Both Ends of the Tub

Thomas Karshan

  • A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker
    Chatto, 178 pp, £10.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 7011 7402 1

Howie, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), asks whether our ‘disorganised do-it-yourself evening life’ can ‘really be the same as the clean, noble, Pendaflex life we lead in office buildings’. After all the ‘wealth and pomp’ of the office, ‘we return home every evening and stand sweating in front of a chest of drawers,’ pull out the loose coinage accumulated over the day, remove the ‘sticky lump’ of a wallet, store our pants away, and ‘walk about in our underpants and T-shirt waiting for the Ronzoni shells to boil’.

Howie is determined to make himself at home in the office. So he spends much of The Mezzanine, which follows his thoughts over the course of a lunch hour, thinking about the office toilet, the one place at work which is at all like home. Under the eye of the office clock, there is no time to stop and stare. But Howie manages to do a lot of stopping and staring: at the ‘brontosaural’ Scotch tape dispensers, for example, or the way the light catches the black rubber handrails of office escalators. This gives rise to the first of The Mezzanine’s many footnotes: ‘I love the constancy of shine on the edge of moving objects. Even propellers or desk fans will glint steadily in certain places in the greyness of their rotation: the curve of each fan blade picks up the light for an instant on its circuit and then hands it off to its successor.’ Baker’s term for his close attention to the glint of the natural world and the constancy of shine in his own thoughts is ‘microscopy’, though he knows not to flash the label around too often.

The Mezzanine,’ Baker said recently, ‘was an attempt to stop time by expanding the length of the paragraph by using the footnote as a kind of fermata. So that you would feel a stop in the middle of a sentence, and then have a whole secondary thought that balloons down the side of a page.’ (A fermata is the musical sign that tells you to hold the note you are playing.) The narrator of The Fermata (1994), Arno Strine, is able to ‘drop into the fold’, or stop time, and uses this skill to undress women and masturbate on them. Undressing a colleague as she walks across the office is a way of subverting professional life on behalf of naked thought. The fold is a metaphor for Baker’s kind of writing, and Arno’s elaborate ploys to spy on women reading his amateur pornography represent a writer’s desire to witness the impact of his writing.

According to U & I (1991), Baker became a writer in a McDonald’s in New York in 1981, when he was 24. During the penny shortage that year, ‘the McDonald’s on 70th and 2nd was offering, so a huge sign said in the window, a free Big Mac to every customer who exchanged five dollars’ worth of pennies for a five-dollar bill.’ Having counted out the pennies, and taken along an anthology of William James for company, Baker was forced to wait at the counter as the manager counted out every penny, ‘while dozens of well-off, exhausted East Siders curled their lips at my somewhat pathetic miserliness’:

I reeled to the violently yellow ‘dining-room’, and to escape any stares at my facial colouring I bent very low over the William James book, which I opened randomly at a selection from The Principles of Psychology.

But the moment I began eating, my mortification reversed its engines and transformed itself into a fierce desire to gloat: I was chewing my way through something substantial, sweet, meaty, that had cost everyone else in the room money but which I had gotten for free . . . And contributing to at least half of this joyful inburst was William James himself, who, it turned out, was really good: unpretentious, jolly, at his ease – as smart as, but completely different, from his brother. I came to a page with an illustration – a number of shaky curved lines all travelling by different routes from a point A to a point Z – meant to illustrate the various paths that the recently christened, pre-Joycean ‘stream of thought’ might take in moving from one established idea to another. It was a glorious sight.

Unspeaking embarrassment was given a tongue, transformed into literature, by virtue of the discovery that you can get something – anything, possibly – for nothing, that what James calls ‘this free water of consciousness’ is always on tap.

One of James’s contentions in ‘The Stream of Consciousness’ was that to understand the mind we should not begin with the supposedly elementary ingredients of consciousness, but with total states of mind as and when they occur to us: ‘a student who loves the fullness of human nature will prefer to follow the “analytic” method, and will begin with the most concrete facts, those with which he has an acquaintance in his own inner life.’ Baker restated this in an interview in 1994.

There’s the big things that happen: marriage, death and divorce. That sort of thing. Then there are the things we think about every day. It’s much more likely that we’re going to come up with TV-movie-of-the-week responses about the big things because we haven’t had practice with them. I write about the little things because we’ve usually come to some interesting conclusions about them, we’ve recycled them around so many times.

So when Baker writes about wanting to be like his father, he concentrates on these ‘little things’: ‘When I went home to visit, I swapped a tie with him, and when I visited the following Thanksgiving, I spotted what had been my tie hanging over a doorknob in the midst of all the ties he had bought himself, and it fit right in, it fit right in!’

