It's no disrespect to Nicholson Baker to suggest that his new novel, "The Everlasting Story of Nory," comes as close as anything else in American literature to Mr. Rogers. If you can get past the layers of anti-Mr. Rogers sentiment that starts accumulating around the time you're 7 or 8 -- when you decide you're too cool to watch him -- and then continues with all the jokes and parodies you encounter as an adult, you might be able to remember what it was like to be 4 or 5 and have one adult who wasn't some asshole in a clown suit talk reasonably to you, tell you your fears didn't mean you were a baby. "The Everlasting Story of Nory" is dedicated to Baker's daughter Alice, "my informant," he calls her, and that dedication tells you everything you need to know. This story of a 9-year-old American girl's term at an English school seems intended both as a guide to help a child navigate a child's dilemmas and terrors and as new fodder for the quality that most characterizes Baker's writing -- his generous curiosity.
We can probably look forward to reviews claiming the book is a retreat from the sexual explicitness of "Vox" and "The Fermata," probably from the same critics who, when those books came out, cleared their throats, wagged their fingers and intoned that sexual fantasies and a cheerful celebration of the joys of pornography were not fitting subjects for "serious" writers. But in all of Baker's writing he seeks out the very texture of experience through the pleasures or irritations of expertly rendered minutiae. That's as true of this novel about a schoolgirl's interactions with her family, teachers and schoolmates as it is of Baker's forays into sex. The technical triumphs of his observations aren't empty flourishes; they always work back into the experiences of his characters.
Those flourishes run throughout "Nory," from his appropriation of a child's malapropisms ("pacific" for "specific," for example), to the rituals of exorcising a nightmare (or keeping one at bay), to the strangeness of encountering a schoolmate outside of school, to the politics of how kids treat the child designated to be the weirdo and the way kids treat the kids who decide to be nice to the outcast. See if this passage doesn't bring back a forgotten pleasure: "Not to mention that for the first time in a very long time Nory had a wonderful loose tooth. If she bent it past a certain position, she could feel the sharp edge of it that was usually hidden under the gums, and there was a distinct salty taste of blood in her mouth."
It's easy to see this book as the work of a writer who, re-encountering children's literature as a parent, sets out to pay homage to its deceptive simplicity, the effortlessness with which the best of it engages a reader. (In the last few years, when it's seemed like there's nothing to read, I've been saved by the kids' books I didn't get to as a kid: Francis Hodgson Burnett, C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, the wonderful "Moonfleet" by John Meade Falkner.) More's the pity that Baker has found so little narrative momentum, that the quality of the episodes are highly variable and that Nory, for all her exemplary behavior, remains a bit of a cipher. You could say the same of the character of Oliver Twist, but there's no grand narrative surrounding Nory. Baker has written a book of bits. What holds them together is the playful decency at the heart of his sense of rediscovery.