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.

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