The obsessive detail
by Keith Taylor
From the February, 2003 issue
Nicholson Baker has carved out a unique place for himself in American letters: he is our master of the obsessive detail. All of his novels spin out from a microscopic look at a small, often mundane action. It should come as no surprise that the two that deal with sexuality, Vox and The Fermata, are the most widely known, but they are simply a variation on a pattern Baker has used in other ways in different books. Vox, written in the early 1990s, is about phone sex, and its great success is that it manages to be gently pornographic and wildly funny at the same time.
Baker has just published his sixth novel, A Box of Matches. I almost feel I should qualify that word "novel," because nothing much happens in the book. A man we know only as Emmett an editor of medical textbooks, comfortably middle class and living what appears to be a comfortably suburban life with his wife, his two children, and his pet duck rises each morning around 4 a.m. In the dark he brews a pot of coffee and lights a fire and just sits there, writing short notes on his laptop. He keeps the screen as dark as possible. Emmett does not think great thoughts about God, Man, and the Universe. He does not reflect on his family and his relationship to them. Instead, he thinks about the right way to build a fire, how to keep his duck warm in winter, how to keep his feet warm in bed, how a man might go to the bathroom in the dark without making a mess. He doesn't make any claims about an extravagant life. In fact, he sums his own up in a single sentence: "I've just ridden my tricycle, gone to school, greased my bicycle bearings, gotten a job, gotten married, had children, and here I am."
Baker's brilliance is that he makes all this seem funny,
and he makes it seem significant. He doesn't give us many clues about Emmett's personality other than his obsessions, but they're more than enough to let us understand him. At one point, while discussing the duck outdoors in winter, Emmett says, "I want to take care of the world." And Nicholson Baker can almost convince us that this is some kind of ultimate nobility.
Nicholson Baker is in town for a week, reading from his fiction at the Michigan Union on Monday, February 3, and lecturing at Davidson Hall on Wednesday, February 5, about his campaign to preserve hard copies of old newspapers.
[Originally published in February, 2003.]
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