Paul Chowder, hero of “The Anthologist,’’ rides again in Nicholson Baker’s latest antic performance. Near the end of “Traveling Sprinkler,’’ Chowder (or Baker?) speaks of “this book, if it is in fact a book, and I think it is” by way of assuring readers that they have been reading a coherent narrative.
We need to be assured, since we have been bombarded with a bewildering variety of information: thoughts on playing the bassoon, on chewing and smoking tobacco, on attending Quaker meetings, on working out at Planet Fitness, on contemplating Debussy and Stravinsky, along with innumerable pop artists and songs. After delivering some harsh words about Pablo Picasso, Chowder confesses, “I’m a rogue mastodon who dismisses Picasso with an annoying wave of his trunk,” one of countless metaphors for what Paul is and how he operates.
As for the novel’s plot, if you could call it that, Paul wants to write a song and win back his girlfriend, Roz who, in “The Anthologist,’’ had abandoned him. Since then he has published his anthology of poems, “Only Rhyme,’’ the central mission of the last book. But he now feels distant from poetry and gravitates toward pop music and its accompanying technology — keyboards, earphones, Bose speakers, stereo microphones.
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That he eventually succeeds in writing the song and getting back his girl is not at all what we’re most engaged by. As for the traveling sprinkler, it isn’t until near the book’s end that Chowder lets us in on the nature of this ingenious, self-propelled instrument, “a heavy slow-motion, techno-dance-trance device” that he employs to water a neighbor’s tomatoes. It is also, as the title suggests, an image of how the novel works. At one point Chowder tells us he “feel[s] like a traveling sprinkler that’s gotten off the hose. I don’t know where I’m going.” Any objection to the randomness of the narrative has been anticipated and charmingly admitted by its narrator.
Baker’s last collection of essays was titled “How the World Works,’’ the immodest claim testifying to his omnivorous appetite for noticing things, from how wonderful small pieces of caramelized onion taste in a bagel, to ultimacies like the awfulness of drone warfare or the sea’s immensities. Samuel Johnson once chastised the Metaphysical poets for yoking together “the most heterogenous ideas,” but admitted that they did so with much “wit.” Since Baker is the wittiest of American novelists, readers may wonder, as Johnson did about the poets “by what perverseness of industry [his] thoughts were ever found.” Of countless instances in “Traveling Sprinkler,’’ there is the thought of Chowder “sitting in a treehouse reading William Cullen Bryant’s poem “A Hymn to the Sea” while smoking “a huge, nasty cigar from Federal Cigar.” The perverse yoking of the poet with nasty cigars is pure Chowderism.
The most satisfying yoking of thoughts, involves Baker’s musical knowledge, of which he has an impressive amount. Chowder is enthralled by a torrent of pop songs, recordings, and musicians (Radiohead, Tracy Chapman, the Weepies), and his rambling associations extend to classical music. Beginning with the bassoon he played until he sold it at age 20, we move on to the bassoon in Tennyson and Coleridge poems, then to the low E played by the instrument at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony, to Stravinsky’s use of it in “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring.”
From thinking about Stravinsky he moves back to Debussy (who thought about Stravinsky all the time), focusing on Debussy’s piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral,” written in C major. A brillant riff over three and one-half pages tells us what the prelude is “about,” at the end of which, Chowder wonders why Debussy chose the key of C major, one that he didn’t usually write in.
“He chose C major . . . because C is like water, clear and simple and bright and transparent, composed entirely of white keys, but if you hold down the pedal and play the clear white notes together in a certain way, the sound becomes blurred and pale blue and lost in haze, like a distant monument seen through water. He swam closer toward the cathedral, and its image became more clearly defined, with pounding, towering, unblurred C major chords, until he reached middle C or middle sea. That’s what “The Sunken Cathedral” is — it’s the piano of his whole life.’’
Here the book ceases to be merely clever, rising to a poetry that asks us to entertain, even be moved by Baker’s audacity and wonder at the way the world works.
William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is “What’s Been Happening to Jane Austen.’’