Nicholson Baker is the missing link between John Updike and David Foster Wallace.
There, finally, I’ve said it—a proclamation so reductive and problematic, yet so rich with implication and reverberation, that I cannot resist saying it over and over again: if Updike marks one end of the post-war American prose spectrum and Wallace the other, Baker would represent a midpoint.
It would be easy to counterpoint Wallace and Updike, even if Wallace hadn’t already issued his Oedipal takedown in his essay “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” collected in Consider the Lobster. (In the review Wallace criticizes the book for Updike’s inability to see the novel’s protagonist as anything but wholly sympathetic.) Updike is lyrical and traditionally realistic where Wallace is expansive, encyclopedic, and committed to the postmodern resuscitation of the Real. But aside from these surface divergences, I think it’s more interesting to read both authors over the tennis-court netting of Nicholson Baker’s oeuvre, to see how the two types of fiction Updike and Wallace represent are made more meaningful by the Bakerian border, and to see how Baker’s own work, which gives itself porously to each side of the court, is heightened by this genealogical tracing.
First, each writer shares and exemplifies a high degree of visual noticing, to cop a phrase from James Wood. Wood, at least to my eye, was the first to notice this stylistic link between Wallace and Updike, saying that the high intensity of the visual within Updike was even further extended and polished in the details of Wallace. In his New Republic review of Oblivion Wood writes, “One of the reasons that Wallace always sounds like himself, even when he is ventriloquizing someone else, is that this Nabokovian-Updikean micro-realist is too often showing his hand.”
Wood mentions Baker in this same passage as a kind of terminus for this degree of detail, but I would argue that Baker is not a terminus but a step between Updike and Wallace. He takes Updike’s cataloging of visual data and festishizes it, makes it not simply the stuffing of an otherwise realistic novel but the central focus, the propulsive force. It’s as if the emblematic Bakerian protagonist is the flaneur figure arrested, the flaneur who never goes anywhere but sits and spins his consciousness around the objects in his purview.
But Baker’s parallel to Updike is more than just a handy way with an adjective. His concern with visual detail connects to the form his novels take and how that consequently affects the motions of the plot. Take this passage in his book about Updike, U and I:
I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers; the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked-for seepage-points of passage.
Baker explicitly positions himself inside Updike’s work, locating himself in the passages of beautiful description that Updike casts off as padding. Baker chooses that padding as his very focus, and though this assertion of subject is most easily visible in his first two books, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, it casts an overwhelming shadow over all of his subsequent books. The result is not just the energetic prose that captures things in ways we have never seen before–it is more cataclysmic. Baker slows down narrative, pauses it so he can dive deep within it. It’s not precisely accurate to say that Baker’s books are plotless. They all have plots, but the majority of the writing locates itself within a crevasse of the plot. The plot is still visible high overhead; or to piggyback on one of the great images from The Mezzanine, the plot is like the turntable’s needle, overhead and deadly while Baker rappels downward into the grooves of the Significant Plot Points and pans for gold.
Infinite Jest shows the same willingness to suspend forward momentum for X-ray analysis while the plot assembles off-screen and approaches sideways, its wheelchairs squeaking. For all of Wallace’s manic energy and sophisticated, layer-cake language, not a lot happens in his books. Think of “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” a programmatic exposition of Wallace’s self-imposed mission as a post-John Barthian writer: the bulk of the novella involves a car ride from the airport to a commercial shoot, and the characters never even get that far (significant in terms of both plot and ulterior meaning). Or think of his post-Infinite Jest stories, which often are one-sided interviews or first-person monologues, the sound of one voice rotating within itself. Much of the reader’s interest comes from the brilliance of language, or from seeing past that brilliance to the conflicted moral character obscured beneath.
Even Infinite Jest, at its sprawling multi-limbed best, is a remarkably static book, an anthology of brilliant dioramas; in fact, most dissatisfaction with the book upon its initial publication centered on its unresolved ending, the very apogee of a stalled plot. Of course, these elisions are very much intentional, crucial to the book’s meaning—the addictive engine of IJ can only really be manifested by its deferral of the ending, by casting the reader out of its hall of mirrors. But I would suggest that this collage of set pieces is very Bakerian in its composition. It’s like Wallace has access to a wide array of Baker-like characters, and they vibrate alongside one another. Rather than the frequent, interactive dramatic scenes of Updike, there is the voice and unspooling of a character’s mind.
