Its unlikely title, awkward if also hilarious, has taken a couple of reviewers of the newest Nicholson Baker novel by surprise. Their disappointment at a book called, yes, clumsily, prosaically, weirdly, Traveling Sprinkler is to be understood and noted, but only if you (they) misunderstand the novel itself, and its protagonist, and the ambitions (all mostly fulfilled) of the sequel by the author of the earlier and much-acclaimed The Anthologist, inventor of nutty-wonderful character Paul Chowder, the minor American poet for whom it is nearly impossible to concentrate on one thing and why, friend would you want to?
I call this genre experiential whimsy meets documentarian meditation, but what do I know? I
do know that I just love the sentences in Baker's work, and that is enough for me. Reading Baker requires trust, a sense of humor, and a willingness to sit still through many sometimes seemingly self-indulgent encyclopedic recitations, explorations, summaries, all of which lead to the ecstatic and funny, sometimes breathtakingly.
Chowder himself is the Elwood P. Dowd of writers, a guy who like the pookah-befriending anti-hero kook of the classic and never-disappointing play and film Harvey by Mary Chase lives in the moment, responds with a seeming Taoist lack of discrimination, fails to conform, enters into or even provokes new situations just because they are there, or seem at the time like an okay idea, or as in the case of the cigar-smoking, for some kind of spiritual or creative self-goosing.
In what passes for the real world (God help us), by which we mean the constructed one of TV verity and sports and the hegemony of violence and coercion and religion, we are force-fed the false equivalencies of a limited vision, about politics, culture, faith, public policy. Don't get me started! Baker's prose, with its natural and engaging digressions, tiny meditations, fugue-state wonderment, detailed exuberance, seems to true up the balance sheet. If there is such a thing as true equivalencies, however weighted or handicapped toward humanity and the quiet moments of appreciation, his Paul Chowder is its goofy, charming missionary.
In no particular order, we find Paul trying to get back with his girlfriend, the patient if enduring Roz, being appalled by U.S. drone warfare murder of civilians, trying to write a pop song, thinking about Debussy, meditating on his bassoon playing career, smoking cigars because they seem to stimulate (and overstimulate) his creativity, attending Quaker meetings, narrating a pretend radio show in his head and in his car, working out at Planet Fitness, celebrating the continuing if modest sales of his book, riffing about all of the above, and more: canoes, electronic music-making, love, of course. And even more. Which is to stop and say, clearly, that (not to give anything too much away), the love deal is a big part of the book, and one of its most touching, nearly ecstatic themes. Go figure.
The whole traveling sprinkler extended (as in a hose) metaphor is typical of Baker and Chowder, both of whom cannot, will not leave well enough alone. A good thing. The pattern-seeking and pattern-making machine that is the mind, travels its path of imagination, sprays, even while it makes and retraces and doubles back. The actual machine (photo above) is such a laughable, dumb, brilliant little toy of a perfect invention, so self-conscious of itself that you could indeed imagine (if you are willing to go along with Baker) its philosophical possibilities, not to mention be charmed, fascinated just watching do its artful labor. And besides, love, there is still poetry. The metaphor is object again, clumsy and all too perfectly real, interrupting Paul's creativity, as it were, even as it inspires:
"The moment you mention it, it starts to twirl and his and spray water everywhere. It
becomes a controlling metaphor. There's no help for it, you're going to get wet." The object itself ("no ideas but in things") subverts or complicates the order and orderliness and order-making of the poem, the world.
One of Paul's imagined (not that maybe all of it isn't somehow imagined) order-makers is the "misery hat" he dreams up, a kind of empathy sensor which detects misery and suffering in any direction for five miles. I love the detail of the five miles, a kind of just-right measure of what somebody could endure, a quantification, a limit but also pretty ambitious depending on where you are, population density, like that.
Each of these powerful totems speaks to the "serious problem" Paul struggles with, which he calls "metaphorical interference." That's funny, and makes you want to put on your tin foil hat or call up your old girlfriend or write a poem. "...it''s when two or more strong metaphors are podcasting in the same room together and they mess with each other. They mix, but not necessarily in the very same sentence the way a classic mixed metaphor mixes." For more on the problem, see twirling and hissing and spraying water, above. Or consider the drone, not the song or the honeybee but the killing machine. And of course the whole wacky, sincere yet tongue-in-cheek broadcast of Paul's front-seat car radio show broadcast, with its faux authority and loving come-on:
Hello and welcome to the Paul Chowder Hour. I'm your host, and I hope by this time that I'm your friend, and I want you to know something. When you have me as a friend, you have somebody you can count on. If you need help, I'll be there. Like if you need me to help you dig in some bulbs, or water your tomatoes, or carry your groceries, or tend your chickens, I can do that. The only thing I can'd do is I can't call you up and be hearty and affectionate and cheerful if you're mortally ill. That I can't do. I've done it several times but I don't do a good job of it, because when I know somebody's dying it's just so sad and awful that I can't pretend that it's not.
Did I mention that Paul is turning fifty-five? And that he missed Roz, and that he is taking
stock of things large and small and can't seem to sometimes tell the difference? Or chooses not to? He is not a failure, but carries around a kind of vitality of disappointment or not-quite-satisfiedness. It is, of course, the telling which makes him complete, for however long the story, poem or, in this case, song lasts. Naturally, his songs are not so good. But he is so enthusiastic. See Dowd, Elwood P.
It is possible that we all live in a deadpan world of impossible symmetries and implausible possibilities, and that Nicholson Baker is the chronicler of our days spent in it. I think so. But I am definitely a Chowder-head. Because the writing is so good, so urgent, I am never still quite sure if being so lovingly put on is supposed to make me feel better or worse. I choose better. It seems like the fugue state, alternately messy and organized, can be lazy, too, luxuriant even as it is intense. That's what I mean about truer equivalencies. "Is it possible to write a song about the beginnings of the CIA?" Asking the question, trying to write the song, failing or not, seems to achieve the balance and true satisfaction of watching that sprinkler do its terrific work.
Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker, Blue Rider, 291 pgs., $26.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.