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Matthew Boudway • Review of The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber

The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays by Nicholson Baker, is a high-speed, dizzy-making romp of a book: it gallops higgledy-piggledy into dark groves of modern marginalia—finger-nail clippers, discarded card catalogs, punctuational evolution—then, darting back, debouches into open meadows of amateur epistemology and hyper-literary marriage toasts; and all the while the reader is riding him by the snaffle, shouting, “Whoa, boy!” But it’s no use because this is one horse that never learned to trot. Baker’s dozen-and-a-half essays are strictly for the word-jockey; they are the work of a turbo-charged Prosicrucian, bedecked and bedaubed with Mandarin-English Paterisms, bird-of-paradise neologisms, and caviar burps of ecphonesis. Or, to reboot with a new metaphor, they are a thick gumbo of last week’s left-overs (more than a couple of these pieces have the taste of outtakes from, or research for, one of Baker’s novels), gummed together with a hearty broth-base of self-conscious concinnity. The brew is thick and hard as Hell—or hard-boiled egg yolk—to swallow unless you’ve got a big throat.

What would you think if I wrote an entire book review that way, supposing for a moment you would read an entire book review written that way? You might find it clever or ostentatious or both, but you would certainly say it was exhausting to read. (Incidentally, it is much more than exhausting to write; it is painful.)

What, then, would drive a man to write an entire book that way?—because that is what Nicholson Baker has done. His writing is doubtless better than my pastiche, but I’m afraid the overall effect is much the same.

In the last number of the Free Press I tied into Baker and Baker’s hero, John Updike, in a review of Wendell Berry’s latest book. I accused them of cultivating a fastidious irrelevance and called them bores with nothing to say. With the article turned in, this began to bother me. Who was I, after all, to go shooting off passing criticism at established writers or even “impressive stylists,” as I called them in my review? Besides the impudence, there was a certain ingratitude and dishonesty involved, for nothing I’ve ever read in any of the approved organs of literary journalism has given me more pleasure than Baker’s article about punctuation published in the New York Review of Books a few years ago. But even that was not the worst of it. What made me feel especially guilty was that I hadn’t read the Baker essay I obliquely referred to in my attack. Of course, there is nothing too unusual about book reviewers slating books they haven’t read, at least not at Yale, but it’s still bad form and, in this case, a source of nagging guilt.

There was nothing for it but for me to go out and buy Baker’s new book of essays and read the damned piece about old film projectors for myself. And now that I’ve read it, along with the rest of the essays in the book (all right, most of them), I am ready to go after the preening toff one more time.

It is said that Baker is one of the few successful writers working today who really cares about the language. Each of his sentences shows evidence of having been carefully worked over, recast and recast again till at length there is a sheen on every phrase, every word almost, like the sheen of tumbled rocks. And it is true: his sentences do look worked over, in every sense of that loaded phrase. Sometimes one is grateful for his pains, as when he describes the pleasures of sorting through the tray of a card catalog: “My fingers could arpeggiate Lisztlessly through them, the lead hand’s fingers feeding card clumps to the trailing hand, scanning, rejecting, repositioning, in a minute or two. Just as often, however, the writing seems overworked over, as in, shaken down and mauled. No one could doubt, for instance, that the writer of this sentence cares a great deal about, and for, his language:

But a really large thought, a thought in the presence of which whole urban centers would rise to their feet, and cry out with expressions of gratefulness and kinship; a thought with grandeur, and drenching, barrel-scorning cataracts, and detonations of first-clenched hope, and hundreds of cellos; a thought that can tear phone books in half, and rap on the iron nodes of experience until every blue girder rings; a thought that may one day pack everything noble and good into its briefcase, elbow past the curators of purposelessness, travel overnight toward Truth, and shake it by the indifferent shoulders until it finally whispers its cool assent—this is the size of thought worth thinking about.

This is what you call showboating. Brazen, pants-down self-indulgence. There is an old rule about easy writing making for hard reading, which may or may not be true. What is clear at least is that hard writing does not always make for easy reading. That passage proves it. It must have been as difficult for him as it is for us. One wants to say, “Oh, come off it, Nick. Stop pimping metaphors and get on with it.” But one reserves one’s judgment until one sees what it is. Good thing, too, because it turns out to be nothing. The deeper we get into that particular essay (“The Size of Thoughts”)—and Baker’s periodic sentences take us way out of safe depth—the less sure we are why he wrote it. It is less an essay than an exercise, like an assignment for a writing workshop: “Write three thousand words explaining how to measure thoughts.” That may be a fine idea if you are only trying to hone your technique or if you are Dr. Seuss, but it is not really fit for publication as an essay for adults.
Perhaps Baker is a frustrated poet taking his frustrations out on English prose. Perhaps he is just cutting his teeth as a writer and will soon outgrow this mawkish inconsequence. Or maybe he is genuinely perverse (this man did, after all, write a 147-page essay about the uses in English literature of the word “lumber” as a metaphor for thought, cruising through CD-ROMs of 18th-century poetry for chance references. His own publishers describe the book as “dazzlingly pedantic” on the book’s jacket. Needless to say, I did not test their claim). Whatever the case, I wish Nicholson Baker would stop writing essays or start thinking of something to write essays about. His prose, which has been pruned and prettified till it lacks all natural vigor, would immediately and accidentally improve, I think, if he would concern himself less with how he wrote and more with what. If he does not like to write about politics or economics or religion, very well. At the very least he should not do backflips to avoid them. Real ideas, ideas people might disagree with, are tricky things, and so Baker might begin with just a one or two at first—see what it’s like to commit himself to a really controversial statement and, if he doesn’t faint, move on from there. As Shaw said, a writer has as much style as his conviction will give him and not more.
On the back flap of the dust cover there is a picture of Baker looking like a hatless Lytton Strachey, with a graying man-of-letters beard and a checkered tweed jacket. His beady eyes are clear and intelligent. And strangely earnest. The slight lift at the left corner of his mouth is the only sign of his wry detachment. Otherwise, he looks quite serious, almost intent. Maybe there is hope. It would be too bad if a man of such enormous talent, who seems to have read all that’s worth reading and to have remembered most of it, should, like Strachey, rot in languid dissipation, carefully tumbling his sentences to an elegant shimmer and never discovering that there are better things to polish than gravel.

—Matthew Boudway, a sophomore in Branford College, will attend Oxford next year.


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