Random House, $22
by Ed Park
Let's imagine one way this review might begin: with a slickly topical take on Baker's pop novel Vox, whose appearance on the subpoenaed bookstore receipt of a certain ex-White House intern has been much in the news. (The book's sales have reportedly tripled as a consequence.) Now picture the frustrated reviewer seated in front of the computer, his pundit-like opening half-written before him, and then, in response to a few minutes of keyboard inactivity, vanishing altogether, to be replaced on the monitor by a cityscape, the tiny windows of its buildings lighting up in unmappable sequences. The screensaver, heretofore hidden in our literature, similarly pops up a few times in The Everlasting Story of Nory, Baker's latest novel, and its presence is doubly apt. First, as authorial thumbprint: it's a visualization of negative space, the nothing that's really a teeming something, a concept that informs Baker's previous half-dozen books, fiction and non-. The screensaver, like Baker, goes to work-worms writhe, toasters fly-when "real" work (say, traditional plot) is not occurring. Second, it's just the kind of thing that our nine-year-old heroine Eleanor Winslow-observant, decent Nory-would understand.
American Nory and family are living for a time in England. Interleaved with her progress through a term at her new school are her aborted stories, thoughts on insects and pencil cases, and dogged deconstructions of commonplaces (why indeed didn't Achilles's mother simply bathe his heel as well?). After the hormonal eruptions of Baker's last two novels (Vox anatomized a phone-sex exchange, while The Fermata's chronanistic memoirist stopped time to strip women), not to mention the unabashed Great Books-braininess of his work in general, his new setting might seem willfully perverse. Here one finds neither raunch nor ten-dollar words, just a fertile mind registering her surroundings and-surprise-taking a moral stand by befriending a bullied classmate. Baker, our supreme Nabokovian (and not only because he mentions V.N. so much), has crafted a quiet, inverse Lolita, in which a Yank girl with a "squeegee" accent crosses the Atlantic and civilizes a pack of unretainered Brit brutes, who despite their pretensions don't know from Kentucky Fried Chicken. If Nory's sentences are necessarily less acrobatic than those of adult Bakeroids-and if the cultural referents are more Underwater Barbie and "Garfield" than Edmund Gosse or Religio Medici-one of the new payoffs here is in seeing how the author's new creation, on smaller feet, extends the emotional range of his fiction. As Nory explains to a friend, the Chinese word for "good" combines the characters for "child" and "mother"; a similar organic hao permeates these pages.
The Everlasting Story (which suggests the Neverending Story films, Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstoppers, Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting) reads as a charming index to Baker's other books, and constitutes a sequel of sorts to Room Temperature. In that deceptively slim novel, a new father feeds his baby-"the Bug"-while contemplating, among other things, a history of the comma and Debussy's admonition to listen to the wind. Nory is, in effect, the Bug nine years hence, and her mind holds embryonic versions of her father's pensées (though some names may have shifted in transit, the characters are clearly Baker and family, in a dimension or two). Herein lies another inversion: the original object of affection (RT: "Everything in my life was beginning to route itself through the Bug") is now the main sensibility, whose thought patterns might conceivably mature into that earlier book's cogitational wonderworks.
And so the new glosses the old, while quite literally deriving from it in the first place. The novel's title brings to mind Baker's "Lumber," a wizardly piece of good-natured pedantry that unearthed, among other trinkets, these lines from John Collins's Scripscrapologia (1804): "As this old worn-out stuff, which is threadbare Today/May become Everlasting Tomorrow." Working against his writerly grain, Baker starts afresh with Nory. She's not as quick-or as interested-as her fictional predecessors in making connections between her digressions; each short chapter is like a panel of her beloved Tintin comics: vivid, detailed, absorbing. Then it's on to the next one! Here Baker-whose first novel, The Mezzanine, sprouted a forest of footnotes from a lunch-hour purchase of shoelaces-once again impresses as a topographer of distraction. He lets Nory's little world accrete, by scribs and snibbets and scrabjibs, as she would say, and its completeness takes one pleasantly by surprise.
In U and I, his antic, unpredictable dissection of his "Updike obsession," N.B. notes a passage in which Updike describes a conversation that "was like one of those Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone." Except in the rigorously dialogue-driven Vox, Baker's characters converse, sanely and humorously, with themselves. They don't just think; they think about their thinking. Their musing constitutes action, transpiring during downtime, in static spaces: the mezzanine between two real stories, the aforementioned baby room, The Fermata's eerily frozen world. Not only does the narrative voice have a swarming, horror vacuui component, but often a literal nothing-the vacuum in a peanut butter jar, or lumber (as in "useless" knowledge), or a screensaver-lies, worthless-stone-like, at the center of a disquisition.
