Substitute, by Nicholson Baker

Although I could not be caught entirely by surprise, I winced when Nicholson Baker came right out and promised a “moment by moment account of twenty eight days” spent substitute teaching in Maine.   Baker wrote an entire novel about a ride up an escalator.  This book is seven hundred pages long.  He is not fooling around.  But neither was I.  I reserved the book months ahead of publication.

Nicholson Baker is a stubborn pacifist, a pornographer, and, in the guise of a tweedy library gadfly, a brutal critic of some very big institutions.  In a quiet way he is a prose genius.  Just turning his gaze on a rural school district could be taken for an aggressive act.  Aggressive, though, is not the right word for a man whose novels revolve around escalators, fireplaces, and lawn sprinklers.  He is uniquely suited to a subject that is quotidian and a national controversy.  I sympathize with the outrage of an experienced teacher or classroom assistant who finds herself or himself under the microscope of this man.  On the other hand, they should be honored.  Baker is a major writer.*

Disappointingly, deliberately, Baker is not at his flashiest here.  He is much more straightforward.  Rarely he writes as of a math worksheet, “distended, goitrous dugongs of arithmetical confusion”.  He alludes self deprecatingly to a characteristic, slightly famous passage of The Mezzanine, an obsessive page long footnote about perforation that began “Perforation! Shout it out!”**  A third grader is handed a workbook and Baker can’t resist:

“So the trick with perforation…” I started to say.

Cody ripped out the activity page roughly, leaving some of it behind in the book.

James made a sad cry.

“You’re fine,” I said. “Cody avoided the triangles.”

Baker sympathizes with his charges, but doesn’t rise to the level of some of his autobiographical passages.  Baker once constructed a tremendous emotional edifice, for example, around the glass doorknob where his father hung his neckties.***  His method here is more that of Human Smoke.  (Consider the breadth of a writer who can reach from a Maine elementary school to World War Two.)  Episodes are artlessly left to accumulate and to speak for themselves.  This is not meant to sound harsh.  Have you ever tried to completely describe one day?  It takes some work, even without the constant presence of two dozen or so kids.

Some passages are more effective for being set in this context of trivial detail.  Baker, supervising recess, sees two girls on a swing set.  They are holding onto each other’s chains and pulling gently from side to side.  He is falling into some kind of writerly aesthetic revery (coupled oscillators are a source of deep, beautiful insight in physics) when another teacher intervenes, castigates the girls for breaking playground rules, physically separates them, and threatens to take away their recess.  The ensuing discussion between Baker and the other teacher is conducted in moderate tones, but has the impact of a savage fight.****  The teacher claims to know the girls better than Baker and to know that they were deliberately pushing boundaries that were set after some bloody playtime accident. Such conduct requires an uncompromising response.  This assessment might have been halfway correct, but such strains of thought also belong to our culture of egregious police brutality. 

Baker does stick his neck out at times.  The middle chapters, or rather days, turn out more political.  He believes that children are overmedicated as a result of not fitting in with classroom discipline.  He questions such students in ways that made me cringe, although it’s not clear how paying attention to a kid would be a bad thing.  Although he refrains from presenting grand theses, he has written in other contexts about his ideas for education, like shorter days and no Algebra II.  The people who should really feel threatened and offended by Baker’s work are the star reformers, the Arne Duncans and the entrepreneurs who want to set themselves up as education czars.  I can’t imagine any of them putting this much literary treasure to work to understand what goes on in the lives of students, and, if possible, I have less appetite for their posturing than ever before.

* I’d like to nominate Baker for a National Humanities Medal.  There’s a form online.  It’s really short.  I can’t decide if this would be a silly gesture.

** “The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge!  It is a staggering conception…”

*** This is actually in the novel The Mezzanine.  It’s the best example that came to mind.  The matter of Baker and his biography puzzles me.  His essays vividly depict his childhood.  It’s obvious that all of his novels, being concerned with minutiae in the lives of extremely introspective characters, are somehow autobiographical.  Sometimes the narrative is so interior that it doesn’t make sense to ask whether it happened.  It’s just thought.  On the other hand, with Paul Chowder, Baker takes pleasure in imagining himself as a screwup.  What is Baker really like?  Shaking his hand at a book event doesn’t quite suffice.  I was left wondering if the brief accounts in Substitute of driving to work and eating lunch, cursing under his breath and fiddling with his phone were the closest I’d gotten to Nicholson Baker as he is now.

**** Seriously.  I also recently read a book about a daylong battle for a remote outpost in Afghanistan and a Jack Reacher thriller.  The Afghanistan book was good, but Jack Reacher doesn’t hold up that well against Nick Baker, Substitute.

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The Foghorn

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Friday evening I was reading and enjoying the gorgeous view of Boston Harbor at the Piers Park in East Boston.  Some event was going on at the end of the next pier: there was a party tent hung with lights and people inside were clapping.  Mostly this pier seems to be used by pleasure boats and small yachts, but there are also water taxis and big ferries I can only guess are refueling.  Friday night a Nantucket lightship (there were many) was moored at the end next to the tent.  The lightships have been replaced now by buoys; I thought maybe this was a group involved with the boat’s preservation, or perhaps they just rented it for fun.  The party seemed to culminate when they turned on the lights and blasted the foghorn.  It was extremely loud, of course.  The whole park turned as one.  The low, resonant note descended at the end to a rumbling, blatting, obscene pedal tone that was funny but also disconcerting.  There was an answering chorus from boats all around the harbor, but nothing came close.

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Then I remembered W. S. Merwin’s poem, “The Foghorn”, from The Drunk in the Furnace.  The poem asks, “Who wounded that beast/ Incurably, or from whose pasture/ Was it lost, full grown, and time closed round it/ With no way back? … What does it bespeak in us, repeating/  And repeating, insisting on something/ That we never meant?”  The voice of the foghorn is our creation, yet somehow it is alive.  It has escaped us and become something we cannot see and would rather not hear, but the alternative is drowning, “always nearer than we had remembered”.  The poem may be about facing death, but it suggests that there is something culpable as well in our attempts to deal with it.  In light (light?) of Jude, verse 13, “They are raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame”, the sea is the abode of the damned.

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It’s one of a number of sea poems that Merwin wrote early on, poems with titles like “The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over”, “The “Portland” Going Out” and “The Sea Monster”.  The Portland was a steamer that went down in a blizzard off of Massachusetts in 1898.  No one even knows how many people were on board; there were probably more than one hundred, and none survived.  The poem takes the point of view of the last people to see the doomed ship, the crew of a little fishing boat heading home safely with no warning of the storm to come.  These poems are sometimes so gothic that I think critics have a hard time deciding how seriously to take them.  Nicholson Baker, who I think of whenever I write something like “blatting, obscene pedal tone”, seems to think that Merwin wrote all of his good stuff later in life, after he gave up punctuation and capital letters.  Or maybe only his strange alter ego, Paul Chowder, thinks that.

Photos are, top, by Elmschrat Coaching38, CC attribution/share alike via wikimedia commons, middle, author’s photo, bottom, public domain via wikimedia commons and Nantucket Historical Association.

The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker

Old Books

Some of my favorite reads fail to make it up here.  It happened with Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth.  It happened with Eliot Weinberger and with Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, not to mention all the junk I’m ashamed to put on here. I shouldn’t go without saying something about Baker’s The Way the World Works.  Almost every essay in this book has something good in it, if only a well timed moment of bombast, a silly joke, or a great metaphor.  “Black it was and full of power,” he writes of a penny in a fountain in an otherwise straightforward piece about a summer job.  Wikipedia’s automatic filters, or “bots”, revert a piece of profane but spirited vandalism “with a little sigh”.

Two essays in particular captivated me.  The first was “Truckin’ for the Future”, which title was the slogan of an ambitious San Francisco librarian Baker clashed with in the nineties.  Having written about card catalogues in the New Yorker, he was contacted by disgruntled librarians and became embroiled in questions of deaccession and open records.  The essay is a thrilling hit piece on an administration that, not content with remaking a major city library as a trendy “information utility”, used the chaos of an earthquake and a badly planned move to hack apart a valuable collection and decades of work.

Baker’s essays on newspapers are in a similar vein.  He argues for keeping the old physical copies alongside the microfilm and digital versions.  But these essays are less polemical and more focused on the lovely, leatherbound elephant folios of the bound newspaper runs of yore.  Is Baker a crank?  Is there another side to this story?  Library bureaucracy resorted to counterclaims plausible (it’s always going to be necessary to throw books away) and implausible (he’s Rasputin), and plain stonewalling.  I think Nicholson Baker has established that he deserves the libraries that would make him happy.

The second essay is “Why I am a Pacifist”.  This was written after the book Human Smoke, in which Baker let sources speak for themselves but concluded that the pacifists who spoke out during World War II were right.  While this essay is in some ways a response to the many people who objected to Human Smoke, I would love to see a real, sustained exchange on the subject between Baker and some of the people, especially those on the left, who hold so tightly to the notion of the good war.  Baker is deeply mistrustful of it.  His insistence that a falsely sanitized image of air power has held sway from WWII to the present is compelling.  So too is the insistent focus on the refugee issue.  Could more have been done to save Jews, things that didn’t involve firebombing?  Recent events suggest that Americans, among other nations, would try almost anything before accepting a flood of refugees.

This past week I enjoyed a third Cesar Aira novella, The Literary Conference.  I’m planning to reread Meno and read some of the dialogues I haven’t gotten to yet.  I’m also trying to make myself learn some chess openings.  I have a cool old copy of Capablanca’s Primer of Chess; maybe that will be more fun than looking them up online.

Image by Skyden67, via Wikimedia Commons, CC share alike.

