Thursday, July 23, 1998

Q&A Nicholson Baker: Multiplexing

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Nicholson Baker:

For now, though, the CVS pharmacy is closer to the center of life than, say, Crate & Barrel or Pier 1, or restaurants, national parks, airports, research triangles, the lobbies of office buildings, or banks. Those places are the novels of the period, while CVS is its diary.
      “The Mezzanine” (1986)

HB: Why is, your new book, “The Everlasting Story of Nory” (1998) set in England?

NB: Well, we happened to be in England. My wife and I have always liked England. I suppose we’re primitive Anglophiles.

HB: How does “primitive” modify “Anglophile”?

NB: You can be a sophisticated Anglophile and say, what I really like is a certain view of the downs, I never go to stately homes. We wanted to go to stately homes.

I also went with the knowledge that I had to write a book, and wanted it to be a book about my own daughter. Even though the story is necessarily in the third person, because children don’t dictate novels, it has to be true to how she would sort and filter things.

HB: There’s always been a child-likeness to the observations or points of view in your work. So there was a logic to your writing directly through a child’s eyes in “The Everlasting Story of Nory”.

NB: In the case of “The Mezzanine”, the guy’s on the verge of a being a grown-up in some ways. He’s figuring out what it feels like to be able to shoot your cuffs and tie your tie. I wanted to keep some of that buoyancy and childish excitement about the lunch hour; that kind of feeling would be underneath the whole book. It’s not about alienation at all, but about what fun it is have an errand, a shoelace errand.

HB: There is no alienation in your books. There’s an absence of darkness. I want to throw in the word “exuberance” here.

NB: Yeah, well, exuberance. That was one of the things I had on my door at college. Blake and I wouldn’t necessarily have a lot to say to each other but I had “Exuberance is beauty” on my dorm door the first year at Haverford, as well as E. M. Forster’s “Most of life is so boring that there’s nothing to be said about it, and the books and talks that would describe it are obliged to exaggerate it in the hope of justifying their own existence.” Which it seemed to me was untrue but interesting.

HB: I can see why you found both of them interesting, especially the second. Some people -- I’m thinking of Jim Jarmusch in film, for instance -- are artists of monotony. Jarmusch fine tunes monotony and finds the humor in it. I think one of your raw materials is monotony. You tease tedium.

NB: I recalibrate, I hope, the scale of drama. I may hone in on an ostensibly tedious patch, and attempt to catalogue the things I find in there. When it works I have the illusion it isn’t tedious any more. The thing that’s wrong with “Passage to India” is the caves. The thing that’s beautiful is the description of colonial life. When things go wrong, I feel that Forster’s writing about things he doesn’t really know about.

The best chance I have of writing something interestingly true is if I stick to the little square of wall-to-wall carpeting that’s right near me.

HB: You deal with what other novelists ignore. It’s what they pass over that you are concerned with.

NB: That’s simply the way it comes out. When I was writing “The Mezzanine” I had in mind a larger set of events, catastrophes, things that were bigger and newsworthy. As I got there I felt it was pleasant, it was more interesting, really, to describe the errand.

HB: There is a series of photographs you may know that show a person, then a patch of skin on the person, then the patch of skin magnified -- hair follicles, pores -- then further on into the pores and down to the molecular level. That seems not unlike the process in your books.

NB: The thing that’s missing from that sequence of photographs is the mind at play. My father subscribed to Photo Magazine and Popular Photography, and I was going to be the texture man; I had a big fantasy of being a photographer of texture. But the photograph just records. You just catch the lichen. I like the lichen but I’m not getting all of the way my mind can travel around the lichen. The only thing that can do that, the only way that you can guide the eye, include humor and oddity, and make links between other textures and human reality, is through the novel. It’s dead on the page unless you have the Dickensianness of observation.

HB: And then there are the footnotes. I showed “The Mezzanine” to a friend who looked at all those footnotes running down the page and ended up literally keeling over backwards in her chair laughing .

NB: I’ll take that. Now there’s a book about the history of the footnote, which was so painful for me to find out about. This guy’s much more learned than I am; he’s not a pseudo-scholar; he’s a real scholar.

HB: And there’s Eliot and “The Wasteland”.