And in this way Baker (and subsequently Wallace) is a greater proponent of the old Modernist wish to capture the fluctuations of an individual’s consciousness than Updike. Despite his amplitude, his range of subject and rhetorical mode, his seemingly effortless eloquence, his devastating diligence, Updike, with his religious faith and the assured referential power of his language, seems to hover securely above his characters. His books are contained within an order. But Baker throws himself into his characters and lets them roam in thought in a way that surpasses even Virginia Woolf. He is that willing to sacrifice narrative momentum. And Wallace does the same thing, but he has accumulated so many pulsing static voices that it seems as if his novels are Titanics. Wallace retrieves the narrative infarcts of Baker while reaching his arms Dickensianly wide, all of it gathered toward a central moral vision.
Baker is also notable because, like Updike and Wallace, he is one of the major American writers to write both fiction and nonfiction and to have contributed definitively to each genre. And not surprisingly, Baker has useful remarks about the differences between the two. He believes that if a writer calls something nonfiction, he should not invent anything. For Baker there should be no authorial fudging because it sounds better. One can see this high moral vigor at work in U and I, where he commits to describing Updike’s works without rereading them, making several interpretive and factual errors along the way, and then coming back in with bracketed notations, pointing out his own errors. He commits to a premise—his “memory criticism” idea—and he follows it all the way through, even though his humorous mistakes kick the legs out of several of his assertions throughout the book. He clarified this position on factuality in an essay that appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, where he takes Daniel Defoe to task for his A Journal of the Plague Year, which, though a riveting and vital historical document, is completely imagined. Baker is remarkably rigid, conservative, and old-fashioned in his belief that Defoe, though obviously a great writer, committed a mistake and violated his readers’ trust by camouflaging his lies.
Baker’s position seems borderline naive when one considers the recent hoopla surrounding David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, in which Shields calls for the lyric essay—no doubt the dumbest name for a genre of writing since “creative nonfiction” limped its way onto the dancefloor—to alter facts if necessary, to appropriate, to misquote, to do anything necessary to capture “reality” in all its fungible mobility.
Interestingly, there is a video online of a roundtable discussion entitled “Autobiography/Biography: Narrating the Self,” presented by something called the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination, in which Baker and Shields both participate, and this very topic—the closest thing to a partisan conflict in contemporary letters, I would think—comes up for discussion. It does not descend into an arm-wrestling match, I’m sorry to report (both men are far too polite), but it does make for an interesting online diversion. First, Shields is remarkably unthreatening-looking. His prose in Reality Hunger—and the mountain of hype surrounding the book—makes one think of some head-shaven shaman of the Real, plucking that rusted, obsolescent machine (the novel) from your hands and filling them with the lyrically real. (Again the “lyric essay”—as if the essay should be sung to you through your computer speakers.) But in the video he is a skinny, completely bald, middle-aged professor with a slight stammer, a hitch at the beginning of some words, so even though his statements often strike me as intentionally, trendily, bat-shit crazy, my heart goes out to him. Baker is also charming, the hairy counterpart to Shields’ sleek eeliness. Since Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, Baker has been sporting a beard of Saint Nick-ish proportions, roomy enough to locate a couch. He looks like the kind of person you could call up to ask what he’s doing, and he could honestly respond by saying, “thinking.” But in the video Baker is direct in contradicting Shields’s provisions for nonfiction. He says plainly that what Shields is asking for is wrong. That nonfiction should not take those liberties. Never Invent.
Baker is on the wrong side of contemporary fashion, but I don’t think he is naive or simply conservative. Baker has a lot riding on these distinctions, these tacit, preliminary categorical agreements between author and reader. It comes down to the feeling, while reading, of wanting to know whether or not the thoughts expressed belong to the real-life author or to the fictional narrator. And Baker, moreover, is participating in the century-long gender-bending experiment between the novel and the memoir. One can think of creative nonfiction in general, and the “lyric essay” in particular, as a move to steal the novel’s artistic thunder, to claim the mantle of the Real—always a prize in our empirical America—while claiming also the mantle of felt or made meaning. The lyric essay is nonfiction that wants to have it both ways, that wants to walk androgynous down the street and be applauded for refusing to make up its mind.
