Nicholson Baker's 'Traveling Sprinkler': the hissing of ordinary life
It's nearly impossible not to be charmed by Baker's passion for words
September 15, 2013 4:00 AM
"Mr. Baker's gift for conveying subtle shifts in feelings and relationships is more powerful than other novelists' dependence on external circumstances and events."
By Raina Lipsitz
Nicholson Baker's utterly charming new novel, "Traveling Sprinkler," is discursive, quirky and consistently engaging. Most recently the author of the near-pornographic "House of Holes: A Book of Raunch," as well as about a dozen other books of fiction and nonfiction, Mr. Baker is perhaps best-known as a purveyor of a unique brand of gentle, funny, cheerful smut, often involving time travel and other superhuman capabilities. "Traveling Sprinkler" is more realistic and less ribald, but it is every bit as earnest, sweet-natured and warmly optimistic.
By Nicholson Baker Blue Rider Press ($26.95).
With not much in the way of a plot, it continues to narrate the life of poet Paul Chowder, the center of Mr. Baker's 2009 novel "The Anthologist." Our hero drives around New Hampshire thinking about the world -- and, in no particular order, about U.S. foreign policy, Debussy, Obama, John Turturro, Chopin, Paul McCartney, and his ex-girlfriend, Roz -- while working on a book of poetry.
A sudden competing creative urge to make music distracts him from his poem writing, and he starts writing songs instead. He takes care of his neighbor's chickens while she's away and collaborates with her teenage son on a musical composition. He calls up his editor to chat about potential book titles (his editor is unenthusiastic about "Misery Hat," his first suggestion). Paul takes up cigar smoking and attempts to take up the guitar. His barn collapses. Roz announces that she needs surgery, and Paul visits her before and after.
The book's action, such as it is, mirrors everyday life: There are bright spots and dark spots and nothing much happens in between. Even the book's most dramatic events, the barn collapse and Roz's surgery, are not exactly watershed moments: the damage to the barn is covered by insurance and, by the novel's end, Roz is well on her way to a relatively comfortable and unremarkable physical recovery (although she is altered emotionally).
It's the characters' emotional shifts rather than life events that generate enough dramatic tension to hold the reader's interest. Although the daily lives of the characters don't change much, their psychological landscapes are constantly evolving.
Mr. Baker's gift for conveying subtle shifts in feelings and relationships is, in its quiet way, more powerful than other novelists' dependence on external circumstances and events to drive the narrative forward. Paul Chowder is most deeply affected by ordinary, contemplative moments: reading a poem or an article, listening to the sound of a barking deer in his backyard, reflecting on a fellow worshipper's remarks at the Quaker services he attends, or walking his dog, Smacko.
The book's title derives from a series of metaphors its poetry-minded protagonist builds around his traveling sprinkler, a "heavy metal slow-motion techno-dance-trance device" with a firm grip on his imagination. "The hose water flows at full pressure into the tractor's anus, or rectum," Mr. Baker writes, "Up through the tractor the water goes and out the little holes at the end of the spinning whirlies, flying in a glittering bagel of sinusoidal shapes out over the garden."
Most authors would leave it at that, but Mr. Baker goes on for another paragraph and a half (a style that marked his 1988 debut, "The Mezzanine," which detailed in highly digressive, ornately descriptive prose a young man's thoughts during his lunch hour).
The book is peppered with similarly elaborate descriptions of music, books, movies and food. Mr. Baker's infatuation with words is contagious, and it's nearly impossible not to be charmed by his passion for combining them in playful, unexpected ways.
"Traveling Sprinkler" is less a novel than a series of anecdotes and digressions, interrupted at regular intervals by self-consciously high-flown depictions of ordinary objects, brief, resonant characterizations and endearing moments of emotional candor ("I want it all to seem easier for me than it is").
Mr. Baker's idiosyncrasies -- his penchant for mixed metaphors, his wistful, whimsical take on sex, his moral outrage over U.S.-ordered drone strikes -- make it an unmitigated pleasure to read, especially for those with similar worldviews.
His characters struggle with grief, regret and existential angst, but they are happy, lucky, warm-hearted people -- and we are eager to remain in their company for as long as their author will let us.