“I want to be starting out. I want to be speaking in a foreign language. I want to offer an alternate route. I want to amass ragged armfuls of lucid confusion that make you keel over.
“I want to write songs.”
There’s a moment toward the end of Nicholson Baker’s 2009 The Anthologist when someone asks Paul Chowder, the narrator, how he gets in the mindset for writing poetry. Chowder answers that he simply asks himself, “What was the very best moment of your day?” Once, he continues, “it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sun-litness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed over the windshield.” All throughout that lecture-cum-novel, Chowder shared his pleasantest moments via correctly incorrect phrases like “sun-litness” and the cantilevered idea that a house might be screaming with it. On a raft of just eight paragraphs he can flow naturally from noticing the “gentleman’s agreement” between a grapevine and a bramble, to feeling strange while reading Roethke’s posthumous On the Poet and His Craft since it’s “like standing in some little cemetery somewhere, staring at a little white gravestone in the grass,” to lightly mocking Roethke’s “Ozymandian” claim that Louise Bogan’s poetry might last “as long as the language survives,” to pondering how English will one day be dead and studied like Latin and then “everyone will see that the sitcom is the great American art form,” all just to land on “even so, I want to lie in bed and just read poems sometimes and not watch TV.” It’s one off-kilter thought after another until you’re tippling down and across the pages, a bit lightheaded from all that sugar-sweet Bakerdashery.
After a four-year absence, enough for one leap year cycle, one presidential election, or one generation of graduates, Chowder is turning fifty-five and is back for another ride in the orator seat. In Traveling Sprinkler, his anthology of rhyming poetry is finally out and selling at a leisurely academic clip. With that work behind him he’s taken up a mission of self-improvement, trading his lecture pads and sharpies for an Olympus Digital Recorder, hawking his Swinburne for Wikipedia, and swapping his poetic meters for phat phunky beats produced with Logic Pro X. A new and avid attender of Quaker meetings, he knows better than most the net worth of silence and the ways in which speaking can be a beautiful interruption. As such, he only wants to break the silence to speak of the good in life. Despite the fact that his dog has gotten older, his car has become run-down and dirty, his barn floor has collapsed, and his girl Roz has still done up and gone—despite the fact that he lives inside the caricature of a country song—he continues to tell us about how he lives for “dappled shade” and “the kindness of Roz’s mouth” and the way a plug of Skoal Berry Blend tastes “like a box of Skittles found after a flood in a dirty basement.”
All this positivity and rambling can begin to tire, and at first glance Chowder’s diversions and tangents seem to belong to the tradition of the plotless novel. The anthology introduction and the possibility that he might write a pop song or win Roz back begin to seem like just a few more Waiting for Godot-esque existential McGuffins, like the article that Geoff Dyer’s Jeff is supposed to write about Venice in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, or the treatise on Titian that Jean Phillipe-Touissant’s narrator is meant to be writing in Television. But just when you think Chowder’s going a bit stale, that the date has passed on his sell-by label and he’s still bubbling over about Debussy and The Sunken Cathedral and the best orchestrations for the bassoon, you realize you’re not in an entirely plotless novel, because it turns out Roz is seriously ill and her boyfriend is being none too kind about it, and she’s still got a bit of a soft spot for the Chowd. Paul’s reign of positivity begins to bleed out into the structure of the novel, and all of the sudden it looks like Baker might be piloting a love story with the possibility of a happy ending. Things might actually come full circle. Seinfeld might get a seat at the Chinese restaurant. Oblomov might get off that couch. Chowder might actually win Roz back, and I’d be surprised if you don’t start rooting for the frumpy packrat noodler you’ve gotten to know.
Beyond the pleasantness on an observational and linguistic level, and the possibility of pleasantness in the overall build of the book, there’s a sort of spiritual pleasantness, a pleasantness of philosophy, lingering in Chowder’s tone. Updike had his Rabbit, Roth had his Zimmerman, and Baker has his loving Chowder. He loves all sorts of things. Newcastle Brown Ale, the spare look of an empty room, W.S. Merwin’s first two initials, his Kia Rio, street sweepers, onion bagels, everything bagels, canapés, and the “lovely sexy anarchy of Mina Loy,” but of course most of all he loves Roz. And if he’s not declaring his love, he’s telling us who or what other people loved, or just thinking about love a lot. All told, the word “love” occurs in various forms and contexts 81 times in both The Anthologist and, spookily, Traveling Sprinkler. An e-reader makes this kind of statistic easy to find, and while, to be fair, “love” is in the top 1000 most common written words in the English language, it can be safely said that Chowder is exceptionally loving. He’s chock full of love, and he stands as a kind of positive role model for what a narrator, especially the historically cranky and crude male narrator, can be.
Sadly, no matter how much one might like to keep on loving everything every day, every night, and never have to “spread the knowledge of evil,” sometimes there is evil and sometimes Chowder has to talk about it. In The Anthologist it was people like Ezra Pound and F.T. Marinetti and things like sloppy enjambment in free verse poetry that got Chowder’s goat. Now he’s more worried about Obama’s drone program, but what bothers him about all of these is really the same: a lack of empathy, Pound and Marinetti’s lack of it for people who want their art to be readily digestible and drones’ complete inability to feel it at all. If the recent scientific studies showing that reading literature can improve one’s empathetic range are true, then drones are literature’s arch-nemesis, the Cobra to its G.I. Joe, the Magneto to its Professor X. Because what drones do, with their screens and buttons and the overall arcade-like feel of their control terminals, is cripple empathy, enabling people otherwise disinclined toward killing to go ahead and follow the order and push the button that launches the bombs that indiscriminately murders enemy combatants and civilians in faraway, empathetically remote locations. It’s one Afghani civilian, Roya, “whose father gathered parts of his wife and his sons from the trees by his house,” that causes Chowder to speak out, putting a face to the tragedy and writing her a song, one which he knows won’t really help, because it’s not comforting and it’s not good, but “it is a way of remembering. It’s a way of paying attention to a single event by surrounding it with many notes. The notes point like arrows to the wrong.”
At times I grew upset with Paul Chowder over the course of this book. There’s his quick dismissal of an Occupy protest against global warming (which he doesn’t seem to link to anything humans have done). There’s his overly simple view of antidepressants, and his romanticization of sadness in poets and artists (completely ignoring the way in which drugs might be able to help). But these are faults with the narrator, not with the author. What Baker has done with Chowder is craft a truly addicting, intelligent, empathetic narrator, one who you can really enjoy listening to, and all in all, it’s nice being in Chowder’s positive presence again. Early in the book he writes that he wants to do better in his life and that “maybe doing better is somehow finding a way to make people’s imaginations work better.” That’s just what Chowder does: he’s high in fiber, a mental bowel cleanser, a fresh dose of Activia delivered straight to your compacted brain stem, inducing a loosey-goosening of your linguistic centers, a, yes I’m going to do it, traveling sprinkler spritzing pleasantness and happiness, guaranteed to plumpen your empathy tomato. He just might be the most pleasant moment of your day.