Friday, August 27, 2010

A Box of Matches

by Nicholson Baker

When you're in the mood for a quick, introspective novel after reading a gigantic, excessive non-fiction book, there's nobody better to turn to than Nicholson Baker.

A Box of Matches is a pretty typical Baker book.  Emmett, the narrator, gets up early every morning, makes a cup of coffee in the dark, and then lights a fire in his fireplace.  While he enjoys the fire, his mind wanders.  That's it, on the surface.  There is no plot.  Some stuff happens, like Emmett gets a cold, but the appeal of this book is the sameness of the chapter structure (each chapter opens with 'Good morning, it's _:__ a.m.').

What makes this book a novel, rather than a collection of writing exercises, is that our understanding of Emmett as a character accretes with each new section.  He has a wife, two children, a cat, and a duck.  The duck probably gets the largest chunk of the narrative devoted to it, aside from Emmett thinking about himself.  Baker has gifted his character with a very good life.

Of course, it's not hard to read a book like this without viewing the protagonist as a stand-in for the author.  Baker, like Emmett, is married with kids, has a thick beard, and an amazing ability to focus on the smallest things in life and imbue them with great significance.  This is Baker's greatest strength as an author, and I lost track of the number of times I smiled in recognition of something that, Proust-like, he digs up from memory.

What are some of these Bakersian topics?  The way thermometers feel in your mouth.  Picking up underwear with your feet.  The sideways flame that comes from a newly-lit match.  Peeing in the dark.  The feeling of washing dishes.  The list continues.

This is a quiet little novel, and it served as the perfect tonic for the lack of good fiction in my life lately.  Recommended.

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