But many of Baker’s novels—The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, A Box of Matches, and The Anthologist—feel like straight memoiristic transcriptions of the author’s thoughts. The protagonists’ names are different and the topical details are different but the mediating consciousness, its particular blend of light and shade, feels like all Baker. I would nevertheless argue that these books must be understood as fictions, because the likeability of the narrators, our willingness to be wooed by them, needs to be flexible. I mentioned earlier that Baker’s nonfiction is compelling and a little frightening by the way in which he allows himself to appear unreasonable or slightly nutso. One is always this close to closing the book, laying it on the shelf, and shaking one’s head. But the novels sweep past this liminal battiness, cultivating our earned intimacy in order to stretch it, test it. Think of Mike in Room Temperature, who confesses his predilection as a child to defecating on square plots of newspaper in a misbegotten attempt to mimic a photograph of childbirth he has seen. Think of Arno Strine in The Fermata, the relentless and inventive masturbator who can stop time, making it easier to be even more outlandishly onanistic. The novels need their fictional scrim so that we, as readers, can adjust our proximity to the narrators, and thus adjust our levels of judgment. Baker’s novels move essayistically but skirt free of the compact at the heart of all nonfiction: that the author permanently owns what he has said. Fiction is a way of speaking that’s freed from this stringent responsibility; you speak in one voice but then immediately slide free of its dead skin on your way to a new self.
Baker discusses the factuality of his fiction in U and I. He writes:
In some review or address Updike praises the capacity to lie as being of all traits the most important to the novelist. I felt myself disagreeing so violently as I read this that my whole imaginary friendship with Updike was momentarily disrupted: it was, first, a cliché of American writing seminars and book reviews, and it went utterly against what I believed (which was that the urge not to lie about, not to be unfair to, not to belie what was there was the dominant propellant, and the desire to undo earlier lies of our own or of others was what drew us on to write further, and that intentional lying came in only at those always dissatisfying points where the futile pursuit of coherence or economy temporarily won out), but more than that it seemed to go against what Updike had a hundred times shown himself to believe . . .
The fiction in the novel, for Baker, turns out not to be the premise but the futile pursuit of coherence, the inevitable artistic smudging at the corners.
Likewise, Baker’s nonfiction has been built around his belief in verifiability, a belief that nonfiction is improved by being beaten against the anvil of the real–his Updike book is somehow made richer by the revelations of his faults. What Baker seems to be arguing for is the value of context, the value of labeling as contractual, as a useful limitation. For a writer who seems to be completely free of rigid standards of subject and treatment—no ham-strung plot for Baker—he has moral standards for his genres.
This again represents a midpoint between Updike and Wallace. Updike is the great Professional of postwar letters; the man wrote everything with a postal regularity. The lesson of his career seems to be that one ought to be able to do everything all the time. Post-Baker, Wallace also writes nonfiction but does so in a way that dramatizes his unsuitability for the task at hand. Think of Wallace in “Up, Simba,” slowly scanning the political tour bus and positioning himself as anything but a professional journalist. This is the unique quality of his journalism: it offers a behind-the-scenes view of its own reportage; it dramatizes its own wrong turns, its own attempts at coherence. Where Baker sews in his own mistakes in U and I, Wallace adopts this mistaken identity as his very authorial persona. Wallace—avant-gardists, take note—isn’t interested in trying to make facts act like fiction or bending verifiability to suit his aesthetic ends. Instead, he depicts the messiness of his journalism—just in the way he complicated and de-simplified fiction—so that it would contain more routes, more cul-de-sacs, more voices.
When I originally posted the impetus for this article as a comment to one of Scott Esposito’s blog posts, another commenter wrote in to ask if this causal linking of writers wasn’t dubious and overly reductive. And to assert that “Baker is the missing link between Updike and Wallace” does raise several questions. First, have these people actually read one another? Well, we know for certain that Baker read Updike, but as to whether or not Wallace read Baker, I do not know. But that’s not quite the point. The point is the aesthetic outlook that each writer promotes, and how Baker, both generationally and aesthetically, provides a vector that shows certain traits of contemporary writing morphing into something else.
Further, I don’t mean to imply that these writers’ interest is restricted to their place on some spectrum of shared similarities. They all stand on their own, but together they are like one of those diagrams of overlapping colored discs, whose overlap creates an additional new color. Wallace seems to be that new color. Would he have written the way he wrote without Baker in the world? Probably. But Baker is in the world.
One interesting exercise is to think about Wallace and Baker and what they respectively thought of Updike. Updike was, of course, the exemplary man of post-war letters. Whether you are a fan of his work or not, his achievement—the uninterrupted stream of prose that emanated from his office—was astounding. The fact that he had such a long career, in such varied genres, with all of his books published under one house (Knopf) and almost all of his stories published within one magazine (The New Yorker) is unique, never to be repeated.
