Fifteen or twenty pages into the great Nicholson Baker’s quirky new novel The Anthologist, I was sure Maine’s boisterous bard had finally lost his mind.
The book contains the fictional desparate scribblings of a nearly famous middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder who struggles to write an introduction to a new anthology of rhyming poetry despite a ferocious onslaught of writer’s block. It’s a fine setup, but the terrible and clumsy prose puzzled me.
Sitting here in the long womanly arm of light, the arm that reaches down like Anne Boleyn’s arm reaching down from her spot-lit height. Not Anne Boleyn. Who am I thinking of? Margot Fonteyn, the ballet dancer. I knew there was a Y in there.
It’s supposed to ramble. But the author is also supposed to demonstrate his control over his prose in the first few pages of any book, and I could not tell whether Baker’s plodding repetition of “arm” in that sentence was bad on purpose or just plain bad. The same question arose a few paragraphs later when the narrator began bossing his readers about rhyme schemes: “that’s how to do scansion like a pro”. I began to stop caring whether Baker was parodying bad writing or not. As Huey Lewis says, sometimes bad is bad.
Nicholson Baker is one of my very favorite writers, but that doesn’t mean I always like his books. He knocked me out with his very first one, The Mezzanine, only to disappoint me with a soapier follow-up called Room Temperature. I deeply admire his work on behalf of literary preservation and global pacifism, and my favorite Baker book is probably U and I, his curvy tribute to John Updike. At its best, The Anthologist reaches the same peaks as U and I — particularly when the narrator gets into a flow talking about poetry, about the way tulips rhyme and a woman’s breasts rhyme (the book is often about rhymes in nature, and I wish the cover illustration depicted two plums instead of one, because this book should certainly have a cover that rhymes).
Like U and I, the book is filled with useful literary information (though this narrator is insufferably condescending). He’s wonderful when he gets on a roll about his favorites, like Algernon Swinburne, Louise Bogan, Mary Oliver and Edgar Allan Poe. There are wonderful moments when ragtag poets like Ted Roethke make ghostly appearances, and their are tender moments when the narrator pines for Roz, the lost love of his life, who left him precisely because she couldn’t stand him hanging around the house mooning about the introduction he couldn’t write. At one point, this enthusiast for rhyming verse makes Roz a necklace with beads arranged to “rhyme”.
The necklace got longer and longer until finally I thought it might be long enough and I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t look good, and it was still too short for Roz, who looks best with a medium length of beads. So I added another two quatrains, and then I started to get the feeling that I’d reached the end — a feeling I know from writing. I looped the thread through the magnet clasp, and then back through the crimping bead, and I took the pliers and crimped hard and cut off the extra thread. When they were done I put them in tissue paper and wrapped them, and I had a present ready for Roz. But I didn’t know if I should give it to her.
I liked the book much more by the end than I had at the beginning. But I still honestly can’t tell if the bad writing is a mask or a sign of actual slippage on Baker’s part. We should assume it’s a parody, but satire can’t explain why I see a sentence like this, imagining poetry without rhyme:
Four hundred years of pretend Greek and Latin meters is what we would have had, instead of Marvell, and Dryden, and Cole Porter, and Christina Rossetti, and Gilbert and Sullivan, and Rogers and Hart, and Wendy Cope, and Auden, and John Lennon, and John Hiatt, and Irving Berlin, and Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein, and Charles Causley, and Keats, and Paul Simon, and et cetera, and so on.
Rogers and Hart? Maybe there’s a law firm called Rogers and Hart somewhere out there, but the songwriting team is called Rodgers and Hart, and the Nicholson Baker I’ve known and loved doesn’t make mistakes like that. So maybe he has really lost his mind.
Anyway, I do think it’s neat that Baker includes the actual notation for a couple of the narrator’s musical settings of famous couplets in this book. I pulled out my guitar to see what these melodies sounded like, and here, just in case anyone is interested, is what I came up with for one example, two lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. I don’t know for sure if I’m playing this right — the notation is in the bass clef, and it has a lot of accidentals. So if anybody thinks I’m doing it wrong please let me know and I’ll try another take: