No book brought me more belly laughs and head shakes and murmurs under-my-breath of "So true, so true" as Nicholson Baker's 2009 gem "The Anthologist," which was published by Simon and Schuster. The book is written from the perspective of Paul Chowder, a recently dumped poetry anthologist who is lonely for his kind, big hearted ex-girlfriend Roz and unable to complete the daunting task of writing an introduction to his forthcoming anthology of rhymed poems entitled "Only Rhyme." Chowder "works" relentlessly at this introduction -- and by that I mean he thinks and works on everything except the introduction. He has a mental block -- this is something many if not all writers and humans can relate to. If you can't relate to it, you're lying to yourself. Instead of our protagonist presenting his best side, he leans on his worst foot. The reader is privy to his most dull thoughts, the worst parts of his existence--every day is an assault of loneliness, accidental hand cuts, and disintegrating brooms. In a favorite passage, our hero is cutting bread:
So, yes, our hero is struggling. And that's exactly why he's so endearing. Let's face it, people: life is pain. The Buddhists were right. And instead of beating his chest and being stoic [though the argument can be made that not calling the ex is a form of stoicism], all of his failures are laid bare on the page. I related to him very much indeed, but not because I'm clumsy. I related to him because he was human like all of us. When was the last time you farted in front of your boss? When was the last time you burned yourself making pie? When was the last time your friend said you had a "bat in the cave"? Life is full of embarrassments. I applaud Baker for his ten star character development.
So I had a slice of bread, and a few calamata olives, and I started singing "Saved by a woman," by Ray LaMontagne, at the top of my lungs, while cutting a second slice, and I got a little jiggy with the bread knife, which is new and sharp with squared-off serrations, and I cut off a small dome of my fingermeat. It was very similar to cutting off the end of the loaf of bread, except that it hurt. I said some bad words and bled on the bread, and then I went upstairs to the bathroom and did my best to repositionhe sliced-off part where it was supposed to go, and although the blood continued I was able to encircle the fingertip--my left hand's index fingertip--with two Band-aids. It was the same finger that had crashed into the doorjamb, if you can believe it. I didn't call Roz because two cuts on the same finger is an embarrassment, and I've gotten quite good at self-Band-Aiding." (Baker, The Anthologist, pgs. 139-40).
But "The Anthologist" is so much more! Chowder is always thinking about poetry, whether fetishizing a hot lovers weekend between Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke ("Louse Bogan said that Theodore Roethke made her 'bloom like a Persian rosebush" during their long happy sex weekend together." [Baker, pg. 78]) or if he's promising himself that he is Sara Teasdale's number one fan. The most fascinating parts of this book, which I dare you to put down once you've started it, is discussion of poetry. Baker knows his shit and is a man of letters. I wonder -- and mind you I haven't even googled this yet -- if Baker has written any of his own verse. He certainly either researched the hell out of poetry at-large and can explain the iamb and enjambment better than I ever could. Makes you wonder. So my point is, this is not just any novel. It teaches the reader about poetry, poetry in America, it's hilarious, and honest. Chowder is a modern hero. He's not what hollywood would have you believe a hero is (an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances). He's an extraordinary person living in an ordinary world. All throughout the novel, the reader is rooting for Chowder to finish the introduction--we know he can do it! He knows everything about rhyme and if he could just....turn off Dirty Jobs....he could definitely finish that intro! Ah, the lament of the the non-anthologist.
Question: Why do you love poetry?
Answer: Because you can't help it.
Thank you, Nicholson Baker for writing the book of the year, 2009.
P.S., Nicholson Baker's Beard. I knew you knew I'd mention it. Here it is, in all its glory!