Reading: A Man and His Hand | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Reading: A Man and His Hand

Nicholson Baker's recent novels are expressions of the ultimate schoolboy ethos, modern epics of masturbation.


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In one of the more exquisite tortures scientists have perfected inside those fiendish primate labs, they take a newborn monkey from its mother and put it in a cage with a doll supposed to look like a real simian. The poor orphan clings instinctively to this bag of dust as if it were actual flesh and blood--"bonds with" it, as the phrase goes--and can't be pried off even when reunited later with its birth monkey. This is roughly the position of people who read novels nowadays: like the little ape, they take what they can get.

How else to explain the success, both popular and literary, of Nicholson Baker? Since 1988 he has published five books, including four ostensible novels, but you won't find in them anything like the impulse that gave life to Dickens, Proust, or Nabokov. It may be true, as someone said, that all writers are moved by an instinct no different from the one that makes a baby squall for attention, but that's right where Baker stops. He pays some heed to society, to memoir, and to wordplay, but his only real interest is himself. Even his one book of nonfiction, an essay on John Updike, is actually about Nicholson Baker--or rather about Baker writing a book about Updike. His own publishers later got lost in the fogs of this auto-fixation and listed U and I in one of their blurbs as a novel.

I once had a professor, a bachelor of advanced middle age, whose relations with other people were all, as you might say, academic. He was very shy, but he was devoted to one mild eccentricity: for as long as anyone knew, he'd been distributing once a month a few pages he'd written on whatever struck him--lines from books or movies, snippets of dinner-party conversation, news items, and so on. Sometimes he tried to draw some moral out of this material, sometimes not. It was a newsletter of one man's stray thoughts, full of the sort of thing you might tell your husband or wife as you wash the lettuce. But he didn't know that kind of intimacy; instead he sent this letter out to every student and professor in his department, to selected colleagues elsewhere in the university, and to others across the country and, presumably, the world. Unlike the professor, Baker is married. But his conviction that we want to read about the miscellanea he discovers inside his own head must be even stronger, judging by the meticulous, obsessive care with which he digs it up and puts it before the public. And that takes us back to the baby's squall.

Consider Baker's first book, The Mezzanine. It's one long scroll of observations the narrator unwinds as he rises on an escalator during his lunch hour: childhood memories, the machinery of everyday life, and of course the operation of his own mind. It's a mishmash, but there is a principle of selection at work. What connects a remark about the way cafeteria workers' hairnets hang down like the butt ends of garbage trucks to a disquisition on the science of applying deodorant while wearing a shirt is the fact that Baker thought of them both. The book means to be funny--not witty but humorous, a much harder thing to do--and it often is. But the style, which is everything in this kind of writing, just as often falls flat. For every line like "the holy expression that women have only for themselves in mirrors" there's a page of maundering about "a sneaker-shoelace knot and a dress-shoelace knot standing side by side saying the Pledge of Allegiance." Reading a book like this is like watching a seal bonk horns in a vaudeville bit: whether he hits the right one or not doesn't really matter--you didn't come for the music, but the shtick.

The trouble with shtick is that you can take only so much. In Baker's second book, Room Temperature, nothing has changed except the window dressing. The whimsy is sprinkled onto the page in exactly the same voice as before, but now the narrator calls himself "Mike" instead of "Howie," and his girlfriend, "L.," is his wife, "Patty." Do we really need to be told all the pet names Baker and his wife have for each other, their child, and the act of defecation? This last theme, by the way, is spread over several pages of Room Temperature, but that's just a hint of the obsessive analism to come in later books. There are a few other premonitory signs of bad taste, like Baker's fantasy about the person who recorded the voice for an exhibit of a transparent female in the science museum of Rochester, New York, where he grew up. He imagines this woman talking herself into such a sexual heat during the taping that she had to rush home where she "clitted her yum-stump to a box-spring-deep pelvis-lifter. . . . I know she did."

Then came U and I, in which Nicholson Baker starred for the first time as himself. But that kind of windy obscurity didn't sell, and in the next book, Vox, Baker applied his shtick to something that would--sex. The novel made his popular reputation, and this year he's published a hard-core sequel called The Fermata. I'm not suggesting that Baker's motives are mercenary. The only treasure chest that seems to matter to him is the one that holds his own ideas; and honesty is his signal virtue. When he writes (in Vox), "I'm enthusiastically pro-pornography, obviously," we have no reason not to take him at his word. Likewise Vox's credo--"it's all I need from life, the notion that women are masturbating, and I don't know when or where, but it's going on"--is so ardently realized in Vox and The Fermata as to remove any doubt that this, the ultimate schoolboy ethos, is the author's own.

