Larceny

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
    Chatto, 305 pp, £14.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 7011 5999 5

The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy. The ‘action’ of his first novel, The Mezzanine, consisted of the lunch-hour of a single working day, as experienced by an office worker, but time under the discursive microscope changed its nature. The trivial and quotidian were dignified by the attention given them, and the self-consciously important found no place in the novel’s scheme. Towards the end of the book the hero read in his Penguin Marcus Aurelius the gloomy aphorism that human life is no more than sperm and ashes, and felt no sympathy for it. The modest richness of his day refuted this downbeat Roman smugness.

A highly mannered style seems to achieve its effects almost independently of subject matter, but Baker’s second book, Room Temperature (perhaps written earlier than The Mezzanine), proved the converse proposition: that mannerism cruelly shows up perfunctoriness of theme. In any case, with a highly distinctive style, a writer’s worst moments are more like his best moments than they are like anything else, which can even interfere with the memory of past pleasures.

The oddball narrator of The Mezzanine, whose love affair with the impersonality of modern life might be a form either of transcendentalism or of mental illness (the book’s original title, Desperation, tipped the scales unduly) mutated in Room Temperature into a New Man, whose self-absorption in paternity was assumed to be virtuous. The effect was of a hyper-realist Hallmark card.

After this sickly interlude U and I was a return to form. The book explored Baker’s relationship with John Updike, as writerly model, father figure to be challenged, and occasional sharer of the same physical space (the two men’s passing encounters couldn’t be said to constitute even acquaintance). U and I reduced Updike’s work to a mulch of remembered fragments – Baker refrained from rereading and checked quotations only after the boot was written – and then found in that mulch the evidence for Updike’s brilliance as a writer.

The label of tour de force which appeared to attach so naturally to The Mezzanine by now seemed inappropriate. What had looked like tactics devised for a single book – a simultaneous reductiveness and mania for elaboration – has turned out to be the strategy for an entire literary career. An artist can’t be said to be producing tours de force if he is merely doing things that are in his grain and no one else’s, things counter-intuitive only to the world at large.

U and I was a combined invocation and exorcism of Updike, a homage that was also an elaborate insult, since it valued only those aspects of Updike that were Bakeresque. Out of Updike’s range of excellences, Baker singled out his celebratory precision.

John Updike’s own father-figure was Henry Green. What he sought to emulate, however, was not just Green’s idiosyncratic lyricism but a social attentiveness, and a glancing access to characters’ interior spaces. The Updike whom Baker loves is a diminished artist, an Updike with the Green filtered out.

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