Travelling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker
|Travelling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: John Lloyd
|Summary: A light-hearted read that can appear an oddball plod to some I am sure, but this tale of a mannered man and his, er, dance music, is yet another stepping-stone through the life's work of this unique author.
|Date: June 2014
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Meet Nicholson Baker. Now, I know I normally introduce a book with such a phrase, and every time before now I've used the name of the main character. But I feel such is the nature of Baker's books that he is the greatest character therein, and the one most important for the potential reader to understand, however close he may or may not be to his fictional creations. Baker is a very stylised author, intricately bound up in providing amusing evidence of the value of all the small things in our world. If anybody can rustle up thousands of words about those baby nubbins that are left when you split a sheet of paper across a ready-made perforation – you know the tiny scads that are left dangling outwards – it's Baker. His early books practically were a day spent in real-time, and by rights you'd think this book should not exist – surely he's covered the world already. But no – here is love, poetry, drone warfare, Debussy, and a view of dance music production as seen from the prospect of a 55-year old American male.
At which point I ought to say, 'Meet Paul Chowder'. He is the main character here, and were it not for the eminent research into creating dance music on Logic software that someone has had to have done, you might think he was a very different beast to Mr Baker. He's a mediocre poet, who decides that – just as he moved on from being a bassoon player a long time ago – poetry isn't working for him, and he should write songs, get some beats down, woo his ex away from her TV-personality boyfriend – everything a midlife crisis should perhaps entail. He's given us in a very weird first person – Chowder waffling into a Dictaphone of some kind for some unknown reason, introducing passages that are hard to connect as regards the passing of time or the days of the week, in a Lake Wobegone-wrong way. Hey there, people, and welcome. This is the Poetry Pebble Tumble, and I'm your host, Paul. Tonight we convene by the light of a small, very round moon that has things to tell us, with a star near it like a pasted-on beauty mark.
What with that voice addressing us – presumably an unforeseen 'us' as Chowder isn't sure what his verbiage will lead to, himself – and all the weird things that are in this book, from Quaker meetings to random accidents to his way-left-of-Obama politics, the cynic could well see too much extraneous clacking, to quote. But that's what one comes to Baker for, the minutiae given us with narrative merit and no end of whimsy. I say 'narrative merit' declaring full well that the storyline is always going to be a little weak, whatever book of his you pick up, but somehow he shoe-horns any and all kind of life's common details into his stories. You do have to bear in mind when approaching this book that for him the plot is secondary. Baker himself, and here too his creation, is the kind of man to worry whether one should smoke a Bone Crusher cigar before or after a Skull Breaker one.
With Baker nearing the greyness of the age – it's been a long time since his early books received so much cultdom – it's great to see him still writing, although here, having not read several of his most recent volumes, I found a much looser, perhaps more leisured style. Gone is the defining of a day, or the chapter regarding the lighting of a match. The structure of the book is part of my evidence – the way the events are randomly given us – in chronological order, yes, but as I say with no clear passing of time, no authorial foreshadowing, and with not exactly a drive towards the conclusion to it all that we get as such as a random snail's trail. To revert to playing devil's advocate again, it may seem that all this book concerns itself with is Baker's research and/or knowledge, and a could-be-better look at Chowder's hubristic tendencies, and not much else.
Like I suggest, Baker has had more impactful books in the past – particularly with The Fermata which comes across to some as the thinking misogynists' Fifty Shades, and with the reaction some gave to one of his non-fiction books that equally surprise us in clues as to what Baker has been thinking about. But, knowing that, I was on the point of declaring this book, as woolly as it might be, as lax in focus, as whatever, as perhaps the ideal book for a Baker beginner to try, until I learnt it was indeed the continuation of his last-but-one, The Anthologist. I see both are coming out in a compendium late 2014, perhaps only in the US. Given such a distinctive, utterly clever and wise man as Baker, that seems somewhat of a surprise – too low-down in his mindset and too commercial an exercise. Baker – a writer of sequels?! But perhaps that's a sign that I've been away from reading him for too long, for he can always manage to surprise us, if nothing else.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
The latest person to take Baker-esque ideas and run with them on a more experimental form is possibly Padgett Powell with book such as You and I.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Travelling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker at Amazon.com.
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