Books

Nicholson Baker's Enthusiasms and Passionate Obsessions

Image (partial) found on FredFred.net

Nicholson Baker writes from his enthusiasms, which are many and ever changing. Among other things, his books have focused on sex, John Updike, public libraries, and pacifism and World War II. His latest, The Anthologist, is his love letter to poetry.

Nicholson Baker has enjoyed one of the oddest careers as a writer in recent memory. Trained as a musician (a bassoonist!) and composer, he turned to writing in the '80s. His long short story, "Playing Trombone", published in the Atlantic Monthly (March, 1982), was a brilliant, funny, and fantastical description of life in a symphony orchestra. His first novel, The Mezzanine, took place on an escalator, and his second, Room Temperature, was about a father's thoughts while taking care of his baby. Both books were characterized by limpid prose and a jeweler's eye for detail. These two short novels were followed by two now-notorious novels about sex, Vox and The Fermata, the former now infamous as a gift Monica Lewinsky is said to have given to her president.

Baker the crusader was revealed in Double Fold, a forceful attack on the way libraries have systematically destroyed printed matter, old newspapers in particular, replacing them, if at all, with microfiche. Perhaps most controversial were Human Smoke, an alternative history of the events leading up to WWII, which questioned the war's necessity, and Checkpoint, a novel written in the Bush years that some held to be an "assassination fantasy". Along the way, he's written two other novels and a personal memoir, U and I, revealing his obsessive admiration of John Updike. Never one to repeat himself, Baker has now written The Anthologist, a tribute to poets and poetry in the form of a novel.

Book: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization

Author: Nicholson Baker

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (reprint)

Publication date: 2009-03

Length: 576 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $16.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/h/humansmoke-cover.jpgPopMatters: The most obvious question (to me) is, why didn't you offer one of your own poems, perhaps a flying spoon poem, in the mix? Yes, Paul Chowder (the narrator of The Anthologist) is a poet of some renown and it might have seemed presumptuous, but you can't have written such a knowledgeable book about poetry without having written some yourself.

Nicholson Baker: One night, while I was working on The Anthologist, I wrote maybe 20 poems in the voice of Paul Chowder, my hero, including several from his elusive "flying spoon" series. Had a great time. Honestly, though, the poems weren't all that good -- in fact some were embarrassing, and I felt he was doing better work sitting in his plastic chair and trying to explain to us how poetry works and why his whole career was superfluous. Plus I've noticed that when poets write well about their lives -- say John Masefield, Karl Shapiro, W.S. Merwin, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop--they don't quote swatches of their poems.

PM: Any of your poems you'd like to offer in this interview?

NB: No. Okay, yes. In Paris when I was 20 I began a poem: "If I could fold up the sun in an omelet / What an omelet that would be." I never finished it but I thought it had possibilities. Four beat lines, last beat a rest.

PM: I can't imagine anyone in the current poetry world taking offense at the criticism offered in The Anthologist. (Even Billy Collins should be flattered that you called him a "charming chirping crack whore".) The jabs you take at careerist poets and creative writing classes are almost on the sweet side. In other books you've been fearless about taking on controversy. Why so gentle here?

NB: Well, I like poets. I like the idea that someone is willing to choose to be a poet. Poets get no glory -- neither do most sitcom writers -- and they care a great deal about what they're doing. When I criticize a person in writing, it's usually someone who has destroyed a precious thing -- for instance, an administrator at a library who decides that scrolls of plastic microphotographs should replace the bound original volumes of Pulitzer's great newspaper, The World. Or Winston Churchill. In Human Smoke, I quote some maniacal things Churchill said because he is held up as the savior of the west and I think he made everything worse.

Book: Checkpoint

Author: Nicholson Baker

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2005-04

Length: 128 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $10.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/c/checkpoint-cover.jpgPM: Any stronger opinions about the current state of poetry that you'd like to offer?

NB: A novel is a good way to mull over something as huge and mixed as poetry -- as chowderlike as poetry -- because you can be inconclusive and inconsistent. I wouldn't want to presume to say anything about the "state" of poetry. What do I know? I think we're basically in fine shape. We've got loads of balladeers and rhymers--some of them write pop songs--and we've got people doing surprising, heart-jostling, writhingly lyrical things.

Poetry is like all art forms in that it's inefficient. That's why my hero, Paul, is so interested in anthologies. Out of the hundreds of thousands of poems published, only a handful are ones that people want to read over and over and sing to themselves. That's always the way it's been.

PM: What is it about the Bogan and Roethke love affair that got to you? One feels that there's almost a whole book, or at least a long story, you could have written on the subject?

NB: Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke had a lost liquorish weekend together and she wrote that it made her "bloom like a Persian rose bush" -- I love that -- and it helped her to write her best stanza, in "Roman Fountain", which I liked so much that I had my narrator go up in the barn and set it to music. The loves and disasters and disappointments of the poets are important to Paul because he's trying to figure out his own life. He tries to match himself up with other people he admires, the way we all do at one time or another. Roethke was crazy, and Louise Bogan had paralyzing depressions -- what's Paul got? Some minor finger injuries, and sadness because his girlfriend has left him.

PM: How do you account for Richard Ellmann's including Karl Shapiro in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, if he excluded him for vengeful reasons from The New Oxford Book of English Verse?

NB: I don't know anything about the history of that Norton collection. I just know, from Shapiro's autobiography, that he felt as if he'd been X'd out of history when Ellmann cut him from the Oxford anthology. He said it was like dying. That feeling -- that everything hinges on staying alive in anthologies -- interested me.

PM: What was the impetus for this book? Was your research all recent, or have you been a student of poetry for years?

NB: I've gone through several surges of reading poetry. The first was in eighth grade. I began take notes for The Anthologist several years ago, sitting in a chair saying poems over to myself. Sometimes I got up and leapt around near the badminton net, chanting the lines. I felt I had some theories about meter and the sources of the urge for rhyme that I wanted to get down on paper, but I needed to have a character before I could really get rolling.

Book: U and I: A True Story

Author: Nicholson Baker

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday (reissue)

Publication date: 1992-02

Length: 192

Format: Paperback

Price: $12.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/u/uandi-cover.jpgPM: You have a lot of fun in the book with non sequiturs. (I began to see them as "prose enjambments".) And, more than a few times you write in the four beat line that you talk about as being at the heart of English poetry. Did I get it wrong earlier, and the book is, if not a poem itself, the Nicholson Baker version of one?

NB: Yes, that's what I secretly hope sometimes: that the whole book is Paul Chowder's best poem. I think it may be my best book, honestly, although you should never trust a writer's assessment.

PM: The Anthologist is also a book about writer's block. Is this something that afflicts you now and then?

NB: I have a bad time finishing things, especially introductions and reviews. And I'm a wasteful writer: I write hundreds of pages for every one that gets published. But I've never really bonded with the phrase "writer's block". It's too heroic. When I don't write it isn't that I'm struggling like some muscular naked neoclassical Poseidon against a massive immovable granitic obstacle. There are no floodgates. It's usually just that I don't happen to have anything to say that day.

PM: Paul Chowder's advice on how to be able to "achieve the presence of mind to write a poem" is to "ask myself: what was the very best moment of your day"? (Astonishingly good advice it seems to me.) Is that what you do to write fiction?

NB: Sometimes, yes. I like when books have tips and helpful snippets of knowledge in them. I've hoarded that one for years, and it seemed to be time to let it go, because I liked Paul and wanted him to teach a successful master class in Switzerland.

PM: How has your training as a musician affected your career as a writer?

NB: I spent most of high school listening to music and practicing the bassoon, riding my bike to one rehearsal or another. I really wanted to be a composer. For a long time my whole sense of intellectual history was anchored to what I knew about the history of music. I saw the triumph of dodecaphonic dogma and was amazed that only Samuel Barber and a few others were strong enough to keep writing tonal music.

