Travelling Sprinkler, by Nicholson Baker, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£8.99/Blue Rider Press, RRP$26.95, 304 pages
There is no such concept as information overload for Nicholson Baker. The Maine-based writer believes in hoarding all of it, even down to the tiniest, most evanescent mote of data. He has campaigned against Wikipedia’s policy of deleting “non-notable” entries (“I had become an ‘inclusionist’ ”) and fought to save old newspapers from being destroyed by libraries digitising their collections. Everything matters.
Moving freely between fiction, memoir and essays, he is a singular writer, a genial humorist in the Garrison Keillor mode but also a scholarly miniaturist like Jorge Luis Borges. Published in 1988, his first novel The Mezzanine was a rarity amid the sprawling Tom Wolfe blockbusters and Salman Rushdie magical realist fantasies of the time. The story, such as it was, centred on the thoughts in an office worker’s mind during his lunch break. The writing was highly elegant but also digressive and obsessively detailed.
Others followed in the same vein. U and I: A True Story was a 1991 memoir about his fascination with John Updike. The 2003 novel A Box of Matches was about a man lighting a fire at the same time each morning. There have been some surprisingly rude excursions into erotica, such as House of Holes (2011), a set of short stories about a sex resort. But the kinkiness wasn’t such an abrupt departure. After all, people getting to know each others’ bodies is a form of information sharing too.
Travelling Sprinkler is Baker’s latest expert dissection of everyday life. It is a novel about a not particularly successful 55-year-old poet, Paul Chowder, who is struggling to deal with the sagging disappointments of middle age, a condition exacerbated by regret at the break-up of his relationship with a woman with whom he lived for eight years.
We have met the nutritiously named Chowder before. He is the protagonist of The Anthologist (2009), an account of the events leading to the relationship’s collapse, which opens with the words: “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” His efforts continue in Travelling Sprinkler.
Set in New Hampshire and narrated by Chowder, the novel is encyclopedic in scope, covering subjects ranging from US foreign policy to sexual memories to the best type of pasta for eating with pesto (cellentani). Various obsessions – Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral”, the bassoon, poetry – crop up repeatedly, grace notes in Chowder’s song of discontent. Whatever enters his mind is set down, like the lines from a Keats poem that he remembers reading years ago as a music student while eating a tuna sub in the college cafeteria: “When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.”
These teeming details are brilliantly gleaned by Baker from his character’s thoughts. Yet the storyline is deliberately mundane. Chowder addresses his feelings of dissatisfaction by taking up music and smoking cigars. He quits drink and goes to the gym in an attempt to get rid of an emerging potbelly. He tries to write a poem about a travelling sprinkler, a nourishing mechanical object that holds a special significance for him. Distressed by CIA drone warfare, he wants to write a protest song. But what he really wants is his ex-girlfriend Roz back.
Chowder is a homely American version of Nabokov’s insanely erudite Russian poets, chatty and intellectually omnivorous (“I have so much in my head that’s screaming to get out”). The comedy is gentle: Baker is a comic writer in the widest sense, an optimist who wants to believe in happy endings. However, the world Chowder inhabits is not so gentle.
A despairing note runs through the novel, the fear that the US is going to ruin and nothing can be done about it. Hence Chowder’s anger at his unwilling implication in the drone attacks, bloodshed committed “with our missiles, our taxes, our Air Force, our targeters, our elected government”. Yet beneath the pessimism lies a deeper belief in the essential goodness of the world, manifested in acts of what Chowder calls “lovingkindness”, the spur for his dogged efforts at self-betterment: “I want to improve myself in a dozen ways.”
The way his mind jumps illustrates the lack of commitment that he suspects lies at the root of his problems. But a web of connections emerges in these scattershot thought processes, brought together by Baker with symphonic skill.
Finding links between seemingly different things acquires a moral dimension. “Maybe doing better is somehow finding a way to make people’s imaginations work better,” Chowder wonders, contrasting such empathy with the “preprogrammed”, “guilt-free” world of robotic warfare. He holds up Paul McCartney’s Beatles track “Blackbird” as an example, a “perfect and simple” song about a songbird flying “into the light of the dark black night”. The same mix of technical mastery and irresistible sentimentality make Travelling Sprinkler fly too.