Before James’s essay, people spoke of the ‘train’ or ‘chain’ of consciousness, but, for James, consciousness ‘is nothing jointed; it flows.’ ‘Often we are ourselves struck at the strange differences in our successive views of the same thing,’ he writes. ‘We wonder how ever we could have opined as we did last month about a certain matter. We have outgrown the possibility of that state of mind, we know not how.’ This second contention was the inspiration for Baker’s essay ‘Changes of Mind’ (1982), and the manifesto statement on which it closes is a key to Baker’s novels: ‘I want each sequential change of mind in its true, knotted, clotted, viny multifariousness, with all of the colourful streamers of intelligence still taped on and flapping in the wind.’ He is interested in everything that is going on even when time seems to be stopped, and Arno Strine’s dashings about mid-fold, pushing his way through jellied air currents, are a delicious image of this.

Baker’s humour depends on a game of perspective: he takes the little impulses and passing queries that would not usually qualify for our attention, and treats them as if they were what we would ordinarily describe as thoughts and pleasures, while keeping out larger, more unmanageable mental experiences. These uncensored thoughts and pleasures make Baker’s writing seem springy and gay; in The Fermata, Arno lusts as innocently, as automatically, as a baby burping and farting.

There is a list in The Mezzanine of the 52 subjects Howie thinks about each year: family, 400 times; brushing tongue, 150 times; earplugs, 100 times; wheelchair ramps, their insane danger, 14 times. This is funny and charming – precisely because thoughts are not this rational, this curious, this free from anxiety, fear, desire and loathing, this innocent, this expressible. The working title of The Mezzanine was ‘Desperation’, but the only form of desperation Baker will admit to is that caused by the disappearance of paper towels, and there is only one hint, in Howie’s list, of misery: ‘Job, should I quit? – 34 times a year.’

It is the millions of calculations required to keep life going that Baker is concerned with. When should I walk away from my conversation with this colleague who has just received a phone call? How do you drink from a straw while reading a book? These are the footnotes to survival, the thoughts you walk on. But what Baker calls ‘thought’, in these early novels, only becomes visible and vocal when it is startled, when the regularities it calculates are suddenly frustrated. The Mezzanine begins with a broken shoelace: ‘The curve of incredulousness and resignation I rode out at that moment was a kind caused in life by a certain class of events, disruptions of physical routine,’ such as ‘reaching a top step but thinking there is another step there, and stamping down on the landing’, or ‘pulling on the red thread that is supposed to butterfly a Band-Aid and having it wrest free from the wrapper without tearing it’. Howie’s loops and spirals of thought belong to the realm of irresponsible artifice that can be entered only after things have broken down. They are, in short, as self-propelling and potentially dangerous as the sexual fantasies of The Fermata.

The Fermata lost Baker a number of fans (‘Goodbye Nicholson Baker, goodbye for ever,’ Victoria Glendinning said). He has been scrambling ever since to recover his accreditation as a nice person. In The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998), he wrote down the thoughts and stories of his nine-year-old daughter during a year she spent at school in England (I’ve got a wife and kids!). Double Fold (2001) was a book-length polemic that argued for the necessity of preserving original editions of America’s old regional newspapers, to save all the small marginal details lost in the microfilming process.

His new novel, A Box of Matches, seems on the face of it a follow-up to Nory in Baker’s campaign to reinstall himself as a writer of wholesome and domestic reflection. The narrator is a 44-year-old American called Emmett, who edits medical textbooks for a living. He has a wife, Claire, an eight-year-old son, Henry, and a 14-year-old daughter, Phoebe. He is an American everyman: ‘I’ve just ridden my bicycle, gone to school, greased my ball bearings, gotten a job, gotten married, and here I am.’ He decides to get up very early every morning and to keep a short record of his thoughts. A Box of Matches has 33 small chapters, each of them beginning ‘Good morning’, and then giving the time. Emmett feels about in the dark for the matchbox, lights the fire, makes coffee (the old filter with the coffee in it feels like a soft taco; the little hole in the plastic top of the carafe is like the soft spot on the top of a baby’s head). He watches a duck scratching about in the backyard. He works through a matchboxful of thoughts: his children, getting older, socks (a preoccupation of Baker’s), memories of meeting his wife, a recent experiment of shaving his beard. There are a few domestic observations – you can tell that a dishwasher has been run if there are pools of water in the concavities of upturned mugs – and some pieces of homely advice. Emmett tells outrageously boring stories, without shape or point. One chapter ends with the climax to the beard-shaving story: ‘It was a good experiment, Claire said, worth trying, but she liked my beard and wanted it back. I began regrowing it immediately.’ Emmett’s thought processes are occasionally broken into by events that take place in a literal-minded real time: ‘And now Henry has just appeared in the dawn-lit living-room. I just asked him if he’d had a good sleep in our bed.’ The writing is resolutely unflashy. The nearest we get to the elaborate conceits of the earlier books is the ‘sudden howl of light’ when the refrigerator door is opened.

