Nicholson Baker’s first three novels announced the arrival of a major talent. They were one-hundred-and-a-bit-page treats, interesting and clever and beautifully written. The Mezzanine was a close reading of a lunch hour, alive with detail and peppered with lovely footnotes; Room Temperature was warm and fuzzy and introspective; Vox was a bit rude, and Monica Lewinsky bought a copy of it for Bill Clinton, which was sexy in a particularly bookish kind of way. They were good days, good times, and the words flowed like wine. Then…
I don’t know. Things went awry. Perhaps the magic of Baker’s intricate reproductions of reality was reliant on being contained within books that were very short. As the books got longer they became flabby, they began to outstay their welcome. Baker’s prose is wonderful, and his observations on modern life are original and striking, but if a book is three hundred pages long then sooner or later something is going to have to happen. A navel is not the universe. A navel does not display a beauty that can be gazed upon for eternity.
Travelling Sprinkler is the story of Paul Chowder, a poet who no longer wants to write poetry. He wants to be a songwriter and he wants his girlfriend back.
And that’s it. That’s your whole book right there. Paul Chowder has neighbours and friends, his shed collapses, he buys a synthesiser, but there isn’t really anything you could call a plot. Travelling Sprinkler is all middle.
Nicholson Baker has written a novel that mirrors life; things happen, one after another, but nothing really adds up to anything; nothing matters. There is a nobility to searching for higher truths, to trying to portray existence, but there is a cost too: Travelling Sprinkler reads like a blog. A very well written, occasionally wonderful blog, but a blog nonetheless. In fact, Travelling Sprinkler is so like a blog that you wonder whether Baker just ripped a couple of hundred pages out of his diary and sent it to his agent. This suspicion isn’t lessened by Chowder’s worldview being so obviously like Baker’s. This is Nicholson Baker’s blog.
Now, the thing about blogs is, blogs are free; and the thing about Travelling Sprinkler is, Travelling Sprinkler is £8.99 in paperback. And there’s the rub: what are you getting for your tenner that you couldn’t get online for free? Baker does have a very good prose style, and some of Paul Chowder’s observations are great, but, you know, that £8.99 could get you the best part of meal at Nando’s (and if they have wi-fi you can read a blog while you are eating).
Any Cop?: There are great moments, and edited furiously this would almost certainly make a hundred page masterpiece to rank with Baker’s earlier works, but this is a bloated thing.