“Why do we need things to rhyme so much?” asks the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s wonderful new novel The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster). The speaker is Paul Chowder, who has compiled an anthology of poetry. All he needs to do to finish the project is write the introduction, a mere forty pages … but he has writer’s block. And, oh yes: His girlfriend, Roz, left him recently. And he has a dog named Smacko. Just that dog alone makes it a better book than Marley & Me.
“Hello, I’m Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” That’s the first sentence in The Anthologist, and if you’ve ever read a Baker novel before, you pretty much know that Paul ain’t kiddin’. Baker specializes in precise, funny descriptions of everyday activities and moments. His first novel, The Mezzanine (1986), was entirely about what one man does during one day on his lunch-hour. (Only Baker can wring drama from — and I’m not joking here — a broken shoelace. Read that book.)
Similarly, when you begin to read The Anthologist, you may think you’re going to get a conventional-fiction tale of the agony and heartache of a tortured artist. Instead, Baker offers something different and (after all the books that have been written about tortured artists) better: Chowder talks to us about poetry. His love for it (“Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing”); his quietly controversial ideas about it (he firmly believes the instinctive rhythm for most great American poetry isn’t iambic pentameter but iambic tetrameter — a four-beat, rather than a five-beat, line); and detailed praise about poets he likes (including Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, and W.S. Merwin) and poets he doesn’t (“wacky Charles Olson”), as well as poets he’s jealous of (Billy Collins, “charming, chirping crack whore that he is” — ouch!).
Chowder/Nicholson — for like many of the author’s narrators, you suspect his character is speaking what Nicholson believes — also compares poetry to television in a way that will make TV viewers not exactly feel guilty about preferring the tube over a tome: “One day the English language is going to perish… And scholars will write studies of Larry Sanders and Friends and Will & Grace and Ellen and Designing Women and Mary Tyler Moore, and everyone will see that the sitcom is the great American art form.”
The drama and emotion in The Anthologist builds subtly. You become so engaged by Chowder’s narrative voice, and his engrossing musings about poetry, that his loneliness and his valiant attempts to cope with despair creep up on you. When they do, you’re moved by this sincere, funny, sad man.
Baker works a lot of things he enjoys into The Anthologist, including a couple of mentions of the real-life singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, whom he has Paul listening to a few times during the novel. I like Slaid Cleaves, too. Maybe when you buy The Anthologist, you’ll want to pick up a Slaid Cleaves CD, too.