In the world of letters, Nicholson Baker is our Shakespearean fool, our Old Testament prophet. He makes a brilliant ass of himself (or of his fictional characters) in order to speak hard truths and expose the intrinsic insanity of our civilization. His unruly achievement from last year, Human Smoke, asserted that the political “heroes” of World War II (Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, above all) were, in fact, diabolical rogues. Checkpoint (from 2004) took the form of a fictional dialogue about a plan to assassinate President Bush. And in 2001’s Double Fold, Baker exposed the scandalous campaign of libraries to destroy their paper materials to make way for electronic resources.
As with the fool and the prophet, Baker’s relentless ax- grinding leaves a lasting impression because of the sustained glories of his language. He knows that all he can do in the face of limitless human folly is to sing a memorable song. The fool and the prophet are not pundits or politicians: they are poets. And so, at last, in The Anthologist, Baker has turned to poetry, the true home of his radicalism. In its own way, this new novel is bound to cause an uncomfortable stir in literary circles, just as his previous three books have.
The protagonist—the almost-but-not-quite Poet Laureate Paul Chowder—is, like Baker, a champion of unfashionable or outrageous ideas. In Chowder’s case, the lost cause is the poem that actually rhymes, in an era when free verse reigns. While procrastinating from writing an overdue introduction to his anthology of rhyming verse, Chowder gives rein to lyrical confessions about his own failures as a poet and lover and an assortment of critiques on various other poets. The meaner Chowder gets, the funnier he gets. The funnier he gets, the more heartbreaking becomes his predicament: he is a poet past his prime, with nothing to show but an abiding affection for what he loves. At last, Chowder realizes that what he’s been doing all along is composing his introduction. The rest is poetry. Baker’s beautifully vexed and inviting novel throws open those magic casements and we are all the luckier for it.
Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.