NB: His footnotes, it seemed to me, injured “The Wasteland.” I remember him saying, “The entire passage is worth quoting here.” Colon. And then he quotes the whole thing from Ovid. Whatever soaring qualities “The Wasteland” has -- I’ve never been as much of an Eliot fan as some but I can see that it has those moments -- are not fostered by the footnotes.

I remember thinking about it when I read the end of Proust. I never read the middle of Proust. I could try to blow a lot of smoke at you, as the card dealers say, but I’ve read the beginning of Proust, skipped all the books in the middle, and read the end of Proust, “The Past Recaptured,” that one. And because he was dying, and had much more to say, he wrote drafts and would interpolate these passages, which his editors then published as footnotes. But I didn’t know that. I thought he deliberately chose to include them as footnotes.

HB: That was a model for you?

NB: That and, actually, lots of writers. It started with Walter Scott. He had more antiquarian knowledge than he could ever stuff into his novels, even through he stuffed lots into them very clumsily. There was always more, so his novels are decorated with footnotes. The 19th century novel throughout has little clarifying things. And then there are the more modern writers like Flann O’Brien in “The Third Policeman,” who has interesting footnotes.

HB: But do any use footnotes quite the way you do, as a counter-novel? It’s hard to know with you which is the real novel, the novel or the footnotes.

NB: That’s what I want. When I was writing the book, back in ‘87, there was a lot of chat about hypertext. I thought we’ve always had hypertext, footnotes are the poor man’s hypertext. It’s a way of being in the middle of the sentence, taking that railway switch down to the bottom of the page, having an alternative experience, and returning to the sentence in progress, time having elapsed, but the sentence doesn’t know that.

HB: The footnotes in “The Mezzanine” are a precursor to “The Fermata” (1994). They’re a way of stopping things.

NB: When I was writing “The Mezzanine” I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to stop this syntactical process, this complicated flow of images, and include a little separate alternative world, a secret. “The Fermata” turns that into a larger premise. Wouldn’t it be nice, while we were in the middle of this interview, if we could turn off the tape of the world?

HB: Fermaticizing the conversation.

NB: I’ve always wanted to do that, especially when I was temping. The company I worked for south of Boston, back in ‘87, Codex, made modems but they also made multiplexor, which are . . .

HB: Big insects.

NB: . . . big deadly insects. No, they’re ways of getting lots of streams of stuff on a single line, and the way they do it is by switching very quickly back and forth.

HB: Time-slicing.

NB: Time-slicing, yeah. I was supposed to write a manual for a piece of software that oversaw populations of multiplexors, all of them time-slicing. I got interested in the history of the multiplexor. Turns out the telegraph had time-slicing. One of Edison’s inventions was the multiplexed telegraph receiver and dispatcher.

HB: And this tweaked your imagination?

NB: You mean in “The Fermata”?

HB: And in general. It seems like you have a desire to stop things and magnify things, which are versions of the same thing, right? Magnifying things is what you do with space, stopping things what you do with time, but they are kind of equivalent.

NB: Exactly. There have been several phases of microscopic shock that the culture has had to absorb. One was in the 17th century, Hook, when they suddenly had these beautiful drawings of fleas, and the flea took up an entire page. Then we had electron microscopy, where you’re not going to stop at the hair follicle but are going to cross the chasm nearly to the molecular level, where you see things shimmering.

You can do the same thing with social reality, seems to me. When I was living here in Boston, often I would spend a day at work and go home and type a whole conversation. The conversation disclosed secret areas of interest that I hadn’t seen when I was just listening.

HB: In “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin talks about to cinema as a surgical knife applied to reality. You now have twenty-four, or whatever, frames a second, which open things up, and which are equivalent, in some sense, to you typing the conversation and seeing what’s there.

NB: To which, though, I would say that I am always aware that I am in competition with film, that the novelist has to do what he does better than any film can do it, so if the film offers surgical cordoning off of reality, the novelist delivering it up has to be a waiter, if you will, saying, here is what you’ll want to know about this reality

HB: I want to throw Joyce in with regard stopping time. “Ulysses” is a reference point for that -- one day, 24 hours, however many hundreds of pages. I’d say the difference is that at the same time as he’s giving you 24 hours, he’s giving you human history, because he’s got mythology thrown in to connect it all up. You don’t. You expand a certain amount of time and space -- minus mythological overlay.