And in fact it’s the plenitude of this achievement that bothers Wallace and excites Baker. Wallace, in “Certainly the End of Something . . .,” famously incorporates various Updike offenses that he’s heard friends vocalize, specifically: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” This is related to the review’s more specific criticism of Toward the End of Time; it has a narrator who Updike doesn’t realize is a jerk. In David Lipsky’s recent book Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself, a gigantic, multi-day, transcribed interview, Wallace puts the criticism back in his own mouth:
Because Updike, I think, has never had an unpublished thought. And [. . .] he’s got an ability to put it in very lapidary prose. But that Updike presents one with a compressed Internet problem, is there’s 80 percent absolute dreck, and 20 percent priceless stuff. And you just have to wade through so much purple gorgeous empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill.
You really do, don’t you?
Yeah. I think he’s a nasty person.
The amount of writing, the quality of the writing, the type of mind it signifies, the self-regulation of that mind—all of it disturbs Wallace.
On the other end is Baker’s affection for Updike, which received a new gloss recently when the New York Review of Books published a fan letter Baker sent to Updike in 1985 when he was working on his first novel. (Baker was 28 years old.) Here is the first 2/3 of the letter, worth quoting at such length:
Dear Mr. Updike:
I read three quarters of your “Constellation of Events” just now on a nice, sunny Sunday morning subway ride on the D line, having borrowed that New Yorker from my girlfriend, and, having to stop in the middle of your story and get out and walk home, I had a thought, being still under the oddly peaceful emotional umbrella of your story: I had it, in fact, just walking under the awning of a tuxedo shop: I thought what an amazing thing that Mr. Updike has been writing all the years that I have been growing up, and how I have come to depend on the idea that he is writing away as a soothing idea, and then I was reminded of Trollope, and how nice it must have been for writers back then to go about their lives knowing that Mr. Trollope was going to have a new book coming out soon, that it would be good; and they might not read all of the things he wrote, but they would read some, and they would know that what they didn’t read they were missing, but were comforted also that they knew what kind of man he was because they had already read a lot of what he wrote; and the idea they had of the man who gradually had written all these books was a powerful, happy thing in their lives.
I thought this because I had just read a charitable review by you of a book I probably will never read by Andre Dubus, and this had made me go through the pile of magazines to find your story, which my girlfriend had mentioned: there was something wonderful about having this story of yours waiting there, in a wicker basket of magazines, indifferent to whether I read it or not, yet written by a writer whose personality and changes of mood I felt I had some idea of in a way you can only have of a writer who has written a great deal, lots of which you have forgotten, only retaining a feeling of long-term fondness which is perhaps the most important residual emotion of the experience of literature. And I thought all this in a second, pleased with myself, and then, as I passed out from under the brief shade of the tuxedo shop awning and diagonally crossed Route 9, I thought that you probably had written all this in some other book review or essay that I hadn’t read, or had read and forgotten; and this pleased me too, because after all it is a simple thought, mostly compounded of gratefulness and the pleasure that Sunday mornings have, and the good thing about Mr. Updike is that he is a true writer, and writes out the contents of his mind, and that idea occurred to him once, no doubt, suggested by some book he was reviewing, and he wrote it down; and that was what being a man of letters was all about.
Where Wallace indirectly criticizes Updike for writing out the contents of his mind, Baker praises him for the very same thing. For Baker, this controlled spillage is indeed the writer’s job.
This obligation to write out one’s own mind, to express the mind’s multifariousness and complexity, is something that Wallace and Baker are very interested in. Baker’s subsequent work attests to a slow rumination on everything his eye crosses, while Wallace seems not just committed to cataloging everything that goes through a mind but the act of mental mastication that occurs at the same time. If one could call Baker and find him home thinking, one could find Wallace home thinking about thinking. His stories are above all about thinking, the pain and recursion of it, the entrapment of it. (Notice the plethora of characters in Wallace’s fiction making cage forms with their hands as they talk.) If the characters aren’t thinking, they’re talking, and talking in a way that is thinking on its feet, rationalization’s two-step.
What’s also interesting is the willingness to let characters be offensive, solipsistic, and unpunished in Updike, and then later in Baker, whereas there is a strong corrective, almost didactic, component in Wallace’s work, which grows more pronounced toward the end of his life. No doubt this component was always present. As early as his first story collection, Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace was trying to outfox solipsism; in “Westward . . .” he calls solipsism the “high siren’s song of the wrist’s big razor” and metafiction “the act of a lonely solipsist’s self-love,” and it’s the moral-aesthetic failure of the previous (Updikean/John Barthian) generation that the story’s “hero,” Mark Nechtr, dreams of conquering. And this generationally corrective impulse only grows and becomes less postmodernly disguised as Wallace matures. His morality becomes clearest in the nonfiction, where Wallace, as the addled would-be reporter, casts a meticulous eye upon, say, the attendees at an Illinois State Fair. Wallace always makes himself complicit in any judgment, in good nonfiction-persona fashion, but that doesn’t relieve the underlying didacticism. One can see in the essay “Consider the Lobster” an escalation of this didactic urge and a definitive split with his earlier mercilessly accurate satirical description, moving into a less abrasive, less humorously camouflaged, more overtly moralistic mode.
