Wednesday, 15 July 2009

'it's all about a piece of steak'

The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker

My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I'm a study in failure.

Not perhaps the most promising premise for comedy but that's just the first of a few surprises in Nicholson Baker's new novel narrated by poet Paul Chowder. Baker is well known for causing a little controversy with his naughty novels The Fermata (man can pause time and undresses ladies) and Vox (phone-sex as novel) and the downright treasonous Checkpoint (plot to assasinate George W Bush - whilst he was still in office). Even his non-fiction managed to cause some controversy online in the comments on Asylum. When I received a proof of his new novel I was primed and ready but the only shock this time might be that Baker has written a book with a sympathetic narrator who simply wants to communicate his love of poetry.

Things have not be going well for Paul Chowder. His girlfriend Roz has left, he still hasn't written the introduction for his anthology of poetry and he has a bee in his bonnet about iambic pentameter (don't get him started). For a man leading a relatively shambolic existence he is at least clear on why Roz walked out the door.

I know why. It's because I didn't write the introduction to my anthology. And I was morose at times with her, and I was shockingly messy. And I had irregular sleeping habits. And she was supporting us, and I was nine years older than she was. And I didn't want to walk the dog as much as I should have. And I got farty when we had Caesar salads. And I do miss her. Because she was so warm and so kind to me, and she taught me so many things. I squandered her good nature. I didn't take it seriously. I didn't see that it was finite.

I think it would be fair to say that Chowder's strengths aren't in the arena of social skills or human contact. This is a man whose idea of a chat-up line is "That was a nice stanza you said back there...Some would say that it was trochaic trimeter, but they would be wrong in my opinion because it's a four-beat line". What he does know is poetry which is what made the book so enjoyable for me. I don't know poetry. Generally speaking I just don't get it. Chowder describes the exact sensation I have when I come across the poems printed in each edition of the LRB.

Let's have a look at this poem. Here it is going down. You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows it's a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here the magician will do his thing. Here's the guy who's going to eat razor blades. Or pour gasoline in his mouth and spit it out. Or lie on a bed of broken glass. So, stand back, you crowded onlookers of prose. This is not prose. This is the blank white playing field of Eton.

I was given a copy of Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled in which he attempts to demystify the world of verse and sets writing exercises as you go through the book to make bards of us all. Unfortunately I got a bit bored of being set homework every few pages so I gave up. Poetry can be scary stuff (especially when you were taught it as badly as I was) but luckily Chowder has a no frills approach to explaining it for the layman.

...very briefly, enjambment is a word that means that you're wending your way along a line of poetry, and you're walking right out to the very end of the line, way out, and it's all going fine, and you're expecting the syntax to give you a polite tap on the shoulder to wait for a moment. Just a second, sir, or madam, while we rhyme, or come to the end of our phrasal unit, or whatever. While we rest. But instead the syntax pokes at you and says hustle it, pumpkin, keep walking, don't rest. So naturally, because you're stepping out onto nothingness, you fall. You tumble forward, gaaaah, and you end up all discombobulated at the beginning of the next line, with a banana peel on your head and some coffee grounds in your shirt pocket. In other words, you're "jammed" into the next line - that's what enjambment is. So in the case of "Ozymandias," second line, you've got "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone-" end of line, we need to pause, but no, keep moving, woopsie doodle, next line - "Stand in the desert." Ouch.

But apart from the passion for poetry Baker has created a character who slowly reveals that under the shabby exterior there is genuine passion. The sympathy comes from watching his poor attempts to realise and then act on it, a man who kind of believes (and kind of doesn't) that his life might have gone differently. The gentle self-deprecating humour that runs through his monologue is hugely endearing and had me rooting for him as I watched from the sidelines.

There's that Jack London story, about the old tired boxer who almost wins a comeback, but he doesn't because he didn't have enough money to buy that one piece of steak he hungered for the day before - the steak that would have given him the strength to land the big punch. So he's beaten. He's smacked around. He bleeds. He fails. That's me. If I could only have written a good flying spoon poem back three years ago when I first wanted to, I might be poet laureate right now. Maybe. Probably not. But maybe.


John Self 15 July 2009 at 22:25  

Wow, I didn't know he had a new one out. I think I've read all his novels except Checkpoint and The Everlasting Story of Nory. He's wildly uneven, but I might give this one a shot.

William Rycroft 15 July 2009 at 22:48  

I haven't been terribly taken, or titillated by any of the controversial stuff and so was surprised by how sweet (what a terribly faint form of praise) and enjoyable this was.

Tom C 1 October 2010 at 08:00  

An interesting review -as you know I enjoyed this book too. Your phrase "gentle self-deprecating humour" just about sums it up - plus of course the excellent sideways introduction to various poetic concepts

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