Sometimes it is hard to write reviews. When you can pin one thing down that you loved, hated, emoted over intensely, you can kind of push you way into something fast and messy. I am not a great reviewer. I do not write this for some mass consumption, that would be like holding a candle to the sun when compared to legitimate criticism, but as a practice it keeps me writing and it helps me remember which books I’ve read and how readily I should shove them down the throats of others.
I don’t have that here.
The only emotions I have with this book are more-or-less what book itself is: a loose bag of observations, anecdotes, and self-deprecating humor. There is nothing to hold onto there. No solid place to begin, which, as the narrator (and the author) point out, is a lot like poetry. Which is what this book is about, if it can be said to be about anything.
That is probably why for the first twenty or thirty pages I hated this book. It is centered around poetry and I know as much about poetry as a do the art of dart throwing, I may make a reasonable pass here and there, but there is an 80% that by the time I’m done someone is leaving pissed-off and bleeding. Combine my ignorance of subject with the relentlessness of the book’s scattershot narrator, Paul Chowder and you have me feeling out of the loop and slightly patronized. I couldn’t quite place the reasoning for it, but the book had found me defensive. Then, the more I read, the more I let the book tumble over me, I realized two very important things.
The first was that I was wrong, the book wasn’t patronizing, it was something else, it was dialectically different from the way my mind works. It was a conversation, and that is what this book is even if you can’t respond in text, there are implied gestures, those wonderful pauses that Baker and his narrator are so fond of teasing out of poetry. You can feel yourself nodding, sighing, groaning, in back-channel cues. I was being introduced to someone new and they had bothered me and I had steeled myself to be annoyed, to be stuck in the conversation until it was polite to leave and then doing so scream to myself about how much of an asshole he was.
Which leads me to my second point: I am Paul Chowder. Not in the trivialities, the relentless desire to capture the commonplace, but in the doubt, the musing, the facts lodged between cracked pillars, being thrown out not because they are necessarily relevant but you just found them and hey isn’t that a neat thing. Which is a bad thing, because if there is one son of a bitch I can’t stand it’s myself.
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a ‘minimalist’ novel before. I feel like now I can saw I have. The book has no real plot, little character-building, or pretty much anything I read books for, but it has a charm that, when not losing me in a forest of poetic didacticism I can’t even pretend to care about, kept me reading with a consistent if small smile on my face. I’m not sure I can do a lot of this type of novel, but every once and a while I can see myself returning to bask in a momentary freshness.
“But spending your life concentrating on death is like watching a whole movie and thinking only about the credits that are going to roll at the end. It’s a mistake of emphasis.” ― Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist