SOUTH BERWICK, MAINE — For a private writer, Nicholson Baker has caused his share of flaps. Wasn't it his novel "Vox" that Monica Lewinsky gave to President Clinton? Didn't his article "Discards" point the finger at librarians who threw away card catalogs and back issues of newspapers? What about his last book, "Human Smoke," which portrayed FDR and Churchill as warmongers? Just this summer, from the Quaker farmhouse here where he lives with his family, he wrote a piece about the Kindle that has had many readers screaming, "Luddite!" Just goes to show: You can take the literary anecdote out of the man, but you can't take the man out of the literary anecdote.
Which brings us to his new book, "The Anthologist" (Simon & Schuster: 244 pp., $25), a novel inside a novel, a life within a life. Baker doesn't even try to pretend that "The Anthologist" isn't autobiographical. "This is the barn where I wrote the novel," he says, echoing his main character, Paul Chowder. "This is where I put the white chair in the river," or "This is where I hurt my finger carrying the computer," or "Mary Oliver once saved my life." All straight from the novel; barely any heavy lifting.
And yet, and yet. Baker is not Paul Chowder, for Chowder is in the thick of a crisis. He's a poet in America in the beginning of the 21st century, problem one. His girlfriend has just left him, mainly because he's a pathological procrastinator. His one potential source of income, the introduction to a poetry anthology, eludes him day after endless day. But boy, does he love poetry. The novel is a course in meter, rhyme, inspiration; some well-known poets, some lesser known.
Miles over 6 feet tall, Baker, 51, threads through the doorways of his farmhouse, a corgi at his feet, his face marked with quiet despair at the prospect of talking about himself for many hours. The house is old; one room with an enormous fireplace dates to 1740. Baker will use a room to write a book, then decamp to another room for his next book, leaving behind the papers and ephemera from the last. He has an office but prefers writing "in places that are not my office. You don't need much. It's just vanity, really," he says, referring to some people's need for extreme quiet and a view of the ocean. "It's just fake. It has nothing to do with the writing." After 11 books, he's running out of room. But the barn is big and, besides, he and his family have lived here for only 11 years, so he didn't write all the books in Maine.
Baker's first story, "The Trombone Player," about a boy who could shatter glass by playing, appeared in 1981 in the New Yorker. (Veronica Geng accepted it and Roger Angell edited it — what a way to start.) His next, "Snorkeling," was about an executive who hires drones to sleep for him. After a brief interlude as a financial analyst-stockbroker on Wall Street ("I sold one stock to my ex-bassoon teacher"), he started writing full time. He has always been a defender of the unsung in literature, the discarded, the small, subtle idea. "If I had to pick one thing that all my books are about," he once told a reporter, "it's that a single human being can think about a lot of things."
Like all writers, he stands on the shoulders of his predecessors. Chowder's inside-out brain may or may not have existed without James Joyce's "Ulysses." Chowder himself is not unlike Updike's Rabbit or Roth's Zuckerman — the alter ego — although Baker says he has no intention of writing a sequel. He likes Chowder mainly because Chowder, as a poet, gave his creator license to say anything, which Baker finds liberating. So maybe he'll change his mind about the sequel, but so far, no plans.
Much of Baker's fascination with the small and exquisite, he says, came from his father, a graphic designer in Rochester, N.Y. "He'd find things on the street," Baker remembers, "furniture, bits of stone, old cornices, and stow them away. He had the ability to get excited about things no one else cared about, things that had gone through a phase of neglect, that often put him ahead of his time. He started, for example, collecting Stickley furniture before anyone cared about it."
Baker's character Chowder is a human embodiment of this unsung detritus: His time has passed. He's moody and uncertain but, like poetry, slippery when analyzed. The novel is written in first person, real time. But there is something at stake, as there is in all of Baker's books, the faintest hint of a warning: Will the English language perish? If we cannot reinvigorate our sense of music and rhythm, we will lose it.
Chowder, like Baker, is fascinated by the lost beat, the fifth beat in a language that traditionally only recognizes the four-beat line, the classic rhythm in poetry, the common stanza. The fifth beat, of course, is the pause, the rest; without it, there's no music. "I want people to hear that lost beat," Baker says, as close as he gets to proselytizing. "That is my secret purpose."
Baker has taught very little over the years, usually master classes. "The difficult thing is giving them something they can use," he sighs. Chowder, on the other hand, is full of tips: "Start by asking yourself, 'What was the best moment of your day,' he tells his students. 'Write down every real story you hear in a twenty-four hour period.' " Baker would rather teach nonfiction, because that way he doesn't have to talk about style. And yet, he remains a consummate stylist, in many ways the granddaddy (let's say Melville and Twain are the great-granddaddies) of the carefully researched digression, a la David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers or Geoff Dyer.
"I grew up writing poetry with meter and rhyme," Baker recalls. "This is not good for one's career. We've gone through this phase of childish experimentation when it comes to poetry. Now we're having to relearn those finer things, things Tennyson and Swinburne knew at 14." It's not that he dismisses free verse entirely. So many poets he loves — Louise Bogan, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver — write in free verse. "I want them to be subversive and they can't be if the orthodoxy is free verse," Baker says, in a characteristic jitterbug with history. Clearly, his ideas for "The Anthologist" have been marinating for a long time.
And what about South Berwick? It is not a lobster tourist town. There's nary a tchotchke on Main Street; no snow globes with lighthouses, no yellow-capped fisherman figurines. No mini-malls; not much distraction. "This place is extremely normal," Baker says. "Most people are driving around, buying chickens." Writing this novel, he would set up a video camera and record himself talking Chowder-talk. He'd have a beer, practice his iambic pentameter. Sometimes, exhausted, he'd go to bed at 7.
Years ago, Baker used to talk on occasion about competing with Updike (his 1991 book "U and I" traces this imagined relationship) and Nabokov. "Whatever race I was in I have lost," he says now, with characteristic self-deprecation but also with a measure of relief. "I have set aside the question of greatness. And anyway, it's reassuring to know that Nabokov was willing to write about butterflies again and again. Certain writers speak so perfectly to a time."
Every so often, Baker will attend a Quaker meeting in Dover, N.H. There's a lot of silence and thoughts will occur to him that otherwise wouldn't. He finds the history of the Quakers appealing — their stand against slavery, their pacifism. This makes sense: the lost beat, the forgotten detail.
Baker is a hybrid of past and future. His style has a meditative echo, like a man in a cave walking toward a light on the other end. In person, he seems ever so slightly lost, deferential, thoughtful and unassuming. On paper, in his essays and his fiction, he knows exactly where he is.