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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Anthologist Discussion

The Anthologist

by Nicholson Baker

genre: literary fiction

If singing in the loft of his barn to the lines of poetry he loves doesn't get his introduction to an anthology written, then Paul Chowder will do anything short of doing anything to get it done. A presentation board, a white plastic chair by a river, a game of badminton, a gift of beads, these are the tools of procrastination which not only keep him from finishing his work, his one hope of income, but which drive his girlfriend away. As Paul rambles through his random thoughts on poetry, he reveals his absolute love affair with it and makes some self-discoveries along the way.

How many books of this kind are out there. The self-deprecating, unmotivated, down on his luck guy or girl who walks through a little fire and finds a bit of himself on the other side? Probably enough to fill a semi trailer, no, many many semi trailers. And yet, I truly enjoyed this one. Of course, he appeals to the poet in me with his constant adoration of poets and poetry and words. His knowledge and total gaga attitude completely endeared his character to me. But I liked the oscillation between ecstatic displays of wordy love and the utter mundane of cutting his finger or walking his dog.

Given the character's love of words, the author has required he use that kind of language which should live up to literary prowess. I think he succeeds where very many have failed. Phrases such as "kicked in the spleen by the mediocrity of my own short sentence" or "Their eyelids, which droop and have skin tags on them, like tiny pennants age has hoisted". In the grand scheme of things, the novel mostly rambles like a free association exercise. Which I thought was rather ironic given that writers, poets perhaps more so, take their word choice very seriously. Every word or phrase is vetted carefully and edited and edited to a polished gem. Paul on the other hand, just wanders aimlessly. But it works. It is the scattered thoughts of someone trying to accomplish something they haven't got the will to do.

In the end, the idea of happy endings comes in an altered state, wherein the hero may not get exactly what he wants, but in the words of two other poets, "you might find, you get what you need". The book itself, though skimming a line of near plotlessness, shines through shedding natural light on a world often shrouded in pretentiousness. And that is what I love best about it.

2 comments:

jaded said...

I enjoyed this book, yet it took me longer to finish than I anticipated. The plot took a back seat to the procrastination that was intricate web of mental masturbation with the solitary goal of avoiding a blank page. The author's inertia being the driving force for the book. Paradox noted and appreciated.

Reading this was like taking a remedial course in literature; reminding me of poetic devices I've forgotten, and the beauty of using language effectively. The protagonist was effective at reminding me these structural nuances, and why poetry is under-appreciated.

de said...

I was looking forward to this book, and was not disappointed. For a novel with no plot, I found it quite a page turner. I loved the drunken stream-of-consciousness narration. Add in his insecurity and self-deprecation, and it's pretty much like being inside my head, although he knew his material, while in my brain, the rubbish overtook the riches long ago. When I reached the end of the book, I thought, I'm going to miss Paul Chowder. I wanted to email Nicholson Baker and tell him so, even more so when I logged on to the library website to search for more of his books and found that they're all categorized as "Basement materials." Now there is a title for a book or poem!

I laughed out loud several times while reading this book, and even read some aloud to my husband, though he seemed more bemused than amused by it. My favorite passage occurred early in the book on page 42 where he explains the selection process for an anthology, choosing poems, then stanzas, then favorite line, and ultimately, favorite words. There are your polished gems, Maggie!

Two of my favorite analogies of poetry from the book were his description of rhyming as "chain smoking - you light one line with the glowing ember of the last" (p 55) and of writing in general as stringing "indivisible units...together in certain rhythms" (p 166) like the beads on a necklace.

Wednesday is our day to visit the library, and I'll be picking up the book I requested from the basement. I've got the Updike, but it has been languishing because I've been working a lot. I'd LOVE to play hookey and spend the day on the couch with a book, a pot of tea, and some leftover Halloween candy!