Lifting Up The Madonna

Nicholson Baker discusses the public trials of writing about sex and the private joy of writing on rubber spatulas with a ballpoint pen.

Published March 23, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Nicholson Baker gained notoriety and numerous fans with his inventive erotic novels "Vox" -- transcribing a deliriously imaginative phone sex marathon -- and "The Fermata" -- the tale of an office worker who can stop time and uses his powers to undress women. Baker's most fervent literary admirers, however, swear by his first novel, "The Mezzanine," which takes place on an escalator, and "U and I," a book-length essay detailing the author's obsessive admiration for John Updike. His new book of essays, "The Size of Thoughts," collects pieces written for The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker and an original, 150-page examination of the history of the word "lumber" in English poetry. On topics ranging from toenail clippers, to the death of the library card catalog, to the the literal size of thoughts ("most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product"), these writings showcase Baker's signature style: dazzling descriptive powers married to a passionate enthusiasm for the neglected flotsam and jetsam of everyday life.

The lanky, bespectacled author spoke with SALON in his Berkeley, California office, where he happily pursues whatever thoughts happen to cross his mind amid photos of his wife and two children, and (despite his disclaimers) conditions of only moderate disorder.

Have you always been drawn to minutiae?

Oh, yes. I have that problem. When I was working on perspective in art class, the drawings that I would do would be of the wall socket, but vast and worked out right from wall's eye view, and diminishing. And it is kind of hard to draw the little holes in the plug in perspective, if you're at a very rakish angle. I've always liked to inspect lichens at close range. I don't know what caused that cast of thought.

At the same time, I would write in my notebooks about all these ambitions of writing enormous books, huge subjects for novels, but the only time I actually felt pleasure writing was when I had turned the lens a little bit and was focusing on something carefully and was able to revolve it in my mind. It's not automatic, I don't feel as if I'm a description machine cranking myself slowly in one direction, fixing on something, spitting out a description of it, and then moving on to the next thing. What it feels like is that, instead, I have some pressing point I want to make about the coils of a toaster.

Do you feel that these objects are not getting their due, or might be lost, like the milk bottles you write about in "The Mezzanine"?

I do seem to be attracted to things I think are unsung. Or, if I'm writing about literary figures, I prefer to write about the guy Alexander Pope copied from, rather than celebrating Pope, since he has plenty of people making a fuss over him. I'm still by nature a contrarian. There's all this excitement about online search engines and therefore it really is time to take a close look at the card catalog and find the ways in which it does certain things better. Then you start to feel a little perverse and think that the sung things are really so sung that they've become unsung and therefore my job to is to celebrate the over familiar. You can get yourself kind of knotted up over what is commonplace and what is forgotten, what is neglected and what is too familiar.

Finding the things that people haven't talked about and then talking about them is what writers and poets have always done. There are just different routes to doing it. I guess I felt that I had more chance to say new things about the escalator than to say new things about the chrysanthemum because the escalator has been around for a shorter period of time. Although it's mighty exciting when you can come up with something new about the chrysanthemum. Then you're up there with the Big Boys.

In "Rarity," you write about how great it is to write with a ball-point pen on rubber and then feel that by writing about it, you've somehow cheapened the experience.

That was a serious problem for me. I felt I had all these little private discoveries. Of course they weren't. They were discoveries that every fairly normal human being makes -- for instance, that it is very satisfying to write on the blade of a Rubbermaid
or the little door seals on a refrigerator with a ball-point pen, especially when you're talking on the telephone. But once you've written about it, it becomes part of the common currency, the vernacular, and it's no longer a private joy. I hoarded all these things up, observations that I'd made and typed out, that I'd thought about, and didn't want to give away. But then, we had a baby, and I quit my job and I had to write a book. Naturally I turned to this little bank of observations and produced "The Mezzanine," and decided that the whole idea of keeping things rare would simply not work for me as a writer because I'd never make a living.

Not with so many secrets.

No. So since then I've tried to tell as many secrets as I possibly could and get them out there, in bulk, to the reading public.

Do you ever worry about running out of them?

Well, there are all different kinds of them, different emotional flavors. I went through that little sex phase, you know. There were lots of big secrets there. And it felt like a big enough subject that there were lots of subsidiary things that, as I was writing them, felt a little under-talked-about. But then again, I don't want anyone else to write about sex. That's how sick I am. I would like to tell these little things and then have it be the final statement. Nobody ever again would write about sex because I'd written these two books. But it doesn't really work that way, does it?

