Monday, December 3, 2012

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 2009
243 pages

I woke up thinking a very pleasant thought. There is lots left in the world to read.

I think I should by rights hate this book, since it's the narrator talking directly at me in stream of consciousness, and that's an unusual and very difficult conceit to pull off... but the further I get into it the more I like it, and suddenly I find myself grinning and nodding along like an idiot. It's a courageous choice, and having worked, it brings the reader so close to the narrator that one can't help but love him and feel for him, even if we are well-acquainted with his foibles and flaws, both the ones he points out to us and the ones he inadvertently reveals.

Paul Chowder is, above all, easily distracted. Teaching us about proper poetry meter and having just blasted iambic pentameter to pieces, we end up in a totally different (and totally recognizable) place:

See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. "Tetra" is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly  and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?

Heh. And also, sigh.

Another note that keeps cropping up is birds. Paul is not (or claims not to be) a big fan, which is one place where he and I differ. Frankly, we differ on a lot of things, although not on our computer game-playing habits.

You hear that bird? Chirtle chirtle chirtle chirtle. With birds it's different. Birds are very different than we are. They don't know what an upbeat is. They go, Chirtle chirtle chirtle chirtle. And then the next time they might just go, Chirtle -- chirtle chirtle. It's like some kind of wigged-out aimless Gregorian chant. And then sometimes: Chirtle chirtle. And then: Chirtle chirtle chirt? Questioning. You don't know where you are with that.

This is an interesting book in that I kind of want to quote all of it for you. It is extremely meandering, so there's not a lot of forward momentum, other than the fact that I am enjoying Paul's thoughts so much I want more, more, more. And sometimes I go backwards and read bits over again. It's not a very efficient way to read, all this stopping and quoting. This is not a very efficient sort of book, though.

There is a kind of tenderness here, an exposure that is both sweet and sad. Paul is a lovely man, a poet suffering from an absolutely debilitating case of writer's block over a summer during which his partner of eight years has left him and he has to write an introduction to his anthology of collected rhyming poems. At the beginning he seems like he's a run-of-the-mill procrastinator, but the further we get into the summer and into Paul's story we understand that he's not just procrastinating. He's having a true crisis. It's not the sort of crisis he respects -- most of his favourite poets were true sufferers, and he doesn't count himself among them either as a good poet or a true sufferer. But he is suffering, and the reader sees that, and even as the reader shakes their head at his folly they also understand, completely, that he just can't write.

And then we get further in and little pieces of mystery begin to unfold; why did Roz leave? Does she still love him? Why can't Paul teach? Why rhyme? What's wrong with iambic pentameter? What on earth has happened to shake Paul's confidence so badly?

And when the answers are revealed -- not with drama, but in tiny ways that could easily slip by without the reader's notice, except that the reader has been paying close attention because Paul really does know how to use language -- they are perfect and understated and understandable and sometimes not singular, but a confluence of factors leading to the present circumstance.

This is an intimate book, a splendid book that goes on just long enough and drifts to a close in a beautiful way. There is subtlety, a careful scrutiny of the small, and an acknowledgement of the absurd and the universal. I know much more about poetry than I did when I started it, too, but that's totally beside the point. It is a gift to spend a week in Paul Chowder's gentle, distracted, intelligent, funny head and I will be coming back to this book again. This is one of those books that makes it hard for me to decide whether or not to search out more by the author; what if his other books aren't anything like this one? I can't imagine that there's anything else out there quite like this one. But then, if this book is anything to go by, Baker knows how to write. I'm looking forward to reading more.


Jill said...

Interesting! I normally wouldn't give this sort of book a chance, but you make it sound intriguing and likable. I may give it a try!

Unknown said...

Darla, it is so totally out of my way I'm not even sure what made me pick it up. But I'm so glad I did! I hope you like it, if you do give it a chance.

Aarti said...

While the book sounds interesting, I admit I'm really commenting because I just saw the subheading under A Book a Week, where you say "hahahaha...sigh." I started laughing out loud. I hadn't noticed that before! Guess you're not reading quite as much as you'd like to, huh? ;-)

Unknown said...

No! I am certainly not! Although, I am getting better. I was about to break my book/week streak this week though, except that I cheated and finished a kids' audiobook so now I can write about it for tomorrow ;)

I'd really like to be reading more than I am, but I've totally stopped putting pressure on myself. I read what I can when I can!