Podcast • November 1, 2013

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 ...

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.

Podcast • October 19, 2011

Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes: a Porniad

How quaint, just months ago, talking with Nicholson Baker about his inside-poetry novel, The Anthologist, to suppose his idle moments were consumed with Swinburne’s rhymes and the march time of Kipling’s four-beat lines. In truth ...

How quaint, just months ago, talking with Nicholson Baker about his inside-poetry novel, The Anthologist, to suppose his idle moments were consumed with Swinburne’s rhymes and the march time of Kipling’s four-beat lines. In truth the happy horndog inside this sportive, omnidirectional, irresistible prose guy was fantasizing a sex theme park, a House of Holes, and compiling a new book of Bakerisms to name the moving parts in the park: “his united parcel,” “her snatch patch,” “his Pollock,” “her shimmering chickenshack,” “his pulsing hellhound” and her ecstatic scream: “Ice my cake, dickboys. I want to feel like a breakfast pastry.” And then, when the tipping point arrives, “his Malcolm Gladwell.”

But then how clever of Nicholson Baker to have sensed the opening, or found the island, in the tsunami of Internet porn for no-fault sex as sunny and funny as he is — “good porn,” so to speak, which to Baker’s taste is kinky but consensual; it’s all hetero, but “almost hermaphroditic” in its relentless fairness to the female POV. It says something about the culture or about Baker’s gift that he has finessed the feminist objection. The Marquis de Sade let his imagination run and found immortality in that nasty word “sadism.”

John Updike, no matter the lyricism of his explorations, was tagged a “phallocrat” and worse. But when Nicholson Baker blows the wad of his imagination in House of Holes, Katie Roiphe volunteers over lunch to “protect” him; she’d never imagined sitting in a restaurant “with someone as decent and thoughtful and gentlemanly as Nicholson Baker.” Elaine Blair in the New York Review of Books says House of Holes lives in “a magic circle of wholesomeness.” She concluded it would be salutary for her kids, and yours, to read it: “House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur. You can be sure that no matter what scene your children are masturbating to, they are not objectifying women. But you will have to make sure that they accidentally stumble on it soon, before they find the Internet, if they are to have a fighting chance at being wholesome and delightful fuckers instead of hopelessly depraved ones like yourself.” Janet Maslin likes it, too.

Our conversation may be your only chance to hear Nick Baker read from House of Holes, a book of raunch, which wasn’t written for the radio circuit. Listen carefully and you can hear him blushing. And laughing. And defending “my sacred Faulknerian duty,” as he said “to put it on the page. And I did.”

We’ve all got these layers of self, and a period where you think, well, I’m just going to give myself over to whatever it is — to learning how to drive, or drawing a tree, or the history of war. But there are just times of your life where you think well, I’m just really going to think really hard about, I’m really going to fill my mind with the most graphic, interesting sexual imagery I can possibly find, I’m going to really go overboard with that. At least that’s what happens to me. Isn’t the job of a novelist to be true to all of these different rooms in the house of fiction? All these different places? All those things happen, so isn’t the job of the novelist to include them all, and to kind of confront everyone with the fact that life that is confusingly kaleidoscopic?

Nicholson Baker with Chris Lydon at Upstairs on the Square, Cambridge, MA. October 2011.

Podcast • April 23, 2008

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker: history by hyperlink A wing commander in the [British] Royal Air Force [in Iraq], J. A. Chamier, published his views on how best to deal with tribal rebellions. The commanding officer must choose ...
nick baker

Nicholson Baker: history by hyperlink

A wing commander in the [British] Royal Air Force [in Iraq], J. A. Chamier, published his views on how best to deal with tribal rebellions.

The commanding officer must choose the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe, said Chamier, and attack it with all available aircraft. “The attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle,” Chamier wrote. “This sounds brutal, I know, but it must be made brutal to start with. The threat alone in the future will prove efficacious if the lesson is once properly learnt.” It was 1921.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 8.

Frederick Birchall, Berlin correspondent for The New York Times, published an article about Germany’s preparations for war. It was October 8, 1933.

Birchell quoted from a recent book by Ewald Banse, a teacher at the Technical High School in Brunswick, Germany. The book was called Wehrwissenschaft — “Military Science.” War was no longer a matter of marches and medals, Banse observed: “It is gas and plague. It is tank and aircraft horror. It is baseness and falsehood. It is hunger and poverty.” And because war is so horrible, Banse said, it must be incorporated into the school curriculum and taught as a new and comprehensive science: “The methods and aims of the new science are to create an unshakable belief in the high ethical value of war and to produce in the individual the psychological readiness for sacrifice in the cause of nation and state.”

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 44.

Neville Chamberlain told the House of Commons that England was officially at war with Germany… It was September 3, 1939.

