I’m trying real hard to find a way to love Traveling Sprinkler, the new Paul Chowder novel by Nicholson Baker, who is just about my favorite writer in the world, but whose books I increasingly can’t stand.
I say “the new Paul Chowder novel” the way one might say “the new Hannibal Lecter novel” or “the new Rabbit Angstrom novel”, but the sad truth is that few Nicholson Baker readers were clamoring for a sequel to the first Paul Chowder novel, The Anthologist (which I reviewed and played a song from in 2010). Both Anthologist and the new Sprinkler are narrated in an arch voice by Crowder, a middle-aged literary oddball with a wayward attention span, a childish sense of humor and a wistful yearning for a woman named Roz.
Chowder, who lives in a quaint New England town and undoubtedly looks a lot like Nicholson Baker, spends both The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler allowing his mind to wander. Occasionally, but not often enough, it wanders somewhere good. The best thing I got from The Anthologist is the idea that life itself rhymes (this is presumably why Chowder, a noted poetry expert, has trouble understanding the boundaries between the outside world and the poetry anthology he is trying to edit).
The idea that nature rhymes is worth the price of a book … but the prose that surrounds this idea is chock-filled with cuteness and bad jokes (not good bad jokes — annoying bad jokes). Traveling Sprinkler is just as ditzy and kittenish as The Anthologist, and reveals the same endless appetite for self-mockery. In The Anthologist Chowder mostly mocked himself on literary terms, but Traveling Sprinkler is less about poetry and more about love.
The story doubles down on Paul Chowder quixotic obsession with his Roz(-inante?), the woman he dearly loves but cannot win back. There are several charming moments here, though the entire Paul/Roz love affair appears to be more tongue-in-cheek than real. Roz is openly and warmly amused by the ever-present Paul Chowder, but she had to end their relationship because she simply can’t endure his obnoxious antics. Paul Chowder knows this and circles around her, but he doesn’t seem to have any intention of doing any of the things that would actually win Roz back … like calming down.
Because I respect Nicholson Baker so much — really, despite his several recent books, he is one of my favorite living writers — I take no pleasure in pointing out the ways in which his new novel is about as pleasant as a bad smell on a subway train. Dwight Garner, who also seems to be a big Nicholson Baker fan, described the problem very well in a recent New York Times review:
There’s a sense in “Traveling Sprinkler” of Mr. Baker’s, and thus Paul’s, casting about frantically for something (anything) to describe cleverly. When this feeling blooms in a reader’s cranium, a certain spell is broken, the way it is when a comedian glances at his notes onstage, or when a singer (as Lucinda Williams has taken to doing in recent years) reads her own lyrics from a music stand during a concert.
When Paul says, “I used to want to start a museum of the water fountain,” or muses about what happened to NPR’s Bob Edwards, you think: this has gotten pretty dire. This is filibustering. This is what Twitter accounts are for.
The piles of observations about music and politics, happily, do blend and cohere and merge into something that gives “Traveling Sprinkler” some intellectual and moral heat and heft. “Why don’t you try to write a book about trying to write a protest song?” a friend says to Paul. He replies, “I guess I sort of am.” This is the book we are holding.
Like Garner, I am disappointed by the lackadaisical Sprinkler because I know how great Nicholson Baker can be. I would particularly recommend these five books from his backlist: The Mezzanine and Human Smoke and U and I and Double Fold and The World on Sunday (the latter co-authored by his wife Margaret Brentano). These brilliant works range from literary criticism to postmodern comic fiction to global history, and it’s probably Baker’s writings about history and politics that I’m thinking of most when I say that he has important work to do.
Human Smoke, which does not resemble the Paul Chowder books or several other recent Baker books in any way I can discern, was a very serious and important book about war and genocide and the legacy of World War II, and a brave attempt to combat the popular myth that the appeasement of Hitler at Munich was the mistake that caused the Second World War (instead, as this book shows, the mistake that caused the Second World War was the First World War, and the appeasement at Munich was the least of Europe’s problems). The book also bravely combats the popular myth that guerrophiles like Winston Churchill were heroic, or that Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt helped in any way to prevent or ease the incredible orgy of destruction and universal misery that was World War II.
Human Smoke is a history book that every single person on earth should read, and if Nicholson Baker would only come down from his puppy balloon long enough to write a few more books or articles about pacifism, he might be able to win over more readers the way he already won over me. He’s covered World War II in a very original way, and I’d be happy to see him take on the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iraq, Syria.
Since I always try to maintain a positive attitude (a positive attitude is, I’m sure Nicholson Baker knows, one of the tenets of pacifism), I can point to a few good moments in Traveling Sprinkler. For instance, there’s this insightful passage, which I especially like because I am fond of garbanzo beans myself, and am hungry right now:
Chickpeas are garbanzo beans. Garbanzo, garbanzo, garbanzo! It’s a great word partly because it has a slight suggestion of garbage to it, garbage gone gonzo, and yet it’s not garbage at all, it’s a bean. It’s a living edible bean that some people call a chickpea. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a short, peckish, two-syllable word, “chickpea”, and sometimes you’re in the mood for a long, sugggestive word like “garbanzo”. It’s all a matter of mood.
I’m sure Nicholson Baker’s excuse for filling two entire books with this is that, hey, Paul Chowder wrote the stuff.
Fine, but maybe it’s Nicholson Baker who needs to lay off the chickpea juice, because he’s got serious work to do. We don’t really need to hear from Paul Chowder again. But I’d love to read a great new book by Nicholson Baker.