Nicholson Baker was at my local bookstore the other night promoting his novel Traveling Sprinkler. It was a free talk, and I went in more interested in the author than the book, which is a sequel to another I haven’t read, The Anthologist. I didn’t bring anything for him to sign. I was surprised. Baker sold me his book, and he seemed to enjoy doing it (I sometimes worry about the toll these things take on people’s work). I guess that’s a good book event.
Baker is versatile. He’s written a controversial book about World War II called Human Smoke. He’s also written several books of ridiculous, explicit, very literary porn. His interview with Stephen Colbert provides a glimpse of what it’s all about. You shouldn’t judge the genre just on Fifty Shades of Grey.
I’m still undecided about the novel, most of the way through it. If I remember, Baker didn’t use the word “storytelling” when he talked about writing. Instead often said something like “but you could put it in a novel”, meaning the things he finds beautiful and neglected, like the ingenious mechanism of the title. It seems like he’s less interested in writing a novel with a gripping plot that plays to the usual taste for violence and drama. Instead we have classical piano and pop music, pacifism, the theory of metaphor. Nicholson Baker’s life, in other words, which could work, because he’s an interesting guy. I am still sold on the idea, but I imagine it requires a hell of a lot of work and some extreme choosiness to pull off, and I’m not sure it was there.