Nicholson Baker has blown me away with his latest novel, Traveling Sprinkler. I’ve been trying to write a book review about it for days—but everything I write seems inadequate to describe Baker’s virtuosity—his astounding range of emotional, humorous, and intellectual tones.
I could start by describing what the book is about (though even that is impossible). Traveling Sprinkler is Baker’s second book starring poet-turned songwriter Paul Chowder, whom Baker first introduced in his novel The Anthologist. Chowder is a captivating narrator, by turns hilarious, sad, self-deprecating, informative, and tender. At the beginning of the story, he is somewhat depressed as he faces his upcoming fifty-fifth birthday after a recent break-up with his long-term girlfriend, Roz. Though she has found a new man, Chowder longs for her and is not giving up without a fight.
Chowder is a loveable character despite his flaws, for he shows persistence and determination in following his passions. His obsession with songwriting is fuelled by his longing for Roz, and he experiments with instrumentation software for countless hours to create accompaniments for his lyrics and adjust his own singing voice.
The love story within Traveling Sprinkler, though it is the soul of the book, is also a scaffold to support the dazzling array of “subjects” that Baker’s agile mind weaves into his novel. Chowder’s past and current obsessions include not only traveling sprinklers (about whose history, structure, and function we learn a lot), but American politics (mainly anti-war rants), Quaker meetings, cigars, poetry, and, above all, music.
Music is a unifying theme in Traveling Sprinkler, which is fitting because it is Chowder’s route back to Roz. But the novel is about more than music: it is rich and dense in what it contains within its less-than-300 pages; though it includes many subjects, Baker connects them all; and each subject is like a Russian doll where you keep uncovering inner layers.
Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a writer is his ability to pay attention to minutae; he can use this for humorous effects or to probe into the absolute raw insides of something he’s passionate about. In Traveling Sprinkler, he goes “deep” in many subjects. Each reader will differ in which parts of the book they find the most emotionally affecting or fascinating.
I was particularly moved by the novel’s sections about French composer Claude Debussy and his tenth piano prelude, “The Sunken Cathedral” (“Le cathédrale engloutie”). Perhaps this is because I played some of Debussy’s simpler piano pieces when I was a child. I remember “Clair de Lune” and “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, and how I loved the strange chords of Debussy’s music, so different from the other “boring” classical pieces I had to practice.
Baker’s technical mastery as a writer overwhelms me. He weaves his sections about Debussy and “The Sunken Cathedral” throughout the book, gradually revealing more and more. I don’t know how he does it; I only know that I was incredibly moved, haunted, by these beautifully-written sections about the composer who died of rectal cancer in 1918. Baker mentions Debussy’s sunken cathedral first on page 40 of Traveling Sprinkler, again on page 70, and again several times before he gets to his climactic expression of his passion for this piece. On page 254, near the beginning of a four-page-long section about “The Sunken Cathedral” (most of it within a single paragraph), we read a simple sentence containing the thesis of the analysis to follow: “This piece was Debussy saying goodbye to everything.”
And what is “The Sunken Cathedral” about? From page 255: “It’s really about all sunken frightening beautiful artful ruined human things.”
How many writers can use adjectives that way? How many writers can go on to elaborate in two more pages of incredible prose-that-is-poetry, all together in a single paragraph? There is another beautiful descriptive passage about “The Sunken Cathedral” on page 97, within a two-page-long paragraph. It’s not too much. I wanted to quote something but every sentence is perfect and I can’t put a two-page quote into a book review. You have to read it.
My rave about the sunken cathedral sections is just one example of the intensity of Baker’s enthusiasm. But don’t be misled by my rave into thinking that Baker is too deep or philosophical a writer. He is like that, but he is also profane, biting, and hilarious. Chowder’s musings about how he could write a song about himself called “Why Are You Fat?” had me holding my gut laughing. In another part, Chowder is examining the way his mind jumps from one subject and one metaphor to another in his poems. This is what he concludes about metaphors:
…too many colours make the rinse water muddy…On the other hand, the world is full of metaphors that are happily coexisting in our brains and we don’t go crazy. You have them all swarming and nesting and reeled up in there, but they don’t trouble one another…I want to pour them all in and let them go wild together. Let all the metaphors fuck each other like desperate spouse-swappers, I don’t care. (pp.41–42)
I’m glad Traveling Sprinkler contained all those swarming, nesting, reeling, and fucking metaphors. I also appreciated the deceptively simple, chatty style of other parts of the book. I almost felt like I was making a wonderful friend in Paul Chowder, a friend who reignited my interest in writing, poetry, and music. I sure learned a lot about the construction, history and repertoire of the bassoon! More importantly, I was reminded about music that I’ve loved in the past, and introduced to a cornucopia of new music delights to sample.
Above all, though, Traveling Sprinkler is an unsentimental love story, one that includes ugliness, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Baker is a one-of-a-kind writer who leaps from profanity and humour to pathos and tenderness without skipping a beat.
Nicholson Baker is the author of Vox, The Fermata, The Anthropologist, and many other books about things erotic, profound, and mundane.
You can listen to a YouTube video of Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov playing “La cathedral egloutie” here.
Quotes in this review are from:
Baker, Nicholson. (2013). Traveling Sprinkler. New York: Blue Rider Press (Penguin Group USA)