wonderful, the Nicholson Baker I loved from The Mezzanine and U and I and Room Temperature seems to be back, cranky and at sea and procrastinating."/>
Working down my stack of Christmas books, I have finally completed The Anthologist. And after some digressions weird and wonderful, the Nicholson Baker I loved from The Mezzanine and U and I and Room Temperature (the book new parents should read, delicious boredom) seems to be back, cranky and at sea and procrastinating. Of course, his protagonist is not called Nicholson Baker but Paul Chowder, but what’s the difference? Nicholson and Paul and Nathaniel and Frederick are all on the New England sea captain baby name list I made up for myself. Like the real N.B. Paul Chowder is brilliant but filled with envy. He has a tendency to overshare to make up for it.
There’s no real need to review the book. If you can stand the sound of N.B.’s voice in your ear for days, as I can, you’ll love it. What interested me most about it was the use of the novel, and the memoir form, as pedagogy. This book is a lesson, a lesson about poetry no less, a possibly dying form, one that I am not usually interested in, one often set apart as requiring rarefied vocabulary and special branches of knowledge to understand. It is a topic very much like architecture, except for the not-interested part.
So I began to think, were I to try to write a novel explaining all about architecture, in the form of a not-so-successful architect’s diary as he attempts to put together an anthology of the work of his heroes, who would my Paul Chowder be? He could definitely be named Paul, or for variety, Peter, very popular with future-architect moms in the 1950s. He could definitely be from New England too, one of the towns outside Boston or New Haven to which the graduates of Harvard or Yale retreat.
He should be living in a house of his own design, but one old enough to be rotting in places and filled with examples of what he now sees as trendy thinking. Laminate. Sliding doors. One-inch ceramic tile grids. He should have a few old clients that keep trying to get him to do things for them. He’s put them off for 18 months already with his book project. He’s got stacks and stacks of monographs piled around the house from which he is trying to cull the story of modernism, or the key houses of the 20th century, or some such perennial.
He keeps getting stuck in the brambles of other architects’ biographies—was it really wife #2 that turned Ed Stone into Edward Durell, and on to decorative screens? And the slipperiness of language about architecture—should Brutalism even be used as a term? He has a theory about what really makes beautiful architecture, and it is more about rhythm and texture than glass or concrete. The last time he tried to explain it to a roomful of people he cried.
Some afternoons he turns back to making a table he started 15 years ago instead of writing. He thinks if he finishes the table his wife might come back. In finishing the table (and in finishing my hypothetical novel), of course, he will finally realize what it is that he has been trying to say.