Especially since your way of looking at sex is just your way.

Ah, but that was the question. In the case of writing on a rubber spatula, I can write that and someone can say, "Oh, yeah, I enjoy that, too," and I can think I'm a normal person and part of humankind having the same meditative, idle thoughts that everyone else has. With "Vox" and "The Fermata", it hasn't been quite so clear, especially with "The Fermata". Half the people who read it just hated me. So I didn't have quite the same feeling of being part of the chortling mass of humanity.

With "The Fermata" I also felt I was writing the textbook of my private method. What I was trying to do as a novelist was to cause interruptions in time that were long enough to do justice to whatever piece of the world was before me. To think about it, to find out where it was funny and beautiful and then to put it on the page. That takes a lot of time. When you're writing and things are going well and you're thinking about something hard, it really does feel as if the rest of the world is in a state of suspension. It was a novelistic fantasy. But somewhere along the line, it also became important to me to be true to my own early use for this fantasy, which dates from the fourth grade and which was definitely sexual. I thought of stopping the fourth grade class and taking off my clothes and taking off the teacher's clothes.

It's bewildering to write about sex because you get this chorus of horrified people who say, "What has he done, what has happened to our little Baker who used to write about the earplug and now he's writing these 'grisly sex scenes,'" which was a phrase from a review. Especially in England. It's interesting to watch reviewers. You can see them on the page thinking, "How can we really put his eye out? How can we hit him so hard that he bleeds from the spleen? I know how we can do it, we can say that it seemed as if his early books were interesting, but really they were symptomatic of a mental deviation that now is clear with 'The Fermata.' We can say not only that 'The Fermata' stinks, but that it invalidates all of his earlier work." Maybe it was in part because the book sold really quite well there and was number one on the bestseller list. It seemed to cause a sort of teeth-clenched hate over there.

So I had this shocked, disgusted reaction on the one hand, especially with "The Fermata." Then, on the other hand there are all these cool people around, who are pierced like crazy and say "Oh, tame, tame." And I think, Gee I've done my best not to be tame. This is as untame as I can be. I am just not temperamentally into things that are considered now trendily untame. Any sort of violence or simulated violence or anything like that is an automatic turn-off to my imagination. Much as I would have liked to deliver what would be taken as a shocking book by the really cool San Franciscans who know about these things, I can't do it.

Was the shocked reaction stronger than you anticipated?

I don't see it as all that shocking a book. I can see that the guy is doing some seriously objectionable things. "Vox" was very nice because they're both talking and can stop talking at any time, a consenting situation. "The Fermata" is about a sneaky guy who goes around taking women's clothes off without asking them. Obviously, that is a regrettable thing for him to be doing and he should not do that. But is this something that has crossed people's minds? It turns out that it is.

Did the reaction to the book cause problems with your social relationships?

I really don't like talking about sex at a dinner party in a yo-ho-ho way. Having published two books that are fairly dirty, I find there's a funny thing that happens, especially with men. They think, "Nick Baker is one of those horny guys who likes to talk about sex, so I'm going to tell sex stories." The conversation suddenly becomes sexualized and everybody's kind of squinting, and waving their arms around and thinking "Let's not be here." And it's all Nick Baker's fault. But I don't want any of that to happen because I want it all to happen in the book, while the reader is in a state of receptive, imaginative sympathy with the character, or maybe horrified fascination, but somehow on his or her own and able to think about it in private.

What about your family?

With "The Fermata," there was a moan of unhappiness from some family members. . .well, notably from my mother, when it became clear that there was going to be another book that she wasn't going to be able to read. That makes sense. Do you as a parent really want to know all that about your kid? No. Margaret, my wife, liked "Vox," so I thought I was OK there, then I tried out the idea of "The Fermata" on her and she said, "No, that's a terrible idea and it doesn't do a thing for me." So immediately it became an "underappreciated idea" and I could think to myself that I would give it the treatment of all treatments and even Margaret who thinks it's extremely unpromising will see how truly great it is as a subject for a novel. And it almost worked. But she still sometimes gets pissed off at me when we start talking about "The Fermata."

As for the reviewers, in a way, you want to get all these people off your back. I know there are all these expectations, I feel them, about what kind of book I'm going to write. If you write a book like "The Fermata," you confound everyone's expectations and then you don't have to worry about them anymore and you can just get on with it. I can write about anything. If I want to spend 150 pages writing about the words "lumber" and "lumber room," I can. Because I've written about the Royal Welsh Fusilier vibrator. I've done the vibrator jokes.

You've earned your lumber.

Yes. I'm now prepared to do any kind of fierce, pseudo-scholarly thing that might appeal to me. It's all part of a master plan.

For a shy person, you've written about a lot of embarrassing things.

A lot of shy people do that. I didn't tour for the hardcover of "The Fermata" because I didn't want to go around reading this thing that would upset people. I did tour when the paperback came out because I figured that anything that was going to happen had already happened. I found that getting up in front of people -- and it's not like I haven't done readings before -- I would not just blush, but turn a kind of mahogany color. I could feel myself radiating this massive blushing force into the room. By nature I'm the sort of person who's going to blush. When you write a novel, of course the page is black and white. There is no change of color. Maybe with the newer novel on screen, as we got to the dirtier passage, the background could kind of shade to suit it.

Some of the stuff in "U and I" is more embarrassing than the sex material.

You mean with me trying to do things with Updike?

Yes, fantasizing about golfing with him and how you would act.

I know. There were times writing "U and I" when I would say, this is really shameful, a part of me I don't really want the world to know about. I'd have to push my fingers to type the word. But without that feeling that you're getting yourself into some kind of difficulty, or creating some bit of turmoil and drama in your writing life, writing does lose a little bit of its zing. I thought, I'm really, really embarrassing myself here. This is really very, very humiliating material. And it was quite exciting to be getting into it.

You seem passionately concerned that writers acknowledge their influences.

Writers have always had a serious problem in their ability to thank the people who have helped them. My whole book on Updike was an attempt not to do that. Updike is obviously the model of what one can be as an American writer. He's a totemic figure. Every little guy like me has to be constantly doing this measuring process and comparing. When an interviewer asks you what was important to you when you were learning how to write, what were the texts, you're tempted to come up with people like Henry de Montherlant or the Brothers Goncourt. You don't want to say John Updike because he's commonplace and familiar and it's not exciting. It felt excitingly provocative to write a book about commonplace, familiar John Updike.

There's a lot of sneaking that goes on and has always gone on. Not plagiarism, but just a lot of quiet imitation. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation is a kind of theft. And any writer who is thoroughly imitated does not feel flattered. It feels as if some hard-won area of one's own style has been devalued by being overused.

But you can't know for sure that the other writer has gotten it from you.

You never know if you're really being neurotic and paranoid and pathetically protective of whatever it is you've come up with, or whether you've got a genuine grievance. And of course it isn't a genuine grievance because once an idea, or a way of talking about the world, is out there, it's out there, available to anyone. The great enterprise of literature doesn't move forward unless each writer profits from all the different tiny discoveries made by all of his or her predecessors. What do I want to do, actually stop the process of literature?

But you do in some way.

Yes. Writers would admit to this, I think, that they would like to have their ideas tagged, like some rare species of heron, and be able to watch them traveling around the world and say, "I knew it, I knew&nbspthat bastard read me!"

So you think it's a common feeling?

There was a characteristic thing that happened with Martin Amis. He interviewed me for "Vox." It was such a strange experience. I liked him -- such a funny, smart, self-contained man. I'm reminded of this because the first thing he did -- and he writes about this in his piece -- was he pointed out that he had used a certain coinage for masturbation first, in his book, "London Fields." He said, "I used the world 'strum' in that book." I said, "I am so&nbspsorry. I would not have used the word 'strum' in any sort of masturbatory context if I had known you'd used it in 'London Fields.'" Then we got together after the piece had come out and he said, "You know, I went through 'London Fields' and I couldn't find strum," but he already had claimed he'd used it first in the piece.

It's really a little thing. Having reached this ancient age of 39, I now know that a book lives or dies based on some mystical quality that it has as a whole book and whether I was first with "strum" or not will not really be the defining thing whereby "London Fields" or "Vox" lives or dies.

The unpleasant, distracting feeling of wanting to protect your ideas is dumb and contemptible. Still, it's one of the unfortunate emotions that comes with any attempt to say something new. Either it doesn't turn out to be new, or it does and you feel that you aren't given credit. That's pathetic. I've gotten lots of good reviews. I'm in good shape. It's just that occasionally. . . That's why it's important to keep in mind what size various thoughts are. The jealousy and ambition thoughts are small in the undesirable way, not small in the beautiful way where we can open up their petals and find all the interesting things within them.

