Nicholson Baker Writes a Protest Song

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies.

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

Nicholson Baker‘s voice has a blushing transparency that will make you lean in here. He’s made a brilliant career out of a writer’s stray wit and the sparkling streams of one man’s mind. “His sentences have more pixel density than those of any living novelist,” Dwight Garner beams in the Times. Like his model John Updike, Baker is a champion noticer. In our conversations, and in his porniad House of Holes, he’s also magnetized by sex and very funny, too. But he’s political, as Updike declined to be. Baker gave us a brave and studious case for pacifism in Human Smoke, his pointillistic history of World War 2. And now in Traveling Sprinkler he emerges, through his fictional hero Paul Chowder, as a song-writer and (about time!) a fantasy radio guy and a podcaster.

Nick Baker introduced Paul Chowder four years ago in The Anthologist as a “confessional poet of a sort,” an often blocked writer of an introduction to a compiliation called Only Rhyme. In Traveling Sprinkler — lawn hardware making its circuitous path around the green landscape of his obsessions — Paul Chowder turns out to be less melodic than Cole Porter, less memorable than Tracy Chapman or Leonard Cohen. But the disarmed and endearing voice of Nicholson Baker is giving us the sense of a necessary human experiment (for all of us) and an homage to the triumphs of the masters:

It’s hard to sing, because when you sing as a writer you have lots of little squirrely black shapes on the page to hide behind. It’s of course very open and confessional but you have that nice scrim; you’re behind this shield of the 26 letters. But when you sing the words with your own voice with all of its own imprecisions and its desire to lose the pitch and all that stuff, it is so naked and so frightening… Music is so instantly graspable, and yet so mysterious. It’s so subtle and complicated; a slight change in harmony, a choice of doubling up a particular instrument, of adding a little reverb — all these things can change the texture of a moment so much. Yet all of them are entirely beyond speech. There’s no way you can codify or even talk about them verbally. So they’re in that way puzzling but also entertaining. All you’re trying to do if you’re writing a song is make something beautiful in some way — at least something that some one can tap his or her foot to — maybe dance around the room or sing along with, that someone will respond in a positive way…

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

You can try this out and home. And you can look for inspiration to Nicholson Baker’s Protest Songs on YouTube.

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  • Robert Zucchi

    Christmas Humphreys, the British barrister and Buddhist adept, said that to advance in Buddhist wisdom “is to become steadily less in the eyes of men.” Lessened esteem is not likely to beset Mr. Baker in his authorial life, but it’s interesting to see that he’s willing to brave it at a Friends meeting, where silent worship can intensify inhibition, and speaking out of the silence (as they put it) can unmoor a testimony from any context. The rules of order…address testimony only to the Clerk, don’t respond to another’s testimony, be quiet after another speaks so the lesson can be absorbed…can feed reticence, too. But all this is a catalyst for the “humble” intelligence Mr. Baker so values in a Quaker meeting, and perhaps in metaphysical seeking generally.

    Mr. Baker’s practice would seem to be the cultivation of a saving ordinariness, the precursor of personal modesty. (I’m reminded of the Buddhist tale of a returned pilgrim’s egoless response to a famous landmark: “It was nothing special.”) In “The Anthologist,” Mr. Baker’s poet narrator (is this right?) ventures that “any random episode of ‘Friends’ is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history every published…we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention…”

    I don’t know if this apostasy from the belief in the supremacy of high art is all that radical in a country that famously conjugates high- and lowbrow culture, but even it were just a literary device or the author’s profession of his chosen way-seeking path, it has the merit of reflecting our present reality.

  • MG

    Thanks for the interview Chris, your conversations with Baker are always enjoyable.

    Baker says he isn’t being ironic with his songs, but I wonder about his book Traveling Sprinkler. In it, Paul Chowder is troubled by the pervasive evil he sees in the modern world – particularly by the plight of the young girl Roya, who sees her family devastated by a misplaced American drone strike – but feeling helpless about the situation, he tries to “drown it with good” by writing protest songs, while at the same time trying to win back his woman from her current suitor, a man who “makes his colleagues uncomfortable by always speaking the truth”.

    Rather than returning to the mysteriously organic but painful to play bassoon he had wrestled with in his youth and continues to praise throughout the novel, Chowder pops down to the local Best Buy, grabs some cheap consumer electronics and trains himself to make music with the help of computer software, gadgets, and you-tube videos. The trite, mechanized, soulless music that Chowder/Baker creates as a result has, ironically, much in common with the drone that continues to haunt the skies over Roya.

    In Chowder, noble Quaker pacifism seems to devolve into solipsism, as he is content in the end to have assuaged his conscience and reinforced his general good feeling about himself by making some uninspired music and winning back his woman (while the man who speaks the truth is cast away and forgotten). As Robert says above, perhaps the merit in this story is its reflection of present reality.