Paul Chowder is turning 55, wants his ex-girlfriend back, and is considering giving up poetry in favour of writing pop songs. First introduced in Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, he is the sort of character so ordinary that one might not think him substantial enough to support the considerable weight of a novel.
As far as his everyday life is concerned, this is broadly true. There is little dramatic action here, little in the way of traditional novelistic incident. Chowder goes to Quaker meetings, writes song lyrics in his car, smokes a variety of cigars and looks after his neighbour’s chickens. A building falls down and a character undergoes surgery, but one rarely finds oneself reading in order to discover what happens next.
One reads, rather, because it is pleasurable to find oneself in the character’s company, revelling in the miscellany of his obsessions – Debussy, Obama’s drone program, the bassoon, the travelling sprinkler that gives the book both its title and its central metaphor – and marvelling at the internal rhythms and complex patterning of his thoughts.
If Baker’s approach to narrative has less to do with plot mechanics than it does with character, then his approach to character has less to with psychology than it does with voice. Fashioned as a series of monologues that Chowder has recorded, transcribed and submitted to his editor, Travelling Sprinkler implicitly argues that the verve and flexibility of the spoken word can tell us far more about an individual than reams of the written one. One of Chowder’s lengthier diatribes argues the point explicitly:
Once there was sound , and now there are words on a page ... We think of the denatured words as the distillation of everything essential. We embrace the denaturing, and we develop prose styles that are so conventionalised, so depersonalised, that they fit well with the fact that all the sound flesh has been melted off.
There is a lot of meta-commentary such as this throughout, though it is never so blatant as to become distracting. Chowder’s digressions, like Baker’s smuggled-in formal arguments, add to the book’s atmosphere of quiet longing. Chowder’s lectures on Debussy are not so much distancing as telling: it sometimes feels that the long-dead pianist is all that the poet has for a friend. SH
Serpent’s Tail, 304pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 19, 2014 as "Nicholson Baker, Travelling Sprinkler". Subscribe here.