It is an unassailable convention of pornography that the action has to be clothed, however scantily, in the rags of some kind of story. In Vox this device is a long-distance phone-sex call between two strangers, "Abby" and "Jim." While they talk, their fantasies take shape on the page as separate vignettes of porn; the ruling theme is onanism, which also governs the book's inevitable finish. In The Fermata the old in-out is even more scarce. Here the premise is that the narrator, "Arno Strine," has developed the power to stop time, freezing everything in the world except himself. (A "fermata" is the sign in music for a discretionary suspension of time.) What he does with this ability is undress women, masturbate on or near them, and try to arouse them by various tricks so that they masturbate too once he gets the clocks going again. Scene after scene in the book is like this, with only the thinnest narrative tissue between them--overall, there's about as much plot development as you'd expect in an X-rated video. He even includes a long porn-within-the-porn story--another convention of the genre--in which the sex is also strictly noncoital. So while the first two novels might be called "masturbatory" in some metaphorical sense, the word straightforwardly describes the content of Vox and The Fermata. They are modern epics of self-abuse, Baker's Iliad and his Odyssey: Tell me, Muse, of the many ways to wank . . .

Before he got down to work on The Human Comedy, Honore de Balzac spent years as an anonymous hack writing what he called "literary filth." Baker has gone the other way: he was a technical writer after college, and later rose onto the best-seller list as the author of verbally inventive smut. "What else was there in the world beside masturbation?" asks his latest proxy, Arno Strine: "Nothing." In itself obsession is no bad thing in a novelist. Many of the best seem to be writing the same book over and over again: there is Kafka gripped by paranoia, Conrad testing his moral code against a world that doesn't understand, and Lawrence worshiping at the altar of Nature. But in Baker's case there really is little difference between the books. They're all written in the same minute observational style and in the first person--necessarily, since the people in them are not characters but stand-ins for the author. (Vox is technically written in the third person, but in effect it has just two first-person voices: there is almost nothing outside the quotation marks.) True, with each book there's been a shift in subject matter and a noticeable decline in taste--the latest one features the emergence, viewed up close, of a naked human turd. But the underlying fixation has not changed: what sets Baker apart from other novelists is that his special obsession is limited to himself. This makes his task much simpler than theirs, and it has also sent him to the bottom of his particular well with astonishing speed.

But wait: isn't Baker just trying to deliver some of that literary byplay known as a "message"? Perhaps Vox symbolizes the current state of sexual alienation, and The Fermata is a fable about the novelist's wish to stop the world for inspection at his own convenience. Perhaps, but the immediacy and genuineness of feeling on almost every page are the marks of art for art's sake, not a wish to edify. Baker's openness can be touching, as in his nostalgia for "Jiffy Pop, a relic of the great age of aluminum" in The Mezzanine. It can be studied, as in his refusal to read a single word of Updike while composing U and I "for fear that I would forfeit my one opportunity to represent as accurately as I can what I think of him when he comes to mind." Or it can be repellent, as in this apology for all the monkey business in The Fermata: "I know myself, I know that I mean no harm, I mean well. I want simply to know what every woman looks like and feels like. I mean only to appreciate what the ribs of a complete stranger feel like under my hands, or to hold some hair I haven't held before, or to come in someone's face while she is paused in her own orgasm." Always there is that clear ring of honesty--a catechism, perhaps, from the fiction workshop. If you can imagine grafting the eager intensity--and the gonadal impulses--of a 16-year-old boy onto the brain of a literary grown-up in command of a droll if not always tasteful prose style, you are pretty close to the mental atmosphere of The Fermata.

The simplest thing would be to take Baker's openness at face value: he just wants to tell his own truth. And his truth happens to be one that people want to hear. In the 1960s Baker's idol, John Updike, gave middlebrows the sensation of reading literature when he ennobled their very own ardors on the page; their adolescent children, meanwhile, took the chance to peek at those silky-smooth descriptions of the genitalia of suburban neighbors' wives. Baker was one of those kids, and now that they've all grown up he's busy giving them a literature of their own. But it's not his lewdness that has made him such a success--it's his narcissism.

Is there anyone in that generation who hasn't heard words more or less like these: "What I'm feeling may or may not make sense to you, but they're my feelings!"? Make a few changes and you've got Baker's guiding principle: "What I'm thinking may or may not be interesting to you, but they're my thoughts!" Baker didn't invent this as an aesthetic dogma, but now he's launched it high into the national letters. In a day when performance artists get up onstage to butter themselves with chocolate and when gangsta rappers justify airing their most violent and degrading fantasies by saying "It's real," why shouldn't a novelist put his talent in service to pornography, a genre that he loves?

