Nicholson Baker’s Hypnotic Allure in “Traveling Sprinkler”
Nicholson Baker’s trademark wit, riffs, and meditations are there in his new novel. Ken Tucker on what it adds up to.
From Nicholson Baker, we expect the world. While many contemporary novelists are conversant in pop culture and the current state of baby boomer ennui, few are as attuned as Baker is to those subjects and more: to politics, religion, poetry, food, music, and nature. And so, in Traveling Sprinkler, we get typically thoughtful, often humorous, never snarky or ironic meditations on National Public Radio, Talking Heads, drone strikes, Theodore Dreiser, Quaker worship meetings, blackstrap molasses, Planet Fitness, The Philadelphia Story, Stravinsky, and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”: “you can hear that Marvin Gaye knew that this song, cowritten with an admiring journalist, was going to be an enormous hit, bigger than anything he’d done, even though his life was sliding downhill.”
Because its protagonist is the poet and editor Paul Chowder, Traveling Sprinkler is, technically, a sequel to Baker’s 2009 novel The Anthologist, the book that introduced Chowder, a deceptively diffident academic and constantly yearning for his ex-girlfriend Roz. Sprinkler finds a Chowder whose anthology, Only Rhyme, has done very well in sales for an academic tome, thank you very much, even as Roz remains genially but firmly resistant to his wooing. To distract himself from his romantic consternation—and, simultaneously, to aid his efforts in that area—Chowder takes up the guitar and starts writing songs: love songs, lonesome songs, angry songs, cheerful songs, danceable songs.
Just as The Anthologist used its premise for many Baker-ish meditations on the nature of rhyme, prosody, and evaluations of various poets, so does Chowder’s new hobby lend itself to Baker-ish meditations on the differences between poetry and song lyrics, and the ways in which pop music is as effective as higher art in conveying complexities of emotion. Chowder isn’t a fumbling amateur—before taking up the acoustic guitar, he was a skilled at the bassoon (a recurring lamentation here is the fact that he sold his excellent one many years previous) and a decent pianist. He’s enraptured by Bach and Bartok, but gets some of his biggest thrills from Paul Oakenfold's dance music.
As always with Baker, the many pages spent discussing the details of a protagonist’s activities and interests can take on a hypnotic allure: “I’m having problems writing lyrics. They’re either too simple, or too clever-clever, or too sexual. It’s reassuring to go back and listen to dance songs, because usually there are very few words. In one of Paul Oakenfold’s songs there are five words at the beginning, shouted by a television preacher: ‘I said praise the Lord!’ After a while there’s a recorded outgoing message from a woman from 976-4PRAYER. That’s it. It’s a good song. A good protest song.”
That reference to protest songs links up with Traveling Sprinkler’s gravest theme: Paul Chowder’s increasing interest in the faith and morality awakened in him in the silences at the Quaker meetings he attends, and his ordinary-citizen frustration with American foreign policy under President Obama.
I was amused to see that the author’s Wikipedia page—a site a man as Internet-engrossed as Baker is must have gazed at many times—describes the novelist’s work as “generally de-emphasiz[ing] narrative in favor of careful description and characterization.” This could not be more wrong-headed: Baker’s great achievement is to make description and characterization do the work of narration: Chowder’s guitar-playing; his musings on the lift in Paul McCartney’s voice during the refrain of the Beatle song “Blackbird”; his periodic circling back to the nagging notion he has that the CIA ought to be disbanded by presidential order immediately—all of this propels Traveling Sprinkler forward. Or perhaps I should say sends it spinning outward, spraying free-floating thoughts, ideas, and emotions in much the same way as the title garden tool: “The traveling sprinkler is a heavy metal slow-motion techno-dance-trance device with two white cast-iron toothed rear wheels that dig into the turf, and a sort of baton or helicopter blade on top that spins.” Believe me, Chowder/Baker is just getting started; anyone who has read the author’s meticulous meditations on sipping straws in The Mezzanine (1988) and the shape of a baby’s nostril in Room Temperature (1990) knows that Baker can write pages of transfixing details that end up revealing the emotional workings of his narrators.
In the case of Chowder and Traveling Sprinkler, we are made privy to the thoughts and feelings of an amiably melancholy middle-aged man, looking for love in old familiar places. Given that Baker produced an entire volume about his interest in John Updike (1991’s U and I: A True Story), one might be tempted to think of Chowder as Baker’s version of Rabbit Angstrom, without the angst. But Paul Chowder is very much a version of the man Baker has revealed himself to be in nonfiction work such as Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001) and Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008): a hard-working, soul-searching, well-mannered but passionate, peace-loving gentleman. The kind of guy who, by the end of Traveling Sprinkler, has written the lyrics to what looks like might be a very good pop song, if only we could hear the chords he’s strumming to accompany them.