Posted on NICHOLSON BAKER visit, January 2014 — introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor
“What Everyone Knows about Nick Baker”
Everyone knows that Nicholson Baker played the bassoon for many years, wanted to be a composer, and is still enraptured by Debussy’s “Cathedrale Engloutie.” His father taught him to stand on his hands—even on one hand—while listening to the entirety of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” As a boy growing up in a household without watches or clocks, his responsibility, on request, was to call the 1-800 number for the exact time. He traces to this chore and setting his finger for a free ride on the counterclockwise return of the rotary dial, his love of the telephone. We know, authoritatively, that in his youth Baker was prophesized to become an even a greater writer than his hero, John Updike. His mother told him so—plainly under his pressure. We know from his many books and, in national broadcast interview as well, that Nicholson Baker willingly talks about his grandfather, his mother, his father, his children and his sweetheart wife of a lifetime as if we were all welcome to know them and perhaps already do. Nick is a large man, who gets nose bleeds easily, wishes he didn’t need to wear a beard, and struggles with psoriasis. In the middle of the night, out of consideration for the possible contingency of his wife’s bare feet later on the bathroom tiles, he sits down on the toilet seat to urinate. We sense an encompassing privacy even when he is unavoidant of any detail of body, life or mind; in the rudest matters, he is incapable of vulgarity. He has written three erotic novels that are the most compelling rebuttal to original sin since Rousseau. One of those erotic novels, Fermata, is dedicated to his father, a perhaps historically unprecedented deed. Reading Nicholson Baker, we are aware that he will unflinchingly romance, under devoted scrutiny, a potato, a milk carton, or a flat screen computer monitor. To universal bewilderment, he has asserted in the New Yorker that Korean manufactured flat screen monitors could bring world peace. He knows that “human” means—if it means anything at all—no pushing. He knows, no less, (though I don’t think he would ever say or write it) that human history, regarded from most any angle, is a fathomless sea of blood. Pulling onto a busy highway in a Kia with faulty breaks, he feels marvelously enjoined with the whole of humanity. He has an active imagination. His tenderness originates in the perception that this is the only world we will ever have and that, what we do to each other, is in every instance, what we have indeed done to each other. The intentional excess of tenderness says, point blank, that we should all know this. He applied to Harvard University for a PhD in philosophy, and was turned down because he had only taken three philosophy classes, two of them in his first year of music school, a line of reasoning about which he later remarked, in modestly Socratic superlative: “What is that for a reason?” A close reader of his—to date—15 books might well observe that Nick Baker never ever mentions William Maxwell, whom I frankly prefer to John Updike. That these are just the very first words of all that we know about Nicholson Baker, and that any of his readers might go on and on, innumerably listing off all that we know about Nicholson Baker, seems to me a prodigious achievement; for those willing to turn the pages, as Wallace Stevens might have said, the light of his imagination constantly becomes a light in the many minds—and it is my good fortune to be able to thank him for that on the part of the many people who might wish to have the moment to thank him for his work.