Most reviewers have seen A Box of Matches as a return to the style of Baker’s earliest books, especially his second book, Room Temperature (1990), which was about a man looking after his newborn baby. But Room Temperature was interested in getting inside thoughts and objects, and experiencing them with the same tactile immediacy as Baker’s baby in her crib. The story he tells there of how, as a child, he tried to draw the inside of a pillow is an image of the way he writes: ‘I thought of what the drawing ought to look like: some sort of mass of loops, or a Mercator projection of the interior of that mass; the record of the pencil’s tactile encounter with every feather and inner boundary as my wrist oriented it in various directions.’ His enemy was blind, unfeeling habit; his goal to make you see. But in A Box of Matches the light is dim. Though Emmett is feeling about in the dark, his sensory reports are terse and unevocative, and the book is textureless. What interests Baker instead is what it feels like to be so at home that you know where everything is without looking. Emmett reaches for his glasses, and ‘my hand seemed to know just where my glasses would be’. Baker is trying to give us the happy monotony of family life. Emmett has no interest in alienating himself from this happiness by any sharp perceptions. He knows where his happiness is, and he knows what not to look at. The phrase ‘I don’t feel so good’ appears once, but it is left alone.

Emmett knows his limits. ‘I even remember how proud I was myself to touch both ends of the tub. Generations of people grow to a point where they touch both ends of the tub. This is all too much for me.’ Thoughts come and go. He watches them, passive, uninvolved: ‘That’s all right – let those thoughts pass through you. You hear them coming, like a freight train with the whistle and the dinging; they take several minutes to go by, and then they’re gone.’ Life too: ‘Passing me by, passing me by. Life is.’ All the rhetorical gymnastics of the first two books, and the density of thought, are gone, together with the force of consciousness which they captured. Gone are the long, irresponsible sentences, shambling from semicolon to semicolon. Emmett’s mind moves patiently in short neat sentences and orderly paragraphs from one thought to the next, with no footnotes and few parentheses. ‘Some crows are outside; I can hear them. I’m going to take a shower and then feed the duck.’ The thoughts build so little momentum that the book seems a set of stills: beside it The Mezzanine and Room Temperature look like movies. Baker has put consciousness under a microscope and discovered not the crazy Jamesian squiggle of the early novels but the careful linear plod of rationality – a set of dashes, or a box of matches.

Every morning Emmett lights a fire, but his thoughts start up, and burn out, not like a fire, but as briefly as matches. The weariness of the book is appropriate to a novel about middle age, and it may be part of Baker’s photorealism to respect the inarticulacy of the mind. But consciousness is here treated as an errant and frightening creature to be kept on a very short rein, and it is tempting to see in this the still chastening effect of The Fermata, with its suggestion that thought and lust might not be distinguishable.

Emmett’s favourite poet is Robert Service, once famous for his doggerel about frontier life and American virtue, and probably the last poet to be widely read in America. A poem of his that Emmett mentions, ‘The Men that Don’t Fit in’, is a homily in favour of a settled life. Emmett also admires blind perseverance: a spider crawling over the woodpile, or an ant in his daughter’s ant farm. When winter came, all the other ants died from the cold. But one survived for more than a month. Emmett called him Fidel: ‘Fidel old boy, Fidel my pal!’ Baker’s earlier characters were grasshoppers of a season, but Emmett is an ant. He values his work and his place in society. He is a nest-maker. He espouses an ant philosophy, observing at one point that you have to get cold to get warm: ‘It’s true with money and love, too. You’ve got to save to have something to spend.’ His thoughts come marching two by two. The capacities of Baker’s earlier narrators to loop back and forth in time and inhabit four dimensions are gone: an ant’s life is linear, two-dimensional and black and white, like Emmett’s stories. The ant is a Puritan hero. In Milton’s description of the Creation, it is granted a position of disproportionate importance:

First crept
The parsimonious emmet, provident
Of future, in small room large heart enclosed,
Pattern of just equality perhaps Hereafter.

In Franklin’s Autobiography – handbook of the simple American virtues Emmett articulates – an early scene has Franklin as a child leading a group of boys to build a wharf from loose stones, and making them work ‘like so many Emmets’.

The season in A Box of Matches is, appropriately, winter – ‘it’s becoming impossible to conceive that there ever would have been leaves on the trees’ – and Emmett seems to be a figure of the hibernating imagination. It is possible to read the vast blankness of A Box of Matches as an austere parable of the self-conscious writer, whose material is himself, and who will be left a bare stubble plain after the harvest of his writing. So peaceful while so fatigued, this novel may also serve as a reminder that there are other acceptable modes of existence beyond mere vitality, and as an implicit reproof to the earlier books. The Mezzanine climaxed with Howie’s outrage at the lines of Marcus Aurelius he had just read: ‘“Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life; yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes.” Wrong, wrong, wrong! I thought. Destructive and unhelpful and misguided and completely untrue!’ Now, in A Box of Matches, Emmett reflects on ‘why I like looking at these burning logs: they seem like years of life to me. All the particulars are consumed and left as ash, but warm and life-giving as they burn.’