Lorrie Moore on Nicholson Baker

Lorrie Moore outs herself as a fellow Nicholson Baker fan in the current print issue of the New York Review of Books. Her review of Baker’s latest novel, Checkpoint, in which two men discuss one’s plot to assassinate the President, begins this way:

Whatever serious subject the novelist Nicholson Baker explores, we must never forget that he is also being at least a little funny. Fond of the brisk, improvisatory miniature and heir to the cerebral comedy of Donald Barthelme, he still can seem a little misunderstood by those who would read any of his fiction as a grinding axe. Baker is not, as Leon Wieseltier suggested recently in a review of Baker’s new novel, Checkpoint, in The New York Times Book Review, an attention-seeker, participating in “the politics of the sewer.”

(Much of Baker’s work is quiet to the point of prayer: his last novel, A Box of Matches, about a middle-aged man getting up every day before sunrise, reads like a prose poem to fire and dawn.) And although Baker is interested in talk, and even wild talk, as Wieseltier correctly notes (Baker’s most famous novel, Vox, is about phone sex), he has this in common with most of the writers who ever lived.

Baker’s novels are largely obsessions with action vs. paralysis, of both the political and personal sort, and in his unusual explorations of this psychological mezzanine and classical theme (in The Fermata the protagonist can in fact freeze others and stop time . . . . ) he is something of an original, though one might be tempted to place him alongside the English novelist Geoff Dyer: both are the same age, both have published amusing, inward-looking tributes to another admired writer (Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage on D.H. Lawrence, Baker’s U and I on John Updike), and both use restless, unpredictable narratives to register the neurasthenic perils and pleasures of their own isolating hyper-self-consciousness — and do so without any masculine vanity whatsoever. This, I daresay, makes them disarming and endearing literary mavericks in the heterosexual world. . . .

And here are the last two paragraphs:

Political argument, of course, is easier than political literature. And one can wonder how Baker’s quick, stripped cry of a book can succeed as the latter. But literature occurs when one feels life on the page. And one feels life most often when one hears more than one voice in conversation there. Does the reader of Checkpoint hear more than one voice?

Oh, yes. I think one doesn’t have to listen too hard to hear a roar.


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