Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Right Book, Right Time

Book Reviewed:  The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

Every once in a great while, a book swoops in and saves your life.  Okay, maybe it's not quite that dramatic.  But occasionally, a book does come along at just the right time and makes life marginally more bearable.  This is exactly what happened when my friend Evan lent me Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist last week.

I've been complaining a lot about contemporary poetry lately.  Here I am, studying the art and craft of poetry, and it's doing nothing for me.  I love writing poetry, and I love reading it even more.  But the second people start talking about contemporary poetry, I want to crawl into a hole and die.  It's such a loaded topic.  All these super-smart, artsy types constantly asking you what you read (a question I have grown to hate from the bottom of my soul), and then looking at you with disdain when they don't like your answer.  Poetry has suddenly become exhausting.  So a couple weeks ago, I came very close to throwing in the towel.  I forgot what it was that drew me to poetry in the first place.

Then Evan brought up Nicholson Baker one night and told me he thought The Anthologist would be just the thing.  It had been so long since I'd read for fun that I jumped at the novel at once.  Woohoo, contemporary fiction!  I was giddy with the idea (which, I realize now, is a sign of my own pathetic behavior earlier in the semester).  In a lot of ways, I had built hopes far too high for this book to satisfy.  Luckily, it started right out of the gate running on all cylinders, beating these ridiculous expectations.

I honestly could not have read a better book at a better time.  The Anthologist hit home in a way that was refreshing without being depressing, a rare balance to strike.  It's entertaining enough to be fun, smart enough to be enlightening.  The novel is told from the point of view of Paul Chowder, a mildly-successful free-verse poet.  Chowder has been trying to write an introduction to an anthology of rhyming poems, and he just can't do it.  Distracted by the end of his relationship with a woman he really loved, distracted by his own frustration over poetry, he just can't get his life together.  As the book goes on, and Chowder's spilled-out monologues about poetry become more and more discursive, it's hard to imagine it's ever going to get better for this poor bastard.  Of course, Baker knows what he's doing, and the ending hit all the right notes.

There are so many great moments in this book.  The discussions on what good poetry is, for starters.  The ghost of Theodore Roethke wandering down the street.  The way Chowder keeps injuring himself over and over again.  The lovely final sentences.  The unassuming quality of the prose itself. 

Paul Chowder isn't always likable, and it's easy to accuse him of trying too hard to revert to an old poetry world that can never be regained.  But I didn't care about any of this when I was reading the book.  I just want to read Chowder's thoughts on poets and poems for the rest of my life.  Make no mistake; this is a book best enjoyed by only the nerdiest lovers of traditional poetry out there (aka, me).  But it's also a novel about a man coming to terms with himself.  It's not all pretty phrases and well-planned meter.  Sometimes poetry and life are both about the messy stuff, about cutting your finger while slicing bread, about crying in the middle of a packed room. 

It's ridiculous to say that a Nicholson Baker novel made me believe in poetry again.  But we can't always pick the things that mean something to us.  When I was eight years old, an older cousin gave me Judy Blume's Superfudge and turned me into a reader.  Superfudge seemed like it was written for me and me only.  It's that feeling that made me a writer in the first place.  It's nice to have another book remind me of this seventeen years later.  Sometimes it just takes the right book, that and the right person to drop it into your hands. 

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