Nabokov loved to describe the "photisms" one sees against the inner eyelids, those quasi-visions at the edge of sight. Here Baker/Nory continues this obscure tradition:
When Nory closed her eyes she saw the little red and yellow and orange dots that spread out on the computer screen to show that you've crashed the plane in I.T. [her computer class]. If you forgot that they were the sign of a massive crash, the dots were as pretty as a screensaver.
The hypnagogic state offers a window perfect for heavy-duty mulling. Nory, like Baker (and Nabokov), is an insomniac, and her not-unrelated twin obsessions, as condensed above, are death and memory. At one point she tells herself a story about a girl named Amnezia; at another she draws up a document specifying simply, "Eleanor Winslow does not want to be buried under the ground." She concocts stories about burning rain and has nightmares about dead monks. In her propensity for morbid thoughts, Nory suggests a milder version of the Addams Family's Wednesday, minus the sadism. (Perhaps they'll retitle the afterschool-TV special The Memory Palace of Christina Ricci.)
With every birthday, Nory lists for her parents every year she's lived, and which years are on the horizon. Her mnemonic urges and awareness of forgetting find a fitting structure in this loose, amiable book. For Nory likes layers anyway-the three layers of a tooth, or of an Egyptian coffin-and Baker, our most avid dendochronologist of temps perdu, is happy to let her wander from floor to floor, through the many rooms of her thinking. Similarly, Nory the layer-liker occasionally observes a less senior mind (that of her baby brother), which she envisions as "still basically a construction site, filled with diggers and dumpers driving around in the mushy dirt."
But just as there are century-old cathedrals in use that are still nominally unfinished, minds of every age are works-in-progress. It seems right that not only the novel's structure, but its explicit descriptions of structures (cruciform church floors that she thinks should instead resemble a G for God, brick walls that spin off into musings about brick making), recall the classical art of memory, wherein one placed mneme-loaded objects within mental architectures, about which one could then roam at will.
As always, Baker is a master builder. His house is like one of the Stately Homes Nory's parents visit every weekend, palatial and well-furnished. The pleasures of his memory project (his corpus could be called The Recognitions) remain intense, and his eye for neglected things is sharp as ever. Salvage itself, even for a young girl, comes to seem a salutary end, value accruing to things simply in the remembering. The lumber room, as Baker has eloquently taught us elsewhere, might well be a treasure-house, given half a chance.
Baker rightly uses free indirect discourse to render with humor (and minimal condescension) Nory's solecisms and nonce words, her child's portmanteau of portmanteaux; though intelligent, Nory's spelling is admittedly atrocious, at times approaching the condition of Middle English. The first-person, which has served Baker in good stead for every prior book, would have proved too cloying here. Nory's stories-told or written to her toys, her friends, herself-resemble precisely the sort of tales children tell: not big on coherency or conclusions, often somewhat dull, but peppered with the spontaneous weirdness and digressions older scribes can't generate unselfconsciously. (Curiously, for me the only other dull spots in Baker's work are also embedded ones-the exclusively pornographic bits Arno composes in The Fermata.)
Nory's stories fill her life, be they good or bad or (as she would say) mezzo
mezzo. Her childhood is a happy one, and its general sunniness seems to disperse
the English gloom. The book's grace period seems neither preposterous nor corny,
for as Nory is aware, nine years old was eight and will be ten, and as Bakerites-who
have read him on the passing of card catalogs and hybrid punctuation-know, memory
The Everlasting Story of Nory is not a children's book but every inch a Nicholson Baker book; a child of Nory's age would doubtless be puzzled. ("Sometimes the problem with telling someone about a book was that the description you could make of it could just as easily be a description of a boring book," Nory thinks, in a way that doesn't sound at all like an N.B. caveat.) What's most remarkable about this novel is how it replicates not only the inner world of a child, but the experience of reading a children's book-without technically being one itself. Children piercingly feel the end of a book's world, the spell between covers that "The End" breaks, and it is in this spirit that a reader of The Everlasting Story of Nory may find her eye and page-turning hand, after much rapid progress, slowing themselves, as the unread part of the story dwindles before her.