Thursday, December 1, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 1, Lucy Schiller, The Air and the Larynx: on Nicholson Baker

How are you supposed to write an essay on Nicholson Baker—which, you remind yourself, you elected to do in the first place—when you feel too tired and airless to enact the obvious tricks? If you were to write an essay on Nicholson Baker, you’d start catching yourself writing like Thomas Bernhard, and nip that in the bud. Wrong guy, but related somehow. No self-referential stuff, no clauses like he said, I thought. Just stop already. No footnotes, no spiraling digressions. You can’t really pull off what Baker pulls off, though you are convinced that one reason he’s so good is that most people do really kind of think in the ways he writes, maybe to a lesser extent than he does, but really, they do notice things like the quality of particular types of sunlight and the grosgrain of ribbon, unless, unfortunately, they don’t. More and more, you (I) have been meeting more and more people who seem not to really notice these things, and you/I wonder if you/I are even becoming one yourself/myself. If the pandemic has been one long smooth-seeming ribbon, we are the grain in that smooth-seeming ribbon. Our little daily rituals and lives compose it, and sometimes it just feels difficult to be so aware of that fact, all the time. Just like Nicholson Baker wrote his first book, The Mezzanine, about someone hyper-aware of the grain of his lunchtime walk, and has continued to populate his fiction and nonfiction with a similar awareness to, even fixation on, detail. Except that it’s not simple detail but the perception of detail that seems to interest him. A very essayistic thing, the act of choosing and conveying detail being as important as the details themselves. The act of looking or inquiring into detail as the main engine of the work, even the meaning of the work, alongside whatever details get uncovered. Baseless, for example, is a book about government secrecy and filing FOIA requests and building narrative from piecemeal information as much as it is answering the question of whether or not the U.S. used biological weapons during the Korean War. Double Fold is literally a book about the sorrow and injustice of losing the ability to encounter historical details thanks to library administrators’ policy of “destroying to preserve”—demolishing reams of old newspaper, sometimes badly digitized, in order to supposedly save space. “Reading Aloud” is an essay about the act of reading an essay aloud, and you can listen to Baker himself read the essay about reading the essay aloud at a James Joyce conference, slipping and missing in a few places, making you wonder if the reading itself is, you know, meta, even though it’s obviously not. (The New Yorker, where that essay was originally published, summarizes the personal essay in third-person on its paywall page, stripping, as I see it, the Baker magic from the details he reports. It makes for abrupt summary. “This was writer’s first reading, several years ago,” reads the New Yorker summary. “Tells how he began to sob at the description of a woman enclosing a breakfast muffin in bakery tissue. Tells how he managed to regain himself. Since that afternoon in 1989, he’s read aloud from his writing a number of times, and each time he’s shown a little more self-control. Describes his tactile feelings for his layrnx [sic].”) In Vox, fiction, notorious, lovely, and slim, a character of Baker’s traces his penis with a pen on a piece of paper, finding that it’s better and more erotic and, by the way, slightly more enlarged that way than if he were to photocopy it (though that’s also partially because he’d have to write “70% reduction” on the photocopy). Perception or conveyance, yes, just as or more important than dismembered fact.

Today, many of the days feel like the other ones and the cozy embrace of routine doesn’t really entice anymore, probably because there’s little break from it. Fact can feel flat, and there’s only so much looking at yourself you can do. It’s not bad to look at yourself, necessarily, of course, but I do increasingly wonder if it is a limited way of writing, particularly now. Here’s what I’ve been feeling like—like language is increasingly being boiled down to larynxes, the air of an essay deemed unnecessary in the cold, plain light of the Internet and the pandemic and routine and the feeling of impending doom. I had to eventually move the mirror out of my office, actually, because in between sentences I was glancing at it, not for any reason other than to glance at something new, but what I was seeing wasn’t particularly new at all, which is basically the same reason I would like to get off of Twitter and Instagram, would like to dive back into real reading again, not this shallow flitting kind, but the deep kind, about which Nicholson Baker has so much to say. He wrote a six-part essay on the history of the word “Lumber,” for God’s sake. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve become hopelessly tired of thinking about myself, and the idea of revealing or examining myself in writing doesn’t really appeal anymore, and yet the whole reason I love Nicholson Baker—or one of them—is that his style cannot help but reveal his particular mind. I happen to very much admire that mind. I wonder: is there a way to look at your mind in the mirror? Oh yeah: writing an essay, ideally. (I almost just wrote “writing. Lol.”) Is there a difference between sharing your own mind and sharing the rest of yourself on the page—the former is what I think Nicholson Baker is good at, and yet I, as a writer, have been tempted many a time to take the latter as a proxy of, or shortcut to, the former. Particular experiences I’ve had, in other words, instead of the ways in which I call them back and think through them. This is why I’ve sometimes avoided the personal, sticking instead to things external to myself, which, through arrangement and artful writing, you can maybe find a bit of air. Baker has a great essay, by the way, on large versus small thoughts, and seems in one way or another to always be mapping his own intellectual activity, even and especially when he is writing about things outside of his own experience (see: the highly formal collage of Human Smoke, which assembles a history of the lead-up to the second World War, assembled by a pacifist’s brain).

Some more questions: can I just say “I like Nicholson Baker” and leave it at that? No, because this essay is the intellectual proof of engagement with that fact, an attempt to breathe air back into the larynx croaking out those four words. Does this particular writer inspire his acolytes to build, as Leon Wieseltier once uncharitably wrote of Baker’s book Checkpoint, “creepy hermeneutical toys,” but ours are about Baker and his work, like he is the sun to our tulips, his constructions the ones we start to fixate on amidst the otherwise oatmeal days? What is it about Baker’s work that forces his admirers to sometimes talk endlessly of themselves—not always to bad effect (see B & Me, by J.C. Hallman, aping Baker’s U & I, his own chronicle of his literary relationship to John Updike)? Actually, I have always hated cascades of questions inside essays—the questions never really get answered, and I think they’re a way of gesturing at inquiry rather than actually inquiring—and so, instead of asking, I will posit that we love Baker and imitate him within an inch of our lives because the force of his attention works on ours, widening our apertures as we read him, as if we are reading a manual of how to remember to look, really look, at the world, its secrets, its particularities which build into bigger truths. If we allow ourselves to be carried along by him, he inflates us right back to where we want to be: avid and unexpectedly thoughtful, in a world that does not seem to want us to be these things. And we sing again, or can.

This is the thing about Baker, at least to me—although I am reluctant to spend too much time on myself, despite having written an essay, at this point, all about me—is that he fixes me. Patches me up. Sends me back on my way. So far, the medicine has been bottomless. I have read him over and over again for this reason. Regardless of topic or detail, he reminds me of the human importance of the act of inquiry. It sounds basic, and it is, and that is why I relish the reminders, or, just as often, relish watching him inquire. He is my reminder; he reminds me why I write and from what spirit to go about it. I come back to myself. And right now, a few days before Thanksgiving, I am sitting at a cheap little desk in the third floor of the rental house I share with my boyfriend, staring out of the window into a bright sky, where four separate jets are ripping through the air, each leaving a cold chalky trail. Now they’re going this way, now they’re going the other. Two seem to be about to collide. Again, I notice. I’ve been watching for thirty minutes, off and on. This scene would happen with or without me, but the frame of the window, and my position in front of it, is what causes the sight to be arresting (to me), and strange. Even worth wondering about. What a lovely thing, when tired of oneself, and when tired of the world, to watch a mind you love continue to streak and wiggle through it.


Lucy Schiller is a writer based in Pittsburgh, where she's at work on a forthcoming nonfiction book. You can find more of her writing at

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