Nicholson Baker  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Nicholson Baker (born January 7, 1957) is a contemporary American novelist, whose writings focus on minute inspection of the narrator's stream of thought. His unconventional novels deal with topics like voyeurism and planned assassination, but generally de-emphasize traditional aspects of plot. Baker's enthusiasts appreciate his ability to candidly explore the human psyche, while critics feel that his writing wastes time on trivia (Stephen King notoriously compared Baker's novel Vox to a "meaningless little fingernail paring").

Books by Nicholson Baker

  • The Mezzanine (1988) is Baker's first novel. It presents the thoughts and memories of a young office-worker as he ascends an escalator to the mezzanine of the office building where he is employed, a building based on Baker's recollections of Rochester's Midtown Plaza. The novel created the genre for which Baker is best known, and is perhaps its boldest representative. It abounds in long footnotes, including a vivid paean to long footnotes.
  • Room Temperature (1990) mines the same vein as The Mezzanine, though this time the action spans a few minutes at the narrator's home (in Quincy, Massachusetts). Mike is feeding his baby daughter, "the Bug", as her head rests in the crook of his arm. He blows in the direction of a mobile; twenty seconds and two dozen pages later, he is surprised to see the mobile move. Mike's thoughts wander as he contemplates, for example, the possibility of admitting to one's wife that one has been picking one's nose (body functions are discussed extensively, perhaps prompted by the baby's presence), or the juxtaposition of Debussy and Skippy peanut butter jars in a symphonic poem. The novel was received warmly but without great enthusiasm, as an enjoyable if slightly demure domestic follow-up to The Mezzanine. Mike may be expressing Baker's approach to writing when he thinks "...that with a little concentration one's whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected;"
  • U and I: A True Story (1991) is a non-fiction study of how a reader engages with an author's work: partly an appreciation of John Updike, and partly a kind of self-exploration. Rather than a traditional literary analysis, Baker begins the book by stating that he will read no more Updike than he already has up to that point. All of the Updike quotes used are presented as coming from memory alone.
  • Vox (1992) covers an episode of phone sex between two young single people on a pay-per-minute chat line. The sex scenes in the novel, though quite vivid, nevertheless share the basic approach that Baker has taken since The Mezzanine: in this case, he explores two characters' accumulated thoughts and memories in relation to sex. For some readers, Baker's obsession with detail detracted from a hoped-for pornographic effect. Others, in reading the imaginative sex stories that the two protagonists produce for one another, have perceived a budding romantic affection: in the last act they perform before hanging up, the man gives the woman his phone number. The book was Baker's first New York Times bestseller. Monica Lewinsky supposedly once gave a copy to President Bill Clinton.
  • The Fermata (1994) also addresses the erotic life and fantasy. To quote the dust jacket of one edition: "Arno Strine likes to stop time and take women's clothes off. He is hard at work on his autobiography, 'The Fermata.' It proves in the telling to be a very provocative, funny, and altogether morally confused piece of work." (A fermata is a mark in musical notation indicating a long pause.)
  • The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998) was inspired by Baker's daughter Alice, "the informant", to whom he dedicates the book. In this work, Baker tries to see the world through the eyes of a curious nine-year-old American girl attending school in England.
  • Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001) is a non-fiction book about preservation, newspapers, and the American library system. An excerpt first appeared in the July 24, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, under the title "Deadline: The Author's Desperate Bid to Save America's Past." The exhaustively researched work (there are sixty-three pages of endnotes and eighteen pages of references in the paperback edition) details Baker's quest to uncover the fate of thousands of books and newspapers that were replaced and often destroyed during the microfilming boom of the 1980s and '90s.
  • A Box of Matches (2003) is in many ways a continuation of Room Temperature—similarly mining the narrator's store of reflections and memories, many of them domestic. The narrator is now middle-aged, and has a family. He rises each morning about 4:00, lights a fire in the fireplace, and ponders. The work is admired, although some have found it rather less exuberant than its predecessor.
  • Checkpoint (2004) is composed of dialogue between two old high school friends, Jay and Ben, who discuss Jay's plans to assassinate President George W. Bush. Jay is an unbalanced day laborer who, in the depths of his anger and desperation at Bush's actions and his inability to do anything to stop them, has traveled to Washington, D.C., to kill the president. He considers many far-fetched means of assassination, such as depleted uranium boulders, flying radio-controlled CD saws, homing bullets trained to target the victim by being "marinated" in a tin with a picture of the president, and hypnotized Manchurian scorpions. Ben has met Jay in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, unaware that his friend is planning to commit "a major, major, major crime." Over the course of the novella, Ben discusses what drove Jay to plot an assassination. Reviewers have pointed out that the book is mild, and the planned violence so cartoonish as to be non-threatening.
  • Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008) is a history of World War II that questions the commonly held belief that the Allies wanted to avoid the war at all costs but were forced into action by Hitler's unforgiving crusade. It is written in a mostly objective style, largely consisting of official government transcripts and other documents from the time. He cites documents that suggest that the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom were provoking Germany into war (showing, for example, that Britain bombed Germany before Germany bombed Britain) and that the leaders of those two nations had ulterior motives for wanting to participate.
  • The Anthologist (2009) is narrated by Paul Chowder, a relatively unknown poet, who is attempting to write an introduction to an upcoming poetry anthology. Distracted by problems in his life -- Chowder's career is going nowhere, and his girlfriend has recently left him -- he is unable to begin writing, and instead ruminates on poets and poetry throughout history. The Anthologist is scheduled to be published on September 08, 2009.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Nicholson Baker" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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