December 2009 - January 2010

Arts & Letters

‘The Anthologist’ by Nicholson Baker

By Michelle de Kretser

“Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to tell you everything I know.” That’s a good opening sentence: it’s colloquial and grabby, in a telemarketing sort of way, and it signals the didactic intent of the narrative. This beginning also encapsulates two characteristic features of Nicholson Baker’s work: the relaxed, chatty style in which he wrangles art from, say, the lost thoughts of office workers; and the impulse to educate that drives his non-fiction works, such as his previous book, Human Smoke – a cut-and-paste “pacifist history” of World War II. Fiction – at least the deliberately vernacular, downbeat kind practised by Baker – is less tolerant of the drive to instruct. What arises is the rhetorical difficulty of imparting information while maintaining a casual voice. It is this clash of registers that threatens, and at times overwhelms, The Anthologist.

Paul Chowder, a poet whose career is waning, has been commissioned to compile and introduce an anthology of rhyming poems. He’s chock-full of theories about why rhyme matters, how free verse came to dominate the twentieth century, whether it’s better to read a poem silently or aloud, why iambic pentameter is a hoax, and so on. In fact, he has so much to say that he can’t begin to say it. The deadline for his introduction is looming, his editor is on his back and his girlfriend, Roz, has left because she can’t stand his maddening procrastination. Over the course of a summer, Chowder pines for Roz, sits for hours in his drive, picks blueberries, shampoos his dog, lusts mildly after his neighbour, cuts his thumb, reads (but doesn’t write) poems and muses on metre and rhyme. Most contemporary poetry, including his own, he notes, is “slow-motion prose”. It could be said with equal truth that The Anthologist, in its salvaging of “untold particulars”, draws on a dominant mode in modern poetry.

There are many lovely, meticulous descriptions in this novel, from the “motionless mists” that hang in Chowder’s freezer to his evocation of the variations in pitch as a nail is hammered into wood. The wonder of ordinary moments is the modernist sublime – a re-enchantment of the world, which Baker has consistently brought about in his work. The Anthologist also offers much that is sharp, funny and sound about poetry. There is the observation that little kids cry in duple metre, the advice to copy out favourite poems and the brilliant leap to connect rhyme with the ‘whodunnit’, another generator of pleasurable suspense.

Where it goes askew has to do with the problem of voice. When discussing poetics, Baker glides far too often from the laid-back to the dumbed-down. Who is incapable of understanding that an iamb is “an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one”? It’s a no-brainer, but from Baker, it elicits this: “The iambic conductor puffs out his man chest, lifts his batoned hand up,” with much more of the strenuous same, until … “a big green glittering word-wave crashes down on the downbeat. Ya-ploosh!” You either find that sort of thing hilarious and loveable or you shudder and pray the horror will pass.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

Cover: December 2009 - January 2010

December 2009 - January 2010

From the front page

2009 forever

Blame the Coalition, not the Greens, for Australia’s decade of climate dysfunction

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Image from ‘The Report’

Interrogating the interrogators: ‘The Report’

This tale of the investigation into CIA torture during the War on Terror places too much faith in government procedure

Image of police station in Alice Springs with red handprints on wall

What really happened at Yuendumu?

The promised inquiries must answer the biggest questions raised by the police shooting of an Aboriginal man


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A wild colonial boy

‘So This Is Life: Tales from a Country Childhood’ by Anne Manne

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A fava fresca!


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Jia Tolentino

Radical ambiguity: Jia Tolentino, Rachel Cusk and Leslie Jamison

The essay collections ‘Trick Mirror’, ‘Coventry’ and ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’ offer doubt and paradoxical thinking in the face of algorithmic perfectionism

Image of Archie Roach

A way home: Archie Roach

The writer of ‘Took the Children Away’ delivers a memoir of his Stolen Generations childhood and an album of formative songs

Image from ‘The Irishman’

Late style: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Reuniting with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, the acclaimed director has delivered less of a Mob film than a morality play

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre


More in Noted

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Cover of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’

‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ by Deborah Levy

The British author experiments with a narrative structure that collapses past and present

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age


Read on

Image from ‘The Report’

Interrogating the interrogators: ‘The Report’

This tale of the investigation into CIA torture during the War on Terror places too much faith in government procedure

Image of police station in Alice Springs with red handprints on wall

What really happened at Yuendumu?

The promised inquiries must answer the biggest questions raised by the police shooting of an Aboriginal man

You could drive a person crazy: Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are at their career best in this bittersweet tale of divorce

Blockade tactics

Inside the 2019 IMARC protests


×
×