Churchill’s mood, as he listened, wasn’t sad at all. He felt, he wrote later, a sense of uplifted serenity and a detachment from human affairs. “The glory of Old England, peace-loving and ill-prepared as she was, but instant and fearless at the call of honour, thrilled my being and seemed to lift our fate to those spheres far removed from earthly facts and physical sensation,” he said.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 138.

Dorothy Day, the editor of the Catholic Worker, wrote an editorial called “Our Stand.” “As in the Ethiopian war, the Spanish war, the Japanese and Chinese war, the Russian-Finnish war — so in the present war we stand unalterably opposed to the use of war as a means of saving ‘Christianity,’ ‘civilization,’ ‘democracy.'” She urged a nonviolent opposition to injustice and servitude: She called it the Folly of the Cross.

“We are bidden to love God and to love one another,” she wrote. “It is the whole law, it is all of life. Nothing else matters.” It was June 1940.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 192.

“This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain,” [Churchill] said [in a radio speech, seven months into the German Blitz.] It had lifted them above material facts “into that joyous serenity we think belongs to a better world than this.”

“There are less than seventy million malignant Huns — some of whom are curable and others killable,” Churchill said. The population of the British empire and the United States together amounded to some two hundred million. The Allies had more people and made more steel, he said. The Allies would win. It was April 27, 1941.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 192.

Some people want to make an issue of method and form around Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, subtitled The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. But the real problem is, of course, his message. In an afterword on almost 500 pages of vignettes, Nick Baker offers his own judgment that the pacifists and other resisters had the right strategic answer to the war-madness of the 20th Century — people like Gandhi, the Quakers, ex-President Herbert Hoover who wanted to break the British food blockade on starving Europe in October, 1941 (“Can you point to one benefit that has been gained from this holocaust?” Hoover asked in a radio speech) and the diarist Howard Schoenfeld, who went to prison in Danbury, CT for standing against the draft and “against war, which I believe to be the greatest evil known to man.”

Human Smoke reads like a wall of Post-It notes — pointilistic dots on a 40-year canvas — which Louis Menand in the New Yorker, for example, says should not be confused with responsible history. I felt it, on the contrary, as a very familiar, virtually cinematic, quick-cutting, frame-shifting, angular and episodic style of story telling. It’s not so unlike the method of Ken Burns’ PBS epic on The War, which took its perspective from GI letters home and family memories today in just four American cities, like Waterbury, Connecticut and Mobile, Alabama.

The difference is that the Burns TV film summoned up and revarnished a lot of old feelings. Baker tears into every bit of received sentiment about the war, and about its heroes — Churchill most especially — in the book and our conversation:

He’s fascinating. He’s brilliant. He had a mind well stocked with poetry… So one doesn’t want to dismantle Churchill in the sense of saying he was not a great man. He has hugeness of personality, but he was a man of many phases… In this period that I’m looking at him, he was really a maniac. He was absolutely intent on widening the war and on getting as many people — his own citizens and other countries — involved as possible. I don’t think I’m being unfair to him. It’s just that if you quote him properly you realize he was just hell bent on this confrontation. As the prime minister of Australia [Robert Menzies] said on first meeting Churchill: “This man is a great hater.” It was so fascinating to watch Menzies’ visit. He first reaction was: “humorless… a great hater.” A few nights later: “he’s a great hater, but he does know an awful lot.” And then, late night, 2:30 or 3 in the morning, he’s up again listening to war stories from Churchill, and he writes, “the man has greatness.” Finally, he’s saying, “the Hun must be taught through his hide!” Menzies is now speaking the language of Churchill. So obviously this man Churchill has an incredible power over other human beings.

Nicholson Baker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, April 16, 2008

Human Smoke is a departure for Nicholson Baker, the high-stylist of The Mezzanine and of Vox, the phone-sex novel that Monica Lewinsky gave to Bill Clinton. He says, “I’ve always liked writing about the things that I hope make life worth living — the reflections on the edge of moving objects, or the little theories you develop when you shoelace breaks… So I tried to use my same approach, my method, in writing about probably the worst 5-year period in human history.”

And yes, Iraq was at the root of it all. Baker conceived the project, he says, “in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the Second World War was repeatedly invoked as the one necessary war. I’ve never really understood the Second World War. It never made sense to me that we had to demolish cities in order to bring a regime down, but I always chalked it up to my own ignorance of history. But if this war is going to be invoked over and over again, then let’s actually look at it. How does it begin? What happened in what order?” And more pointedly: whence came the disastrous doctrines of exemplary war, strategic starvation, bombing and indiscriminate abuse of civilians, that persist in our own long war on Iraq? Baker’s format invites you to put Human Smoke down, annotate it, and keep picking it up. I for one cannot get its arguments out of my head.