Monday, August 22, 2011

A Box of Blogposts

Finished this book a while back. Debriefing posts would be a lot more common if I weren't trying to maintain a structure at the moment. Eventually I'd love to push these out there for every book I've read, but perhaps they'd be better suited to be passed out through my tumblr, being only simple thoughts rather than these long unnecessary pages I write here. Then I guess I would be doing the same thing, setting aside a few books to write about here.

Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches has all the tracings of an actual blogging event. A man gets up early each morning, lights a fire in the fireplace with a match from a certain box and types off his thoughts' morning meanderings while it's still dark outside. Like many of Baker's books, it encounters the divide of fiction and fact, as the book is essentially a novel, but isn't really written like any novel ever is. Nothing could be said to "happen" in A Box of Matches, but we are treated to what we can only take to be Baker's wit, just as we've seen in books like The Mezzanine and Room Temperature (of which I've only read the former), showing through characters like a bad disguise.

Perhaps no fiction writer could lay claim to the idea that, rather than telling stories, one finds the truth in the lie in this medium more than Baker, who presents all kinds of essentially factual thoughts within his novels, yet placing them often in relatively mundane trappings. There is another Baker who writes "erotic" novels, if they can be called that, which showcase a different piece of clothing, if you will, for his style of writing. Sharing thoughts, opinions, realizations, in the way that I pick up from certain translations of Murakami Haruki. One of my stories in my book, called "Tigger" which I think I've mentioned before, is Bakeresque in that I'm writing a lot about what I know. The mechanization of an individual life can be noted and recorded. This is how Nicholson Baker writes, although there are distinctions to be made. It's not how most people do or rather it's not how I tend to write what I think of as books and how I would imagine the majority of other people don't. I actually don't know how Nicholson Baker writes. Perhaps I should say "Nicholson Baker's books appear to be written in a way that most books aren't." But I would have to specify his novels; I haven't read any of his non-fiction.

In Good Ole Jack, my first ever long piece of fiction, or at least long piece I finished (I think it came to maybe sixty pages), I was at my most Baker when Jack had a thought that was perfectly mine. Considering the last thing we remember when we sleep, I often find myself asking this self-referencing question in bed "Will I remember asking this question in the morning?" Of course, I've become aware of this tactic of mine, but I never think about it in the morning waking up, and I can never remember if I've done it just the night before or a week or a year ago, and it has become a personal talking point, the kind of obsession that I could always revisit in my art (although I haven't).

Baker might make up the world he tells us, but the ideas of A Box of Matches ring as true as fiction ever can. The narrator of the novel has a relatively new pet duck who he begins to learn how to treat during the depths of winter. No, the duck doesn't get sick, it doesn't give birth to ducklings or run away--these are the bits and pieces we expect from narrative. What truly stuns me is simply the relative absence of conflict from Baker's novels, how they form from bits and pieces of thought and yet do not become large tomes of boredom, at least for a reader like me. Wikipedia used to have a quote from Stephen King, famously comparing Baker's Vox, a book that functions as a transcript of two people who've met by way of a sex phone line to a fingernail paring. So there are the detractors. Which is a good thing, to be beloved by all is often to be unimportant to the masses: Baker's style of writing is not only unique, but in my opinion, groundbreaking.

The Mezzanine, written in 1988, comes as close to what an instantaneous twitter or blogfeed going off in someone's head would be like. I feel as if his first books were written without precedent, the world had yet to come up with  a comparison for them, and still hasn't--I have to imagine a potential corollary, because one is forced to ask a question of an entire novel that merely consists of a character's thoughts over the span of maybe twenty minutes, "How is this being written down?" That is the one question we do not ask when it comes to A Box of Matches.

Perhaps that's the oddest bit, because in explaining how the book is being written, Baker creates perhaps the oddest divide of fact and fiction. For if fiction is actually true, it's fact, ain't it? Consider the frame, as stated earlier, of a man waking up early in the morning to light a fire in the fireplace with a match from a match box and then type up his thoughts. I'm not sure a computer is ever particularly mentioned, but one imagines a laptop and the narrator sitting on the couch typing just as I am now. What we don't know is precisely how Baker actually wrote the book. It would be ironic if he did it longhand, but that's not likely; still if he wrote it on a computer in the wee hours of the morning, would it make that part of the book true? Would Baker himself, as well as his character, be narrating?

For a person who writes his blog under the banner of apologizing for your boredom, it is perhaps not surprising that I am interested in Baker's new style of almost non-narrative. I have often been upset with the idea that conflict is a necessary part of fiction. Sure, I am willing to write stories with conflict, but often I am drawn to somehow write a novel that avoids it. To write, you might say, a Nicholson Baker novel. The only fault being that the only person who can write books like Nicholson Baker is Nicholson Baker.

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