In "Lumber," you follow a chain of thoughts and cross-references in a random way that most of us are familiar with, but you really kick over the traces. I'm wondering if you ever find writing with this nonstructure a bit scary?

It's the only structure I have, really. The only plot I find satisfying is: what previous thoughtlet led to a mental climate that would potentially give rise to another minor thought? I don't have another way of proceeding, so it doesn't feel uncomfortable at all. It probably should, but it simply feels like the only way to go.

Do you find yourself obsessing about things or getting sidetracked in your real life?

Not really. I could be wrong, but I think I'm basically a pretty standard person. The only thing I have that is nonstandard is that mentally, in parallel to whatever idle thought I'm having about, say, food service trays and whether X food service tray is made of recycled plastic, or fiberglass or virgin plastic, is some other part of me that's saying, "Let's just bracket that and find what piece of it might be interesting, make the cut and be worth putting on the page." It doesn't feel obsessive, it just feels as if along with the normal idle thoughts that most people have, I also have a secondary recording function.

You seem comfortable with technology, although a bit skeptical about it, in "Lumber."

What I tried to do in "Lumber" was measure myself against four threatening, silver disks, the $40,000 English Poetry Database by Chadwyck-Healey, the greatest CD-ROM reference work yet created. I as a human scholar was going to see if I could find some uses of the word "lumber" that preceded Alexander Pope's use of it. It was the old John Henry thing, the steam engine vs. the steel drivin' man. I was going to race the English Poetry Database to see who would find the antecedents to Pope's use of "Learned Lumber" first. And of course the English Poetry Database won, except that I did find a use by John Ozell in a forgotten translation of Boileau's "Le Lutrin" because I went to the Bancroft Library's rare book room and ordered up this book published in 1708 and read it.

I've always liked hunting through concordances and dictionaries -- those old-fashioned ways of searching. The process of searching has a long and distinguished history. I like it that often the only way to find something is to go the old camel caravan route of the paper search, but combining it with some new odd citation that you found using Web Crawler.

Why "lumber"?

It's one of those unprepossessing words that turns out to have hidden reservoirs of meaning -- for instance, the fact that it originally had to do not with wood but with pawn shops. Therefore, all the accumulation I'd come up with of instances of the word "lumber" were my own creation of a huge storehouse of disused property, a kind of personal pawnshop of articles loaned to me by poets. I would create a lumber room of my own in the old sense of a place where people have left their unused things. It's always been a word that I've loved. I've had my eye on this word for ten years. It only reached the point of thinking that I should write about it when I felt the threat of the English Poetry Database as competing with my little phrase-pile. Then there was enough drama there. A pitiful amount, but enough for me to begin the pursuit in earnest.

Lumber, the stuff you store away that's no use, is also the virgin stuff to the writer, the stuff that's most crying out to be written about. You're never sure if you're in the lumber room or the central spotlight. Or maybe the central place for the writer is the lumber room. In any given paragraph I never know if I've crossed the line and am writing about something that's so hideously familiar that it should be relegated to the lumber room or whether it's just shockingly fresh and this is the perfect time to be writing about it.

I also thought that by celebrating the earlier masters of the search that I was finding people who were in the dark and giving them a little moment. The guy who wrote the first concordance of Pope, the concordancer to Dryden who had amassed 220,000 cards with one line of Dryden's poetry on each of them and then died before he could make the concordance. That all seemed like a trip into a human lumber room, bringing out people who were unjustly neglected. They're not part of literary history, they're just people who have made "finding aids." In the same way, the librarians who make card catalogs are not thought of as worthy of historical appreciation because all they did was make the means by which you would find the books and therefore all their own intellectual labors -- and they were mostly women -- are still slighted.

They're like the people who work in the power plant so that you can have electricity to run your computers.

Instead of doing yet another article on the folks at Intel who are coming up with the next chip, why not do an article about the people coming up with some minor improvement in the production line that makes the fingernail clipper, which is a mature product that everyone uses? Nobody has really celebrated the folks who are working on that.

That reminds me of a sentence in "The Size of Thoughts": "Major truths, like benevolent madonnas, are sustained aloft by dozens of busy, cheerful angels of detail." That seems like a philosophy of yours.

Yes. While I was writing that about the madonna I was thinking about one of those magic-trick books that my father had which showed it was possible to lift a person if ten people each put two fingers under a part of the person's anatomy, and exert a gentle upward pressure. It's my feeling that society stops working if our sense of gratitude is overly concentrated in only two or three areas. Lots of good things are going on. Lots of people are lifting up the madonna.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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