||Mistaking Triteness for Profundity
by Shaun Smith
Imagine a smooth round boulder about four feet across, with one-third of its diameter embedded in the earth. Over this boulder lies a sturdy wooden board, say eight feet long, six inches wide, an inch thick. You now have a children's toy, a see-saw. In geometry this formation is called a tangent, "a straight line touching a curve or curved surface so that it meets it at a point but does not intersect it at that point," as defined by the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary.
From this geometrical model we derive the metaphorical tangent: "diverging from a previous course of...thought," again the Canadian O.E.D. The word tangent comes from the Latin tangere, meaning touch. Like that board on the boulder, the metaphorical tangent touches, but does not intersect, its main subject.
Reading Nicholson Baker's sixth novel, A Box of Matches, one searches so futilely amongst tangents for the book's main subject that it is tempting to say this novel is all board and no boulder¨but not quite.
Here is the novel's "plot": for reasons never made clear, Emmett, a 44-year-old editor of medical textbooks living in rural New England with his wife and two school-aged children, rises at 4 a.m. for thirty-three consecutive days to light a fire in the hearth and type his thoughts into a laptop while his world still sleeps.
That's all folks. During this vigil, which derives its duration from the number of matches in a box, nothing even remotely extraordinary happens. Each sitting is presented in a chapter and introduced with a similar statement: "Good morning, it's 4:52 a.m." The time varies slightly each day. Emmett then often comments on the fire he has built and from there goes off on tangents which approximate personal essays. His subjects are whatever appears to come to mind¨holes in socks, haircuts, how we recognize change, belly-button lint, his family's pet duck, paper towels, ants, the nature of beauty, how to pick up underwear with your toes.
If the plot graph for a conventional novel is a caricature of a mountainscape, showing a small flat plain (introduction) leading to a steep incline (rising conflict) which ends abruptly (climax) and angles sharply downward (denouement), then the graph of A Box of Matches is a prairie, a flat line. Emmett encounters no significant conflict, internal or external.
Elsewhere, Baker has shown himself¨in essays, for instance, on lumber, model airplanes and library-card catalogues¨to be fascinated by the incidental in modern society. When Baker's slim novel Vox was called a "meaningless little fingernail pairing" by Stephen King (he of the doorstopper tome), Baker famously redressed in The New Yorker with a brilliant essay on fingernail clippers. Like E.B. White and G.K. Chesterton, Baker has the true essayist's gift of being able to speak directly, and entertainingly, about that which is seen laterally.
Unfortunately Emmett does not, or not always, or not enough. Emmett is an Everyman, formed to be average. His observations are quaint, mildly emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes saccharine. He is concerned but not passionate, earnest but not driven. Hemingway wrote, "[T]he supposed dark hours of the soul when it is always three o'clock in the morning are a man's best hours." Emmett usually sleeps through those hours. The only glimpse we get of his motivation to now wake and peer into the antediluvian darkness comes when he recalls a novel in which a ship-bound character "goes up on deck because he wants 'a lungful of storm.'" Says Emmett: "That's what I want¨a lungful of storm."
But no storm or deluge arrives. One of the book's most telling passages falls as Emmett explains what a cord of wood is. "It takes on an air of permanency," he writes, "like a stone wall¨so finished seeming that you hesitate before pulling from it the first few logs for burning." That's no generic "you". The fact that Emmett is explaining what a cord of wood is speaks volumes about who Baker figures will be reading this book. Emmett is the archetypal liberal, middle-class, quasi-academic returned, only recently, to the country because he senses that somewhere along the road to wealth he has dropped some things of real value. He is Thoreau in Gore-Tex and a minivan; to him a cord of wood is an art work, not a life necessity. The magazine Money once ran an ad showing the interior of a rustic French farmhouse with the tag line, "The things money can buy." Emmett buys his firewood from contractors. He has a barn (restored also by contractors) but no livestock. For his birthday Emmett's wife gives him an axe which he doesn't know how to use. That pet duck would be meat in another home. This is "rustic lite", peasantry without the hardship.
It is impossible to ignore the political. Baker doesn't tell us why Emmett wants his "lungful of storm." He merely sets him up as a sort of realist exercise in middle-aged ennui. But Emmett, personally likeable in his milquetoast way, but politically contemptible for his complacency, is too realistic. He is boring, as is his situation. So his little human soul is stirring. So he's going to wake up early for a month and type. Is he capable of real introspection, of transformation? We are not to know because he is situated in a narrative context denuded of anything that might assail his character. It is much easier to marvel at a storm from the comfort of a warm house than if, say, you are faced with sleeping in that storm. Baker, it seems, would have us overlook Emmett's charlatanism.
But this, of course, is like criticizing a chicken for not being a condor. Baker wrote this book to exact specifications. Human nature abhors a narrative vacuum and Baker, no amateur, must know we are going to look for story. By not having one, he takes refuge behind any questions we might have about our need to reassess our idea of The Novel. Meanwhile, Emmett is free to act as stand-in for Baker's musings on the incidental.
"One of the joys of life, I think," writes Emmett, "is trying to decipher the name on a gravestone as it is transmitted through the dense foliage of blue-green gravestone lichen." This observation, encrusted with its own somewhat dense "poetic" foliage, represents the sort of stuff that forms the very substance of this book.
Here's another: "...if you open the dishwasher and you aren't sure at a glance whether the dishes in it are clean or dirty, you can know their status for certain by checking to see whether the mugs hold these cupped pools, since when you upend a mug and put it in the cage, it may be wet, but there won't be water collected in its concavity because you will have carried it to the dishwasher right side up..."
Fascinating, what? In the works of better writers¨Saul Bellow, John Cheever, even sometimes Stephen King¨such details are throwaways, recognized as incidental and treated as such to give texture and shading to stories. In other words, they are part of storytelling, not storytelling itself.
Northrop Frye taught us that literature is a mode of transference. "[T]he serious good writer," Frye wrote, "releases his experiences and emotions from himself and incorporates them into literature." The symbolic centre of A Box of Matches, the "boulder", if you will, to its metaphorical tangents, is the fire Emmett lights each morning. "Life burns," Baker is pedantically warning us, "so don't miss it." Regardless of how unsuccessfully A Box of Matches toys with storytelling convention, one has to question seriously whether this sort of puerile "pop-zen" sentiment does not better belong in a greeting card.
Is it the little things in life that matter? Who knows? But by having an emotional core that mistakes the trite for the profound, A Box of Matches certainly, and ironically, belies its own philosophy. Here's one little thing that may be missed without consequence. Better to go play on a see-saw. ˛