One important thing I learned from music, and from philospher Michael Polanyi, is how much of knowledge is unsayable -- you can know a lot about a harmonic sequence without being able to put any of it down in words. You can know just where it's going without having any terminology from music theory at your fingertips.

PM: Can you share any thoughts on the passing of John Updike in light of your memoir about him, U and I?

NB: He was a prince of a man and an effortless stylist and a teller of truths, especially in some of the essays in Self Consciousness. Once after U and I came out he sent me one of his novels with an inscription. "To Nicholson Baker, who made me famous." I miss him and I'm very sad he's gone -- that's all.

PM: Your books have the appearance at least of coming more from direct experience than those of your peers. In fact, they seem to arise from a passion (or obsession?) you seem to be experiencing at that moment -- sex in Vox and The Fermata, political anger in Checkpoint and Human Smoke, anger at the effect of technology on libraries. Is this really the case? Do you need this in order to write?

NB: Things pull at you. You want to celebrate them or grieve over them. My wife says that I'm the least obsessive person she knows. I'm easily distracted -- I put things off, I dither around, I'm messy. The usual.

But when I finally get close to getting something done, I want it to be thorough. In other words, if it's going to be about a lunch hour, well then, really look around and find what's interesting in that lunch hour. Where do the moving objects shine? If it's going to be about phone sex, okay, then make the whole book a single conversation. It's never a good idea to write out of anger. Love, yes, gratitude, yes, grief, yes -- anger no. Double Fold, Checkpoint, and Human Smoke were written out of grief.

PM In light of your now notorious distaste for George Bush, expressed in Checkpoint, what's your take on President Obama?

NB: First, I think I'm right in saying that neither of the characters in Checkpoint, Ben and Jay, hate George Bush. At least they talk sympathetically about him at the end. Sometimes I wish I never wrote that book because people who haven't read it tout it as an assassination fantasy. It's a conversation between two people, one of whom successfully talks the other one out of a proposed act of violence. The book is an argument against deadly force, not for it. It turns the justification for the Iraq war upside down. Does killing anyone -- Saddam's sons, say -- ever get us closer to peaceableness? No, really not.

As for President Obama: I wish he would get out of Afghanistan entirely, immediately, and close all the bases in Iraq, and free the detainees, who are held without legal justification. Those actions are so much more important morally than horse-trading over a domestic health plan that forces people to pay money to insurance companies.

PM: Why is it that funny books of fiction about sex are so rare?

NB: Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is brilliant and funny. I don't know. My strangest book is probably The Fermata, about a man who stops time. When it came out, some people thought it was funny and some people thought it was wrong and bad and that something unfortunate must have happened to me. This was 1994. Time stoppage was an adolescent fantasy of mine. I figured, be true to the basic toggle-switch idea and have the character have to invent rules and limits to his fermata behavior. He takes off women's clothes but he thinks it’s okay because he does so lovingly.

PM: Your fiction is full of incredible insights about things most people overlook. You help us see the connections between things. I'm curious to know if these insights are something you have to work hard to arrive at, or do they flood in on you all the time with the best of them ending up in your work? In other words, do these insights enrich your life as much as your work?

NB: Thank you -- I think I amble along and have the thoughts everyone has. I just take the time to activate the inner amenuensis and write them down. In the writing I learn more about what I've got -- I go down the staff corridors a little further. Then I let the notes sit around for several years, or sometimes decades, and look at them and see if any of what I've got is of interest. Most of it isn't, but some seems to be asking for a setting.

For instance, my theory about bad dreams and the need to go pee: I saved it for years, till I finally got it safely into A Box of Matches. It's a great relief when I publish the thought, finally. Then one day I'll have it again and think Aha, a thought! Followed immediately by the disappointment that I can't write it down again. It's gone, it's un-write-downable, I've already sent it down the aisle.

Next Page

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image