Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The tongue is a rhyming fool. It wants to rhyme because that’s how it stores what it knows. It’s got a detailed checklist of muscle moves for every consonant and vowel and diphthong and fricative and flap and plosive. Pull, relax, twitch, curl, touch.... Rhyme taught us to talk.

I came into The Anthologist with a chip on my shoulder. The only other book I’ve read of Baker’s is The Fermata, which was awful. I’ve been reading reviews of his newest book, House of Holes, and it sounds equally stupid. But, on the other hand, I read about The Anthologist years ago, before I knew who Baker was, and was fascinated by its central conceit: that a man, hired to write an introduction for a poetry anthology, would be unable to write it without digressing over and over again. This was before I read Pale Fire, or heard of Tristam Shandy, but the idea still held appeal. Plus, it was short.

So I am happy and somewhat surprised to say that I really enjoyed this book, even though my mental comparison to Pale Fire was way off. Where the latter is a chess puzzle, The Anthologist is a diary (unsurprising) and a light, enjoyable primer on poetry (unexpected). There is a story here, about the titular anthologist and part-time poet, Paul, pining for his long-time girlfriend, Roz, who left him over his inability to finish the introduction, but while it’s the primary narrative spring, the gears that turn around it are more interesting. What’s effective though, is how the relationship narrative actually lends weight to the technical talk surrounding it. It feels surprisingly organic, and even though the writing isn’t amazing, it is sometimes funny and never embarrassing.

This might seem like damning with faint praise, but I don’t see it that way. The Anthologist feels like a beach read for the serious reader, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I still don’t think I’m going to be picking up House of Holes.

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