Sadly Paul Chowder only exists in Nicholson Baker’s latest novel 'The Anthologist', which was more like finding a soul-mate to me than finding a good read. Baker’s main characters tend to have obsessions which he follows with the attention to detail their own compulsions drive them to focus on. But Chowder is a little different to the anti-heroes of previous controversial novels who gained Baker a massive following by displaying the power to freeze women and remove their clothes, or showed us inside the minds of killers and other characters guaranteed to shock. Chowder has an addiction I could relate to: he’s a poet.
Could this be even more controversial? Are we really being asked to believe a publisher thinks a book could be marketed that concentrates on the workings of a mind that only seems to think about poetry? Was it always Baker’s devious plan to see how much we could take in his novels before assaulting us with his own true compulsion, the fanatical devotion of the poetic mind to the matters of writing and reading poetry?
Strange though it may seem, this unlikely novel will be out in summer and I certainly found it a page-turner. The plot revolves around Chowder, isolated in his house as his girlfriend Roz has quite understandably left him, trying to write the introduction to an anthology of poetry. He thinks Roz has left him because he spends the days singing along to music upstairs in his barn rather than getting down to the job of writing either the anthology or some poems of his own. Readers get the feeling her disappearance might have more to do with the fact that he can only think about poetry and his favourite women writers, particularly Mary Oliver and Sara Teasdale.
The novel opens with Chowder promising us that he will tell us everything he knows about poetry, all the tips and tricks. This is very titillating to poets or any readers who think they might find a way into understanding poetry by reading on. What follows is possibly the most realistic and detailed insight into what it feels like to be a writer that I have ever seen in a novel. Baker favours the use of first person narrative, giving a step-by-step walk through the day of his main character with tiny details included. We can hear the mouse scraping along his kitchen surfaces and see its droppings, and we can feel the corner of the poetry books he starts to sleep with for company falling and hitting his face.
Every moment is permeated with the loss of Roz and his yearning to get her back, and this is the part of the story that will appeal to readers whether or not they like poetry. Chowder is the typical man who has lost his partner by concentrating too much on his job or pastime, even though he thinks she has left because he's not productive (and women could relate to his problem too if they're devoted to their work). He believes that he could get her to come back by being able to focus and work, by turning out a bit of writing, but it’s the gentle way he remembers what it was like to reach out and touch her in bed that makes us realize what it is about him Roz would really miss and want to return to.
If I have a criticism of this novel it would be that some readers may want more about the relationship between Chowder and Roz to balance the poetry theme. Usually I like a short novel but I would have liked this one to continue for longer and enjoyed each memory of Roz, the moments he met her again, and each way he worked ideas at rekindling their relationship into his daily activities.
Not many fictional couple relationships are described in a way that makes readers wish they could have a similar experience of a long-term marriage or cohabitation, but Baker has really achieved this. As other women appear, and opportunities for a new relationship present themselves, Chowder considers each one but is never tempted away from what he really wants: the return of Roz. The way that Chowder tries to win her back by his struggle to work, making small presents, and acting calm and considerate when she dates a new man, all endear him to the reader. Empathy is so vital in this kind of novel and women readers will be wanting to reach out and hug him or find another like him.
As for tips about poetry, well there are some which are based on my own particular obsession so Baker has thought his way convincingly into the mind of a poet. Chowder wants to persuade us that previous thought about iambic pentameter is wrong, that the beat of a poem is based more on music than syllable count, and I’d go along with him on that. I won’t explain more and will leave you to find out why iambic pentameter has four beats to it if you tap your foot to the music of it, and why others are a waltz with three stresses. I’m a three-beat-to-the-line free verser myself. Chowder is also a free verse writer who wants to put the case for the superiority of rhyming poetry, which he wishes he could write better. The little designs to scan poetic lines, or to keep trying to convince us of what he means with musical notes, are very funny and exactly how I'd think about it myself.
The main joy of the poetic theme is that Chowder tells us so much about the lives and work of poets from the nineteenth century onwards, and tells it in the way we would speak of our oldest and closest friends. Like most writers he has lived with these poets through their books as if they were his nearest and dearest, and as the book progresses they appear to him in supermarkets and on the street. It’s as natural for Poe to appear to him folding underwear in the launderette as it is for his neighbour Nan to ask him round to play badminton.
Reading this made me want to reach for my own anthologies and look up all the poets he mentioned, and also the ones he so rightly says have been written out of literary history when they were taken out of the main anthologies due to modernist theories or the personal spite of selecting editors. Again, this is one of my favourite rants - the unfairness of how some poets have gone out of print because they were missed from major anthologies which are still influential. It's such fun to find an alter ego in a novel and to be able to laugh at ourselves and him.
The style is deceptively simple, the stream of consciousness talks straight to us from this perfectly understood and represented mind, we’re drawn right in and held captive by the narrative voice of Chowder from the first page to the last and I couldn’t stop until I had read it all. The humour made me laugh out loud and, over all, it was an uplifting read I’d highly recommend this summer. Poets and writers definitely shouldn’t miss it.
One question I would ask is: who is the first person narrator talking to in a book like this, as he seems to be talking to the people his anthology introduction is aimed at when it starts but he moves completely away from that to tell us why he can't write. When authors talk directly to us are they addressing the reader and is there something confusing in this approach? Perhaps the question arises in this book because the voice of Chowder starts by specifically addressing people with the offer of poetry writing tips, so we feel like his anthology readers, but we end up wondering what our role is in this conversation.