If The Fermata has a message, it's this: porn is OK. It doesn't hurt anybody, it's just for masturbation, and it's not sad the way most people think--it's beautiful. That's how Arno Strine defends his shenanigans in the playground of stopped time, where "all the world [is] a dirty magazine." And that way his author can enact the current ritual: the artist confesses, forgives himself, and becomes master of self-love. This is what the audience has come to expect, to see its own narcissism made over into art.

Who are they, his readers? Go to the supermarket around dinnertime and watch for the ones who drift through the store with that fallow look of the city: well-dressed, lonely, yet determined not to despair. They might be on their way home from a bout with Jazzercise or the therapist. You see them in the ten-items-or-less lane unloading a few prepared foods, the expensive ones, one or two small bags of fruit, maybe a pint of gourmet ice cream. What is more moving, in its way, than the sight of an attractive, apparently intelligent person in the express checkout next to those two sad apples, naked in the bag? Baker understands people like that. He knows they'll respond to his fantasies; they live on fantasy. And he knows that when he observes, for example, that female urine "wings excitedly out rather than releasing itself in a single laminar column, and this exit-spraying itself makes a distinct noise, a likable, high whistle-warble-hissing," his readers won't cradle their foreheads in dismay. They'll say to themselves, "Hey, I've thought about stuff like that too!"

Such keen observation is the most distinctive thing about Baker's writing; it's the basic element of his shtick. And it may be another clue to his success that the insights in a book like The Fermata, for all its whacking priapism, are really quite feminine. I don't mean just that Baker spends a lot of time on hair, clothes, and the minutiae of female bodies--those are his raw materials, after all. It's that his observational beam, though intense, is also intensely myopic: it can see only what happens to cross right before his eyes--or pass through his mind--at any moment.

Baker is less a novelist than a writer of vignettes. In Vox and The Fermata they are frankly pornographic, but his earlier books were also made up of loosely connected anecdotes. What they all have in common is that their gaze is directed inside to feelings, memories, and anxieties--not outward in the masculine way. Consider this: Baker has lived in New York and Boston (where The Fermata is set); he is nothing if not observant; yet his sketches have none of the restlessness or the passionate detachment of the urban prowler. He is impassive before the swirl of the city, yet the sight of a man polishing the handrail of an escalator ("by leaning motionlessly on a white cotton rag, using the technology") sends him into a long Proustian reverie on the theme of moving stairways through the years of his own life, his one true subject. When Arno Strine snoops around a woman's apartment early in The Fermata, he doesn't look for letters, diaries, or anything else that would interest a real voyeur. Instead he goes to her bed, runs his hand over the dimples in her bedsheet, and senses an immediate bond: "Feeling Joyce's mattress pad," he says, "made me want to kiss her." I could be wrong, but I think that's just going to embarrass the men who read it. Women, perhaps, might be able to understand the kind of longing behind it.

"I am a writer of fucking erotica!" shouts the narrator of The Fermata. If erotica, as opposed to hard core, means microscopically detailed asides and relentless wordplay, then he is certainly right. But why quibble? It is indisputable that Baker is a talented stylist who has raised the literary level of pornography. Connoisseurs of porn, it is true, may be put off by that very style, and others might think it is distinctly low-wattage--"frigments of my invagination" would be about average--but it's a good bet that the blurb writers will agree with Arno. The Fermata will then join the rest of Baker's books on the halcyon pastures of blurbdom, out where "dazzling" romps with "brilliant" under a "highly original" sky.

But a dildo is still a dildo, no matter how fancy you get with it. If Baker replaced all of the sex scenes with western shoot-outs or smart-alecky detectives or romantic mush, you'd have a book no more intrinsically boring than The Fermata. Nobody would buy it, least of all readers devoted to those genres; and critics wouldn't think it was anything but trash. But since The Fermata is about sex, and aberrant sex at that, some will be tempted to wonder if they haven't got another Lolita on their hands. Both are novels of sexual obsession told in the first person, and both are full of verbal trickery. In its day people called Lolita porn too, though by now that charge seems quaint since there is so little sex in the book, and not one obscene phrase. Humbert Humbert, its narrator, was disgusted by vulgarity. In The Fermata you'll find every dirty word you can think of, plus many more invented by the author when the inherited stocks ran out. Baker's problem isn't that he writes about sex, it's that he writes about nothing else. Lolita is a great love story in which the hero, who dies in the end of his broken heart, happens to be a panting monster. Humbert also knows he's a monster; 40 years later, Arno Strine has no such problem with his self-esteem. He says only, in effect, "In my place you'd do worse."

"In pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of cliches. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations." That's from Nabokov's postscript to Lolita, and it fits The Fermata almost perfectly. Baker's only deviation from the formula is that his style and imagery are distracting. Caveat masturbator.

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker, Random House, $21.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Jennifer Riegler.

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