NB: I don’t want to say anything blasphemous about Joyce but it seemed to me a retroactive thing, a trip that he came up with later on. He was a guy who loved listening to people, and coming up with metaphors, and he loved the surface of what he was writing, the observation of the moment. I think a third or maybe two-thirds of the way through he said, well, let’s pump up this mythical voyage aspect and then I’ll be able to recycle some of my Stephen Hero material.

HB: He could not have proceeded to given you eight hundred pages about twenty-fours minus mythological overlay in the early part of the 20th century, could he? I mean, there had to be a higher ambition.

NB: Poor guy. He was born too early.

HB: Both “Vox” and “Ulysses” end with masturbation. In “Vox” it’s slightly post-orgasmic, whereas Molly is in the midst.

NB: Before I was a typist temp I was a light industrial temp, and there was nothing to do. I would fall asleep with my head down on “Ulysses”, then the freight elevator would open, and I’d sit up. I had this huge mark on my forehead. It’s a long book, and I never did finish “Ulysses”. When I was writing “Vox” I knew there’s this scene, this monologue at the end, and all these sexual images and it ends, “Yes, I will yes.” That’s now a phrase that people use all the time. So I was conscious that I was part of a tradition.

HB: What’s novel about “Vox” is you that you’ve caught onto technology, the technology of phone.

NB: Although, there’s computer sex, certainly.

HB: But there was phone sex before there was computer sex.

NB: I’m generally interested in mature technology. Phone seemed to have more depth.

HB: As a reader of yours, let me object. I think you’re attracted to technologies that have just been displaced. You have a nostalgia for the last second, as in nostalgia for card catalogs. Your essay on the movie projector in “The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber” tipped me off:the projector is yesterday’s technology.

NB: I grew up with the excitement of dialing a certain number on the old dial phones that would trick the phone into ringing itself. There were all these tricks I mastered as a kid and I naturally regret their being replaced, in the same way I look around Boston and see buildings torn down that were landmarks to me, even though they weren’t necessarily beautiful. So that’s why I have nostalgia for the minute before the current one.

Also, why write historical novels if you have this still fading penumbra of knowledge of finger nail clippers or projectors or of Jiffy Pop or something that we actually have a chance of understanding because we lived with it? Why write about galleons and pirates and cannons going off, or Civil War enactments? It’s a futile effort. I’m sure people do it badly or well but essentially it’s hopeless. But there is some hope in interviewing a guy who really understands projectors.

HB: What interested you in writing about phone sex?

NB: I think it grew out of this exasperation with sex scenes in literary novels that didn’t get it, that always relied on inherited vocabulary and quickly reached for descriptions of the penile/vaginal act. My own adolescent experience is about lengthening the ramp.

It seemed to me important, in “Vox”, to have a book that was all lead-up, that was entirely ramp. The characters would only reach the top of the ramp at the end. Johnson said something like, “the triumph of human intellect is not from triumph to triumph but from hope to hope.” I think if you’re going to write with real conviction about sex, it’s possible you’re going to have to have it be all hope.

HB: That doesn’t explain the fact that in “The Fermata” only the odd sex act involves touch.

NB: We live in this phase in which ten thousand dirty movies are made every year. That’s just an astonishing number of sex scenes; it’s just changed things completely. It’s a level of acceleration, a sex bubble, it’s like a tulip mania of sex.

I have to first acknowledge there are all these dirty movies, and that’s what I did in “Vox”. But then I also have to write about areas of sex that are interesting to me, which rules out cruelty and S & M.

HB: You allude to S & M in “Vox”, when you have that guy cleaning her bathroom and obviously wanting to do more in that vein.

NB: I thought that was funny. Jesus, the frantic use of the rescue pad. HEH HEH.

I have always liked cleaning the bathtub. Not as a sexual act but simply because it’s one of those things. Porcelain. You know, you could do a lot with that.

HB: Cleaning the bathtub.