(I should say that when I use the word moralize, I do not think that this is an evil thing to do, or something that diminishes Wallace’s writing. I actually find it fascinating and wish he were still around to keep writing, so that we could all see where he would have gone next, not just in terms of his prose style but in terms of his moral vision, which of course were inextricable.)
When Wallace criticizes Updike, he does so on moral grounds, that despite his talent he is not being responsible enough; he’s being too solipsistic. It’s this idea of artistic responsibility—the writer as responsible party, responsible for getting outside of himself—that is also an indication of the spectrum between Wallace and Updike, with Baker significantly in the middle, Baker whose work is the frail, shaking, porous fence between author and character.
I’m not saying that Updike is not a moral writer, or that his work does not have a moral center. Far from it. But his coolly liquid prose is often immune to the sweaty forehead of high belief. His is a well-ordered moralism. As opposed to Baker, who is an obsessive, one who willingly throws himself into lost causes, such as writing a novel about the assassination of the sitting president, during a mania of war-fed patriotism; or writing a book trying prove the unacknowledged cruelty and bigotry of the Greatest Generation; or a book-length ode to a suffering but artistically necessary, mid-list, medium-grade contemporary American poet. Baker is always just a hair shy of sounding like a crank, the guy who you’ve seen lurking around the library stacks with crumbs in his beard and clothes that he’s no doubt slept in. But his books, the novels especially, are a controlled playing with a crankish persona, right?
Right? One criticism of Baker’s latest novel, The Anthologist, might be of whether or not Baker actually believes all of the interesting-but-bunkish theories his narrator espouses about poetry. Ultimately one can’t tell, which is either a triumph of verisimilitude or a failure of authorial distance, depending on your perspective. Again, Baker commits himself wholly to whatever politico-aesthetic position he finds himself in, and I find this commitment heroic. In preparing to write The Anthologist, Baker essentially became Paul Chowder, stomping around his barn reciting poetry and ranting aloud while videotaping the results, the grounds of which dripped down to form the language of the novel, Baker’s best fiction since Vox. Wallace has the same didacticism in him but he is wise enough, or postmodern enough, to bury it within a scrim of self-consciousness. One finds this same nascent leaning toward moralism in a particular cross-section of young, hip, male, (and most interestingly) white writing: Dave Eggers’s writing has transmogrified into a kind of advocacy; George Saunders’s humor is the piñata for his political editorializing; and after his tragic suicide two years ago, Wallace has been all but sainted, his compound-complex difficulties sanded down to the sheen of what a great, moral person he was. I do not doubt that he was a great person (and lord knows the world needs more great people), and I’m not slighting these writers for having moral and political positions. But it can all get a bit preachy. It sometimes seems like contemporary novelists think their job is teaching us political lessons we already know, a kind of political pep talk. It triggers the knowing head nod of the NPR supporter. Which, again, is not de facto bad—I’m an NPR supporter myself—but I want something less cloying from my fiction, something more adultly complex, something more interested in temporarily tabling good taste. How did we get to a point where our best fiction reassured our politics rather than stretched the stitching of everything we ever believed? This is not a call for more Bakers, though it is a call for more consistently weird, thoroughly unprogrammatic, potentially unlikable writers.
As of this writing Baker is 53 years old, with thirteen books to his credit. If we are lucky, Baker is in the middle of his writing career. There are hopefully thirteen books left for him to write, twenty more years of language, of his particular brand of eloquent fury. Before we get distracted by the latest literary trend, we must remember that there is a great yet underappreciated writer working up in Maine, slowly writing out the contents of his mind, embodying many of the concerns of postmodern fiction yet while also being extremely old-fashioned, collapsing historical distinctions in the manner of all great literature. For a brief moment in history, Baker seemed to occupy a middle road between two major writers. Now both of those writers are gone, but Baker is still alive and writing. We owe it to our own minds to hear what his has yet to say.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His first novel, a series of linked stories called The Portable Son, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books in fall 2011.
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