There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
Lately, I have been reading Nicholson Baker to excess. I first heard about Mr. Baker from a New York Times Magazine article—”Nicholson Baker: The Mad Scientist of Smut.” House of Holes, Mr. Baker’s most recent work of erotic fiction, just hit bookshelves. Besides his “miniaturist” style—expanding fragments of plot into absurdly dense treatises on everyday minutiae like the comma (Room Temperature) and shoelaces (The Mezzanine)—Mr. Baker is famous for erotica. In Vox, The Fermata, and now House of Holes, Mr. Baker explores the literary limits of sex writing. In my final two weeks before the fall semester, I have indulged in some “pleasure” reading, albeit of a non-prurient variety. Not to worry, I’ve been keeping my mind out of Mr. Baker’s dirty dollhouse. Intrigued by the prospect of miniaturism—maximalist, but munchkin!—I bought Room Temperature and The Mezzanine at a Borders blowout sale. Unlike David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo, Mr. Baker is one postmodernist who has escaped academic celebrity. Search Jstor for journal articles on Mr. Baker’s novels, I dare you: few and far-between results. As Charles McGrath notes in that NYT Mag piece, Mr. Baker pioneered the footnoted, wry academicism David Foster Wallace made thesis-worthy. Where DFW used the footnote as a vehicle for formal digression and neatly organized scholarship, Mr. Baker trips towards James Joyce the Nebbish, allowing that cavern beneath the big print to plunge into the narrator’s wandering consciousness. In his most boring moments—and there are many to choose from in The Mezzanine (a representative sentence: “Let me mention another fairly important development in the history of the straw.”)—Mr. Baker reaches the zenith of postmodern irony. His contemporaries stoop, humbled, to tie his broken shoelaces (a problem solved, we are informed, by Z. Czaplicki in “Methods for evaluating the abrasion resistance and knot slippage strength of shoe laces.”). The less patient author bows, awed, before this perfect distillation of post-Fordist ambiguity. Do we love the mechanical mundanities of corporate America—is there a phrasing of the epic in escalators and Popular Science? Or is the frayed fascination of Mr. Baker’s protagonists with the plastic drinking straw funny because it reads as pathetic and picaresque?