NB: It’s as natural as breathing. And I try to write about things that feel uncolonized. In “The Fermata” there’s this one big scene in which a couple is having a conversation through a hotel doorway. In real life that might not be a fulfilling moment for a couple but it just seemed funny to me to have the chain make that kung king vibrating sound. It hits everything that I like; we’ve got these crappy little hotel chains that just dangle there.

Normally, the only way that chain could make it into a novel would be in a murder mystery, right? If you have a dead body, you have to figure out who could get in there, all that crap. Dead bodies are what normally elevate commonplace objects to the level of fiction. Since I have no interest in dead bodies, I have to fit objects in other ways.

HB: I’m tempted to make the heavy sociological point that Nicholson Baker is the novelist of an era in which lots of sex doesn’t involve touch, in which touch sex is only one of many forms of sex. But I would be wrong. I didn’t realize that scene was really about the damn door chain. The chain was the star of the scene, the sex merely background.

NB: Yes, it clearly was. But I don’t mind. I mean, if you want to say that I am the guy who writes about all the kinds of sex that don’t involve touch, I will accept that. I mean, I’m pleased that you would say that, as long as there’s also an admission that I have other books, that sex is only one subject.

HB: Of course. I happen to love “The Fermata”. It’s my personal favorite. Some people, such as The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani, flipped about “The Fermata” as if it were smut. And I think the thing you managed to do there was maintain a kind of gentleness and innocence.

NB: That in particular, the notion that the main character justified himself as a nice guy appreciating women who might otherwise be overlooked, was one of the things that most infuriated people.

HB: You have a woman at the end of the book who practices a fermata of her own.

NB: She says I’ll just take a trip down to Washington and stop time and suck the Presidential etcetera.

HB: And then Monica Lewinsky bought “Vox”.

NB: Women do not buy “The Fermata”. No, that’s not true. A small percentage of women do.

For a while I thought it had destroyed my career, that people weren’t going to cut me any slack. They weren’t going to forgive me; they weren’t going to be able to read any later books in a sympathetic state of mind because they hated that book.

HB: I find that outrage outrageous.

NB: I guess it’s nice that outrage is still possible. Outrage is not possible in the case, say, of Lawrence Sanders, long descriptions of contusions, killings, descriptions that just go on and on as a matter of course.

HB: I wonder whether “The Everlasting Story of Nory” is a kind of compensation for “The Fermata”, a return to innocent terrain.

NB: “The Fermata” was a book I’ve been accumulating notes about for a long time. It was a very heartfelt book in a strange way. But once you write a book, it collapses back into its pre-natal self. And you go on to the next burning thing you want to write about. In my case the next burning thing was about acts of retrieval, and I did that “Lumber” essay. It just seemed desperately important.

But the long term effect of being reviewed is that I don’t want to be in the business of being a writer. It’s like those dogs, you begin to anticipate the buzzer, the shock, the electric shock at the end of the given book, as you begin it. There are often good reviews, and I’m, of course, pleased to get them but they’ve found in every study of industrial psychology that you remember the bad things, you don’t remember the good things. So now, when I write a book, I instantly imagine the different bad reviews. I can see them growing, popping up like little virus warnings, Norton virus warnings on your laptop.

In “The Everlasting Story of Nory” I wrote Nory’s analysis of Shakespeare, that it was too long and extremely boring. I knew, writing that, that a reviewer would eventually take out “too long and extremely boring” and apply it to the book. I kept the phrase because it made sense; I wanted this lovable sensibility caught before I forgot my own daughter’s way of thinking. I even coined a word. I don’t know if you’ll want to use this word, and I won’t even say it.

HB: You coined a few words in “The Everlasting Story of Nory”. The one I wouldn’t mind someone removing from my head is “refusion.”

NB: That was a real one, too. But the word that describes the book is “daughto-biography.” It’s a book about my daughter. It’s so strangely personal, it’s a photograph, it’s the moment you catch yourself in the mirror when you’re having a certain kind of thought, thinking life is worth living.

Hey, I know, because I’ve talked to you, that you don’t like this book as much as you like the other books. I accept that. I don’t even want you to react to it. It doesn’t matter. It’s just the best book I will ever write and I can die happy now. And you don’t have to say a word.

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