Dear Nicholson Baker, Your Important Writing Career Called and Wants You Back

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.

5 Responses

  1. First off, Levi, why should
    First off, Levi, why should Nicholson Baker “win over” more readers? HUMAN SMOKE may have received some attention, but there were plenty of people pissed off by it. Baker’s only obligation is to his own voice. If that means enjoyably puerile books like HOUSE OF HOLES or gentle meditations on the wonders of amateurism and Internet culture (which you seemed to miss) in TRAVELING SPRINKLER, then I’ll take this Nicholson Baker too. I think it’s easy to forget that, even in an age of turmoil, guys like Baker who are working the “light” beat of finding out one’s place of leisure in an age where political engagement seems futile (ANOTHER point you missed on!) deserve respect for not playing the expected heavy card in the deck. Christ, Levi, you sound like some snobby cineaste chastising Truffaut for making the “lightweight” STOLEN KISSES in 1968, an age of turmoil.

  2. Ed, it sure is true that a
    Ed, it sure is true that a lot of people were pissed off by “Human Smoke”. I bet this was very hard for Nicholson Baker to endure. No matter how tough he is — and I do bet he’s very tough — it’s got to be hard to take the kind of abuse he took.

    I care very much about the pacifist message he was delivering in “Human Smoke”, and about his other (scarce) writings about pacifism. As you probably know, I agree strongly with Baker’s pacifism (which is to also say that I agree with Gandhi’s pacifism, and Martin Luther King’s pacifism, and Abbie Hoffman’s pacifism, and virtually every other kind of pacifism). I think this kind of writing is extremely important as well as extremely rare, and I think it will have a positive effect on the world’s future, as long as brave folks like Baker don’t get ground down into defeatist apathy and retreat. So, I wrote this blog post to send a message — just in case Nicholson Baker is accepting messages, which he may or may not be — that there are some readers out there who would love to see him follow up on the “Human Smoke” thread.

    You’re making a very good point, Ed, that “Traveling Sprinkler” addresses politics by showing exhaustion and defeatism in the face of futility. I didn’t miss the point, but I also didn’t feel inspired by it. Instead, I thought: well, perhaps I can help urge Nicholson Baker and other smart pacifists out there to feel less exhausted and defeated. Maybe it will help in some way for me to cast my vote in public, to show that there’s one blogger in the world who doesn’t think “Human Smoke” was a futile effort.

    I also feel a responsibility to the readers of Litkicks to share my opinion about “Traveling Sprinkler” and his other recent books because I am a very vocal Nicholson Baker fan, and I really hate the idea that some earnest reader out there will see “Traveling Sprinkler” in a bookstore and buy it because they think Levi Asher recommends it. They are likely to then read a few pages of the book, conclude that Levi Asher’s recommendations suck, and never read either me or Nicholson Baker again. I don’t want that to happen.

    Yes, Ed, I know that Baker must follow his muse, and I know it may seem offensive for me to tell a writer what to do. Fine. I don’t think it makes me snobby like your Truffaut fan, but it probably does make me resemble the stiff-brained folk music fans who tried to persuade Bob Dylan to return to protest songs in 1965. Well, that’s not a position I particularly want to be in, but the difference is that Bob Dylan’s non-protest songs in 1965 were awesome, and it’s my professional opinion that “Traveling Sprinkler” is Nicholson Baker phoning it in. So I’ll say what I think.

  3. Levi: Thanks for your
    Levi: Thanks for your response. I think that if you further consider TRAVELING SPRINKLER along these lines, you’ll see that it’s a very subtle novel exploring the very pacifist ideals you seem to be wanting Baker to expand upon. Paul Chowder, like Baker, attends Quaker meetings. At several points, Chowder is forced to confront the political contributions of Medea Benjamin and Glenn Greenwald, wondering if their bravery is enough. (Oddly enough, both Benjamin and Greenwald ended up making great waves in 2013, inadvertently countering Paul Chowder’s belief that they wouldn’t make a difference.) Chowder’s own attempts to protest through music align very much with his own pursuit of leisure and trying to come to terms with his feelings for Roz. I don’t think it’s accident that Baker is naming real places (RiverRun Bookstore and the fitness place, which, it turns out, is real: complete with Bagel Fridays!) in TRAVELING SPRINKLER. And I also don’t think it’s an accident that Baker and Chowder share several qualities. Because if fiction is the space where we repose our mind, and we are greeted with reality, then won’t this force us to come to terms with other emotions? Is it not possible that the novel here an effort to realize that embracing the very marvels of reality might actually help us to find the political strength (either through pacifism or other forms) to protest the darker parts of reality?

    I’m glad to see you share your opinion here, Levi, and I’m fairly certain Baker is too (if he’s reading this). But I feel that the Dwight Garner review severely underestimates what the novel and what anyone in America can do. To suggest that Chowder’s thoughts are mere “filibustering” is to diminish the idle musings which may lead us to some unexpected aha moment in life or in politics. We can indeed pry a staple from a wound and see something beautiful, but also come to understand that this beauty also allows us a quiet courage that can make us stronger.

    In fact, Levi, I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about this novel until you criticized it. I know you have a greater range of emotional appreciation for what I’m describing above than a snarky burnout like Garner. Maybe you were made uncomfortable (much like Garner) that one can find societal awe when the nation is ailing. But I found this spirit to be not only a healthy reminder of the inner fortitude it takes to stay optimistic, but a synthesis of what Baker has been working towards from THE MEZZANINE onwards. To a certain degree, TRAVELING SPRINKLER is the obscure B-side to CHECKPOINT. You’ve become acquainted with the flagrant political dialogue, but it turns out that it’s the other side of the single had more to say.

  4. Very well said, Ed. You make
    Very well said, Ed. You make some strong points.

    And it’s exciting to hear that my criticism of the novel deepened your appreciation of it. That wasn’t what I intended at all, but I’ll happily accept the serendipity on its own terms.

    I could respond now to your individual points, but instead I’ll ponder them a bit and see if time helps to heal my feelings about this book. Thanks for the excellent comment.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!