Nicholson Baker1's books appear deceptively compact and bijou, and if you spot one at the bookshop at the airport you may be tempted to think 'Oh, I'll manage to finish reading something that size on the plane'. However, his writing style is so intense, and so dense, and so very, very clever, that he is impossible to 'speed read' or skim through. The length of his sentences is legendary2 - it is not unknown for a single sentence to occupy most of one page.
Also as a result of the weather, I was wearing a sweater for the first time in months, one Patty had given me for my birthday: a brown monster stout with various fugal inversions and augmentations of the standard cable knit, and consequently glutted with insulational dead air, its corona of lighter outer fibers frizzing out three-eighths of an inch or more from the slubbed and satisfyingly clutchable weave that formed the actual structure underneath, so that the sweater, along with me, its wearer, appeared to fade without a demonstrable outer boundary into the rest of the room, as tuning forks or rubber bands will seem in their blurred vibration to transform their material selves into the invisible sound they generate; a machine-made sweater, but manufactured apparently with Xenakian lurches and indecisions programmed into the numerically controlled needles that, unlike the chain flayings and bleaching stains used in production lines to antique new furniture, gave it to my eye an attraction distinct from the irregular grandmotherly alternations between close attention and indignant abandonment at historical preservation meetings prominent in handmade knitwear.
- taken from Room Temperature
As a corollary to this, his use of the full gamut of punctuation, such as semi-colons and dashes, is widespread. Another common feature is that the cover of each book always uses a wry drawing illustrating some of the subject matter contained within. But you have to read the book to get the joke!
First published in 1988, The Mezzanine is the story of one man's lunch hour. Written in the first-person, Howie works at the eponymous mezzanine. His mission to buy shoelaces, peppered with instantly recognizable encounters with fellow office workers, and shop assistants, is recounted in minutely observed detail. Sidetracks from his principal stream of thought are provided in footnotes, some of which exceed in length the main text on the page. Highlights of this book include thoughts on how escalators work, men's room etiquette, paper towels in the bathroom versus hot air blowers, and the history of ice-cube trays:
Just because it is convention to have one thousand business cards printed up for you the week after you are hired, even though, unless you are a salesman or you do a lot of recruiting, you will probably give out no more than thirty in the course of your whole employment, most of them in the first year to relatives, and later only on occasions in which the giving out of business cards adds a coy irony to some interchange, and even though the possession of business cards has no other function, really, than to demonstrate good faith on the company's part, to make you feel that you belong there from the beginning, no matter how valueless you may seem to yourself to be in the first three months - just because this level of luxury is conventional, and the price schedules at printers' encourage volume, doesn't mean that it and things like it might not at some point pull the whole structure of wasteful, half-understood, inherited convention right down.
The cover of the book3 highlights the 'A' in 'MezzAnine', and sets it against the sloping diminishing perspective of a pair of escalators.
First published in 1990, Room Temperature again charts one man's thoughts during a short time span as they drift over such topics as trying to decipher what someone is writing from the sound alone, how to pick one's nose surreptitiously, and inspection slips in new clothes. Peanut butter makes a number of cameo appearances in this story, showcased in the mouth-watering and calorie-defying peanut butter and bacon sandwiches known as 'graveyards' which his father used to make:
I sat near the bookcase, where we normally gave the Bug4 her bottle, but instead of the floor's usual contributions - the nail-shank knuckle-pops, the load-bearing grunts, the Curly 'nyuck-nyucks' and the crow-barrings of polite inquiry that in forward and backward sequence make up a unique bar code for every possible permutation of rocker placement, compass bearing, center of gravity, and level of humidity that could arise in the room - instead of this considerable racket, which seemed not to affect the Bug and didn't bother me most of the time, although occasionally I would have fits of indignation that made me think of Schopenhauer's fury at the idle cracking of buggy whips by coachmen on his street, there was at the moment no floor noise at all: which meant that nothing could distract the Bug and me from the pleasurable experience of the irregular topography of the floor itself as it was conveyed mutely and sleep-inducingly up through the chair to our bodies.
The cover illustration of the book5 is a baby's bottle. There are obvious similarities between Room Temperature and The Mezzanine - both have male narrators, both take place over a very short space of time, and both of them deal with a microscopically-detailed analysis of everyday things. However, Room Temperature also examines emotional attachments in relationships, and is more melancholy than its predecessor.
Similar in size to Room Temperature and The Mezzanine, Vox marks a change of style for Baker. Instead of just the one narrator's voice, we now have two: Jim, who calls a sex chat line and Abby, the respondent with whom he establishes an instant rapport. They embark on an interrogative voyage of discovery of each other, exchanging fantasies as well as factual information. First published in 1992, this novel caused some shock waves as a result of its explicit sexual content. Because there are no narrative descriptive passages (the whole book consists entirely of their 'he said' - 'she said' conversation) Baker's trademark long sentences are absent. However, his power of observation remains:
It's so gradual that you're not quite sure whether it's the light coming on and shining a little more brightly, or if the sky has darkened - of course it's both, but you can't tell which is overtaking the other, and then there's this moment, about five minutes from now, when the streetlight is exactly the same colour as the sky, I mean the same green-violet-yellow whatever, so that it seems as if there's a hole in the middle of the tree across the street, in the branches, where the sky, which is really the light on this side of the street, shows through.
The cover6 shows a woman's face, the mouth heavily lipsticked, holding a telephone receiver.
First published in 1994, The Fermata is markedly different from Baker's other work. It is much longer, and the action (yes there actually is some action in this one, not just a series of musings) takes place over a longer period of time. But it is the preposterously impossible plot which marks this out as a work of fiction, where the previous works could well have been true-life tales.
The hero, Arno Strine, works as an audiotypist - an occupation which, while it gives Baker the opportunity the chance to describe in glorious detail the feeling of being inside someone else's mind as you listen to them dictate, isn't really all that exciting. The exciting thing is that he can stop time. The Fermata takes the form of Arno writing his autobiography, and so covers the various different methods he has discovered over the years in order to stop time. These include threading a needle through a callous on his hand, with the thread itself attached to a spin dryer full of towels. What does Arno use this remarkable skill for? Power, money, wisdom? No, he uses it to take women's clothes off. Interspersed with Arno's own life story are works of erotic fiction that he writes:
Towels, which are ordinarily the very soul of magnanimous absorbency, are at six hundred r.p.m compressed into loutish, wedge-shaped chunks of raw textility, apotheoses of waddedness, their folds so conclusively superimposed, and their thousands of gently torqued turf-tassels so expunged, or exsponged, of reserve capacity, that I feel, after the last steady pints of blue-gray water have pulsed from the exit hose and the loud tick from within the machine signals some final disengagement of its transmission, and the spinning slows and stops, as if I am tossing boneless hams or (in the case of washcloths) little steaks into the dryer, rather than potential exhibits in a fabric-softener testimonial.
The cover7 shows a pair of glasses, as by the end of the book Arno can stop time with a simple push of his spectacles back up his nose.
The Everlasting Story of Nory
First published in 1998, Nory (Eleanor) is the eponymous nine-year-old narrator, who describes herself, her family, her friends, and their various everyday doings. The unusual aspect is that she does this in the third person, but retains many child-like mistakes in terminology or use of clichés eg, 'scroll of the neck', 'he was a fiend of badness', 'After that busy brainwash of a night', 'children under the age of twelve cannot attend to this', 'The seventh continent is Antarctica, which is a landmass with a huge thing floating underneath it called Magnetic South which is made up of magnets and tons and tons of anonymous rock'. On the cover8, the words in the title are as if made from a long piece of string, the end of which is attached to a tooth:
Then the teacher went out of the room, and the chatting turned to a muttering and a chittering and a smattering and a fluttering in every direction, because when the teacher goes out, let the rumpus begin.
A Box of Matches
We're in familiar territory here, in this novel, first published in 2003. There's the male narrator and he has a peculiar problem (insomnia). He uses the time that this condition gives him for a purpose (he lights a fire) and we are treated to his inner stream of consciousness as he carries this out. Each short chapter is the thoughts from that particular morning's firelighting, and the book lasts as long as the box of matches, one match per day - 33 chapters in all. Each begins in the same fashion 'Good morning, it's 4.04am'9. This is the most accessible of Baker's novels, and the recommended starting point:
Soon the baked-on atolls, softened overnight, began to give way: I pestered at the last one from the side for a while, smiling with the clenched-teeth smile of the joyful scrubber, and it was gone - no, there was still a tiny rough patch left behind to be dealt with, and then, oh sweet life, I could circle my sponge over the entire surface of the dish at the speed of the swirling water, frictionlessly, like a velodrome racer on a victory lap.
The cover shows the match box, open to reveal some match heads within, and the box is decorated with a duck, a reference to Greta the duck who is one of the characters in the story.
There is no official fan page for Baker, but an excellent unofficial fan site has some neat features, such as a random quote generator.