Nicholson Baker has built a literary career on digression and obsession, with books about everything from riding an escalator to having phone sex, from the origins of World War II to one reader's experience of the books of John Updike.
Baker is a kind of human search engine, fastening upon a subject and accumulating all sorts of facts, arcana and ephemera related to it. But he goes Google one better in finding — or forging — a surprising and artful pattern in all those search results.
His new novel, Traveling Sprinkler, is an engaging example. Baker brings back Paul Chowder, the protagonist of his 2009 novel The Anthologist. In that book, Paul was a middle-aged poet struggling with writer's block and trying to get back together with his ex-girlfriend.
In Traveling Sprinkler, not much has changed. Paul has finally managed to finish the project he was blocked on before, the introduction to a poetry anthology, which has sold surprisingly (to him most of all) well. But now he's supposed to be writing a new collection of poems, and it's not going smoothly. In fact, it's not going at all.
Roz, his ex, is still his ex, and having a terrible time with perimenopause. And Paul is about to have a birthday:
"Very soon I'm going to be Fifty F---ing Five. The three Fs. The last time I hit three Fs was ten years ago, and this time is definitely worse. Unless you're Yeats or Merwin you are done as a poet at fifty-five. Dylan Thomas was in the ground for sixteen years at fifty-five. Keats was dead at, what, twenty-six? Riding on horseback with his sad lungs coughing blood. And as for Wilfred Owen."
Although he has no idea how to launch it, Paul wants a fresh beginning: "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."
Instead, he dithers. He frets over politics, takes up smoking cigars, decides he wants to be a songwriter and spends wads of money on keyboards and software and other equipment for making his own recordings (although his songwriting skills are not exactly impressive).
In between all those digressions, he offers us other digressions. He's obsessed with music of all kinds, from Debussy to Daft Punk, and plays that passion in passages about the bassoon, musical notation and Debussy's piano prelude The Sunken Cathedral.
He ties his anger over drone warfare to literary criticism (or at least snark) when he explains that one of the men charged with creating the CIA was "FDR's poet speechwriter, the man who'd won a Pulitzer Prize for saying, with great self-importance, that a poem must not mean but be: Archibald MacLeish." He even makes a metaphor for his life from the gardening implement of the book's title.
And that's a clue to what Baker is really doing in Traveling Sprinkler. Paul quotes poet Mary Oliver, or tries to: "'All narrative is metaphor,' she says. Or is it 'All metaphor is narrative'?"
There's a narrative arc to this book, to be sure — it turns out to be a love story. But the real point is the language. Although Paul protests that "I come from a long line of extremely minor poets," he builds his narrative with vivid imagery, unexpected juxtapositions and fresh metaphors. He muses about the differences between song and poetry: "But what does it mean to say you have a voice when you're a poet? When you have deliberately melted away your voice, and you're left with nothing but the wire armature?"
In the case of Traveling Sprinkler, the voice is what we follow, like the sprinkler on its track of hose. "You can't include it all," Paul tells us. "You might think, I'll write a poem and it will have every good thing in it, and every bad thing, and every middling thing — it'll have Henry Cabot Lodge and clouds and eggplant and Chuck Berry and the new flavor of Tom's of Maine toothpaste and bantam roosters and gas stations and seafoam-green Vespa scooters and the oversalting of rural roads — but it doesn't work. I've tried. As soon as the poem becomes longer than two pages, it stops being a poem and becomes something else." Like Traveling Sprinkler.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.