“A Box of Matches” by Nicholson Baker

From the master of minutiae comes a novel that transforms belly-button lint and bars of soap into touching and hilarious mediations on time and life.

Topics: Books,

If no one’s done it before, I would like to nominate Nicholson Baker for the title of Grand Pooh-bah of the High Art of Navel Gazing. And believe me, I mean that as a true honorific. No one gets more out of his own navel — and head and life and ever-evolving sense of time and space — than Baker. Witness this passage from his new book, “A Box of Matches,” in which the narrator dedicates many hours to contemplating the illumination — in both its true and metaphoric forms — provided by a series of early morning hearth fires:

“While I stretched … my hand strayed under my pajama top and my middle finger found its way to my belly button where it discovered some lint. I rolled the lint into a tube, as one does, and having done so, I became curious about what such a tube would look like if it burned. I tossed it into one of the spaces between the coals. It went orange for a moment, fattened, and then darkened. It is still there now but it will be lost when I stir the coals.”

Interesting observation, to be sure. But in Baker’s hands that navel lint takes on a deeper meaning. Immediately following this passage, Baker’s narrator, Emmett, a medical textbook editor with a wife, two kids, a cat, a duck and a sudden urge to get up around 5 each morning before work, strike a match to a few logs and jot down his “fire-thoughts” before his family sets to stirring, moves on to the subject of death, a favorite. One soon realizes that the series of fires is a metaphor for, among other things, the unrelenting passage of time; the limits of perception (or lack thereof); the human search for warmth and love, for predictability and discovery, and for some sense of our own purpose, meaning and lasting impact.

About that last part, Baker is not very optimistic, as he reveals upon his return to belly-button lint later in the book:

“The ungraspableness of history, which can seem thrilling or frightening depending on your mood, can assert itself at any moment. I just found another small bedroll of lint in my automatic lint-accumulator and I tossed it into the fire; there was an almost imperceptible flare of differently colored fire — ah! lint fire — and it was gone. That is part of why I like looking at these burning logs: they seem like years of life to me. All the particulars are consumed and left as ash, but warm and life-giving as they burn.”

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“A Box of Matches” is all about observing life with fresh-morning eyes in new light — intense as a flash of fire or the glare when a refrigerator door is opened in the darkness or pale as the moon or the green glow from a smoke detector — and seeking out its deeper truths. Much can apparently be gleaned from the adjustments we make to locate easily a bar of soap in a hotel shower (we adapt, we find unusual ways to navigate foreign terrain) or the tricks we use to get ourselves to sleep — in Emmett’s case, the apparently soothing contemplation of his own imagined suicide, perhaps one way of asserting control over death’s frustratingly inevitable unpredictability.

To be sure, as Baker fans and foes might expect, this book, despite its label, is more poetry or fictionalized memoir — each chapter begins with a chirpy “Good morning” and a notation about time (4:53 a.m., 5:25 a.m. …) — than novel or even novella, light as it is on plot, conflict or character development beyond Emmett himself.

But though we don’t really get much of a story in the conventional sense, if we surrender to Baker, we get not only all sorts of new Bakerian insights about life’s minutiae, but also the ability to find such insights on our own. The bits and pieces of our own lives seem suddenly sharply illuminated as if by the flare of a match — and then deeper truths are revealed in the softer glow of the evolving flame’s embers.

And who knew that belly-button lint could lend so much texture — small and fleeting though it may be — to life’s fire?

Our next pick: A troubled psychiatrist sleeps with a young patient and ponders the secret buried in his parents’ past

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