Human Smoke: A Strong Case for Pacifism

I’m forever getting reacquainted with the big, unreadable books on my shelves; last night it was The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  I was trying once again to figure out structuralism and post-structuralism.  Somehow I found myself back at Pyrrhonian skepticism and from there, Diogenes Laertius.  One sentence in the short notice drew my attention: “He had a taste for anecdote and paradox, but no talent for philosophical exposition.”  The same has been said of Nicholson Baker, and in much the same narrow minded spirit.

I finally read Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.  For a long time I was put off by the way  it’s put together: Human Smoke is strung together out of snippets from newspapers, diaries and a variety of other contemporary reports.  There’s little commentary and few signs of a thesis.  I ended up being won over, however.  Before I say more, let me admit that Baker’s interview on Amazon explains much better than I could what he was about.  A friend also wrote a note on her blog that I think is pretty much right on.

We generally appreciate that the bombing campaigns of World War II were pretty horrific. What is less appreciated is that the campaigns’ military effectiveness is still debated.  Alongside of evidence of bombing’s colossal waste and the futile, sick fantasy that punishing civilians would lead to compromise, Baker steadily focuses on the many thwarted efforts to actually help the people, the Jews and other refugees, that we sometimes think this good war was fought for.  By ending his book with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Baker ensures that phases like the phony war, that might be skipped over to get to the “good stuff”, are given due weight.  It’s remarkable that nothing about the war feels inevitable in this treatment.  I’m not quite to the point of agreeing with Baker that the pacifists were right, as he says in the end, but I’m thinking about it.

On Monday I bought Baker’s recent collection of essays, The Way the World Works.    The title seems like a bit much, but I was won over by a piece on video games.  I’m glad he shares my high opinion of the adventure/shooter Uncharted 2.  There’s also an essay called “Why I am a Pacifist” I’m very curious about.

F*ing Trolleyology

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(I quite like real trolleys, though.)

A while ago the New York Review ran an article on trolleyology.  I was a little disappointed.  Trolleyology drives me crazy, which tells me that I take myself too seriously, but there it is.

What is trolleyology?  It’s a game played by philosophers of ethics.  Suppose you saw five people tied to a track with a runaway trolley headed for them.  Then suppose there was a switch you could throw to direct the trolley onto a siding, but there was a sixth person tied up on that siding.  Would you do it?  What if there was a fat man standing by who would derail the trolley if you pushed him under its wheels?  The situations are ludicrous but writers are quick to point out applications to issues like abortion; It surprises me that I don’t recall any mention of civilian deaths in war.

Philosophers of a psychological bent apparently get a kick out of seeing the contradictory ways that people respond to these sorts of questions posed in different ways and orders.  Those are the kinds of picky arguments I resent being badgered with, and in my imaginary grapplings with them, I can never resist the temptation to answer “none of the above”.  If I ever see five people tied up on the train tracks, I won’t lose a moment finding the psycho who is responsible, and I’ll be looking for the moral philosophers first.

Seriously, I am forced to concede that we probably can learn something from these games.  I don’t necessarily concede that it’s worthwhile.  It’s easy to get mired in details when the truth may lie in an entirely different direction.   Speaking of works that go in a different direction I’ve been really meaning to get around to reading Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  It’s worth a try.

Photo is by Adam E. Moreira, via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike.

Some serious reading, and some not so serious…

Catalonia (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been agonizing over posts on the last couple of books I read, because I don’t think I can do them justice.  I finished Shirer’s excellent Berlin Diary, which I blogged about earlier.  Shirer was able to tour the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of France immediately after the invasion, before leaving Germany at the end of 1940, his work increasingly obstructed by Nazi censors.  Reading about events from such an immediate perspective raises important questions with an urgency that I don’t think I’ve gotten from regular histories.  Perhaps the most important: How are the Germans and the French (to take just one example) able to live next to each other, not only in peace, but with apparent openness and cooperation?

In a similar vein I picked up George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  I couldn’t figure out what to be most astonished at: the story Orwell had to tell, the utterly straightforward way he told it, or the fact that I hadn’t gotten to this great work sooner.  Orwell spent parts of 1936 and 1937 in the trenches fighting against Franco only to be turned on by his own cause.  It was a fascinating mess that played out right before World War II and I’m glad to have learned just a little bit about it.

I’ve been on a bit of a World War II thing in recent years, having also read E. B. Sledge’s account of his fighting in the Pacific and also the novels Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.  They were all interesting in various ways.  Next I think I may finally read Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s controversial take on the war; I’ve seen Baker speak and if anyone makes pacifism interesting, it’s him.

At the moment I’m reading Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language.  She takes a very old school liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric and logic) approach to the details of Shakespeare’s language, explaining many, many figures of speech with quotations from the plays.  It’s mainly those quotations that make it fun, especially what she calls vices of language.  I overheard someone affectedly quoting from another language today and immediately thought, “Ah! Soraismus!”

Traveling Sprinkler at my Local Bookstore

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.