Nicholson Baker laughs gently, a little nervously, when his work is praised. (Embarrassment? Joy?)
The 52-year-old American writer, whose eighth novel, The Anthologist, a rich musing on the world of poetry, was released Tuesday, is on the phone from his home in South Berwick, Maine, a town of 7,000 on the New Hampshire line.
"I'm hoping that people will come away from the book and think poetry is wasteful and inefficient and there's a lot of bad poetry," he says. "On the other hand, I want them to see that there's a kind of greatness to [poetry] that you can't get anywhere else."
The Anthologist traces - in that peculiarly droll, jocosely ironic, digression-rich style that has become Baker's trademark - the literary and emotional struggles of Paul Chowder, a middle-aged poet forced to face loneliness, failure, and the ineluctable march toward death.
The author will give a free reading tonight at 7:30 at the Free Library's Central Library.
Baker, who was born in New York, had a brief stint at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., before earning a B.A. in philosophy from Haverford College.
He made his mark as a literary miniaturist with his 1988 debut, The Mezzanine, about the cornucopia of ideas, feelings, opinions, literary allusions, and minute observations that pass through a man's mind during a brief lunch break.
Baker, who also has published nonfiction works on John Updike, the state of our public library system, and World War II, made a stir in the mid-'90s with Vox and Fermata, a pair of erotic novels. (Monica Lewinsky reportedly gave a copy of Vox to President Bill Clinton.)
The Anthologist is arguably his best work to date. And with Paul, he's created his richest character.
Paul's narrative voice is a circus sideshow: sometimes confused, mildly balmy, undisciplined and circuitous, always endearing, and sometimes brilliant.
Not much happens in the minimalist plot ("novelistic plots don't work for me," Baker explains).
Paul thinks about his ex-girlfriend Roz, who has moved out after eight years; shampoos his dog, Smacko; cuts his fingers moving his computer. He shares his theory of rhyme and meter (he thinks poetry took a wrong turn when rhyme was abandoned); discusses poets through history; and procrastinates endlessly on an introduction he's writing for a new anthology of poems.
Paul leads a lecture at a poetry conference in Switzerland. Even that's a wash: Paul, who has published three slim volumes of poems, admits he's a mediocre poet and bursts into tears.
In Baker's hands, the smallest incidents become the occasion for playful, punning, richly allusive, and always exuberant poetic exploration.
Baker maintains that the smallest events in our everyday lives can be the occasion for profound insights.
"The dynamic range of most lives is fairly small," he says. "My characters don't usually get into airplane accidents, they aren't downhill racers, or ninjas."
The key is to be observant. "You take a walk or sit in a chair and suddenly you notice the way an inchworm is crawling up your pant legs," Baker says.
As Paul puts it, it's those small, pregnant moments that inspire poems. Poetry, he says "is prose in slow motion."
That's a good way to describe Baker's novel, which stops narrative time to focus on the mysteries of small daily events.
Half poetry workshop, half keenly observed character study, the verse- and rhyme-rich novel manages an almost impossible feat: It shows poetry. It performs poetry - as process of both writing and reading.
"I wanted to show how you think about a poem when you are not preprepared, when you're not sitting down in front of a blue book," Baker says. "To show how poetry is central to our lives."
Central? To whose lives? How many people actually read poetry, or follow the contemporary poetry scene?
"Poetry is something that small numbers of people do," Baker admits. "Yet, there's this incredible craving for songs that's satisfied with pop music. Some of the lyrics being written right now are quite good. Some are pedestrian. But they all rely on this strange phenomenon of rhyme."
(Baker's hero discusses quite a few pop rhymesters, including Paul Oakenfold, Sinead O'Connor, Ludacris, and ZZ Top.)
Just as photography and film were partially responsible for the advent of abstraction in painting, Baker says, the difficult, erudite, and obscure poetry we associate with the 20th century was the result of popular rhymes.
"Pop music pushed high poetry to a corner," he says. "It had to show that it was different from what Cole Porter was writing."
Has living through Paul's mildly tortured mind taught Baker the ultimate secrets of rhyme?
"I haven't figured it out," the admitted "failed poet" says with a laugh.
"I just wrote it and had a good time and wept and laughed and did all the normal things you do when you are writing a novel."