kind of manic attention to everyday effluvium shouldn’t be this interesting, but Baker possess the strange ability to link these observations like a giddy kid making a chain out of construction paper all the while imbuing these observations with a metaphorical richness, a depth of perception that’s chilling, as in Chapter 9 of Room Temperature, where the narrator’s daydreaming about writing the history of the comma dovetails with the importance of his newborn child. She is, he realizes, his own comma—a slowing, organizing, civilizing force. There are several moments in this book where the surface chatter fits so perfectly with the subtext and which simultaneously explains the structure of the book. The book, basically, is one gigantic comma, one gigantic reflective pause for the narrator (and the reader) to stop and take a look around and get his bearings.

I’m not sure what I thought of Baker until I visited the Museum of Modern Art. I suppose I thought he was just this sort of contemporary oddity. Being as he doesn’t teach anywhere and doesn’t seem to be “out” often in any public writer-type way, it’s hard to associate him with any trends or schools or fads or aesthetic. It’s hard to imagine if he might wear a leather jacket, or not. (For instance, Jonathan Franzen might wear a leather jacket, but he’d probably apologize for it.) He’s just simply himself; I imagine him living out in the woods somewhere playing with period-specific model trains or something. But the architecture and design floor at the MoMA seemed to clarify Baker a bit. Here was a floor full of “art” that used to be simply “stuff.” Here was a chair, a toaster, a phone, a car. Here is a motorcycle; it is now art. Part of the fun is the instant retroactive shock of realizing that a particular object is indeed artful, or at least an interesting link in a chain of design. But the exhibit I saw wasn’t purely old stuff that was now art. It also had current stuff that was now art. I think it was an Apple iBook that did it—it was either an iBook or an iMac, I can’t remember; it was from the period when Macintosh began its sexily molded plastic phase. Here was a piece of contemporary stuff that had been elevated, positioned behind clear glass, and labeled art, or at least artistically important. And I guess that’s when I began to think about Baker as a sort of roving MoMA exhibit, encountering stuff and shining it in the thick polish of his prose until whatever’s artful within it shows forth. Shoelaces, pocket change, nose picking. I suppose I used to think he was something of a frustrated essayist, but this is an unnecessarily inhospitable view. There is too much of the glee of fiction in his short novels, too much of the artful welding of object to human, soldered together via metaphor. Besides, if his novels were really extended essays, wouldn’t they turn out to be just about the objects? If I remember correctly, part of the disappointment in his nail clipper essay in The Size of Thoughts is that it is so consistently about nail clippers. In the novels, the people thinking about or fidgeting with the objects are still just as important.

To backlight all of this is Baker’s own knuckly, Victorian prose. Perhaps Victorian isn’t the right word. Perhaps I’m thinking of Victorian architecture or interior decorating—his sentences are so loaded with decoration and detail they feel almost fussy. His prose is braided with digression, refusing not to honor a line of thought, unafraid of the flashy neologism or sending the reader straight to the dictionary. Here’s a sample sentence:

My mother cooked the bacon in the morning (it owed its seer-sucker shrivelment, I thought, to the fact that the meaty striations contracted less than the fatty part, or vice versa: the pinpricks of exploding fat on my forearms and face were part of the brave scientific pleasure of studying the way it changed shape), and she laid it out to cool on paper towels; my sister and I had already eaten our share, but four strips remained on the paper towel for my father long after the grease from the pan was poured into a reused medium-size peanut butter jar on the stove—a peanut butter jar that had been run through the dishwasher enough times that the glue under its label had softened: if you unclamped the dishwasher’s lid at the right moment (this was a red-hosed top-loading portable whose hermetic seal was almost as perfect as the one on a brand-new jar of Skippy) and, in a cloud of lovely garbagey-smelling steam, removed the freshly dishwashed jar, you could sometimes slip the now paler and mushier label untorn off the glass like one of the water-mobilized decals that came with the plastic models of fighter planes.

This is pretty much standard fare, and though it reads at times like Updike without sex or religion and stuck in the kitchen, each of the various details of this single sentence ricochets off what’s come before. For all of Baker’s spirited variations, a theme still develops. You sort of have to read it to believe me, to see for yourself. I’m not doing it justice. A “tying up” of loose ends is not the right way to talk about how Baker connects his riffs, because with no real plot—or even conflict or drama—there can be no resolution. Perhaps “blending” would be a better word, because each riff is rubbed into the shade of the one before. Perhaps what’s striking about his prose is that it “feels” old fashioned. It feels in some ways pre-Modern. It feels written by hand. I have no way to quantify this, and I’m not sure I can offer a more canny analysis of this gut response. I suppose it comes partly from his vocabulary and partly from the feeling that his narrators are almost totally without a sense of or aspiration for hipness or a certain type of contemporary sophistication. They are, basically, excitable dorks and are energetically unironic. And—and perhaps this is the source of the lack of drama, the reason why these novels are one quiet still pool in the middle of so many contemporary prose-whales—the narrators are basically happy. In their compulsive noticing they exude a type of strange joy.

The toe-feel of sock holes, the tongue-taste of pen plastic, the terrene unctuosity of peanut butter.

—Barrett Hathcock



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I’ve recently been thinking of and posting on writers I enjoy that don’t seem to be part of the literary hoopla (the teaching, the publishing, the public speaking, the PR cycle) that surrounds others. Baker was on my list. I wonder about him a great deal for all of the reasons you’ve so eloquently noted.
Thank you. Excellent insight and post. This either means I have a lot of material to point to when I do post about him OR…it means I no longer have the need to post about him at all! I’m not eager to play follow-up on your first act as you are spot on.

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