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.