Tuesday, October 8, 2013

book review: travelling sprinkler: a novel by nicholson baker

i adore nicholson baker's writing voice and i really feel i can give no higher compliment than this: quite often it is how a writer's voice resonates with me that makes or breaks a novel for me; no matter what craft it might otherwise hold. my first encounter with it came when i read the dry observations of the mezzanine and then later i was alarmed, allured and amused by two of his smuttier works, the fermata and house of holes, and was pleased but not awed by the paul chowder novel previous to this, the anthologist. still, each time i was simultaneously stimulated and comforted by that voice. and then came the travelling sprinkler, his latest and arguably best novel.

karen alerted me to the fact that this was on net galley so i downloaded it. but then she kindly put a print arc in my hands (the hardcover doesn't come out until september) and i was really excited because it stood to reason that i would enjoy it too -- because of the whole voice thing.

what i didn't realize was that i was about to read what has become my favourite nicholson baker book thus far. in true "i love this" fashion, i read it twice through. and while i know the book is about paul chowder, i couldn't help but feel when reading the travelling sprinkler, that i had really spent a few days visiting with him, but even more so with his author, in the same manner i would with an old and dear friend, who might ask "have you heard this one?" and pull up a video on youtube. there is, in fact, at least one url printed directly in the book, and i suspect that the enhanced ebook they're also publishing will have direct links to other content embedded within it, permissions clearance permitting.

despite this being a sequel of sorts to the anthologist, i don't think you have to have read that book to love this one; aside from a passing references to his flying spoon poems a new reader wouldn't get but doesn't really need to, the novel stands perfectly on its own.

so what happens here? paul chowder is a poet who decides he wants to write pop songs instead. or protest songs. or both. he's experimenting with tobacco and he's going to quaker meetings. he misses his old girlfriend roz and he tries to be a good neighbour. in the midst of this little slice of his life, he also writes a book about music: about the bassoon, and about debussy and his sunken cathedral; about victoria de los angeles and bachiana brasileira n┬║ 5, and also about guitars, and electronic keyboards, and seven hundred dollar microphones ordered from the B&H catalogue. and you might somewhat impatiently wait, as i did, for him to finally finish explaining about the travelling sprinkler. i was tempted to look it up on the interweb to see what it looked like but i restrained myself. i actually considered pasting a photo of travelling sprinkler into this review as i read the book because i was so impatient, so flummoxed by the trail of hose on the cover, but in the end found i was happier that i waited for it, waited for him.

paul digresses to us about the minute details of his thoughts and memories, of aspects of his life in that typical, tangential, signature nicholson baker way. but what's more, he reveals a gentle heart, an emotional depth that hasn't been apparent in the other baker novels that i have read, including its predecessor. and that's what really made the book surpass my expectations. and it felt like paul chowder had opened up to me, in a way he never had before, and that it was okay for him to try to take those rare moments of happiness for himself. and i could hear the smile in nicholson baker's writing voice and for a while, i smiled too. i guess i need to read it again. :) update one: it's also likely you'll want to check this out after reading the book: http://youtu.be/sPf5GZYzhJk update two: and now i'm crushing hard on nicholson baker. this is an amazing interview: http://www.theparisreview.org/intervi... and as it turns out, he wrote some protest songs and recorded them when he was working on this book. you can hear them at this new yorker link: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs... :)

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