Why is Nicholson Baker so obsessed with sex?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 19 2011 11:57 AM

A Perfectly Unique Moment

Why is Nicholson Baker so obsessed with sex?

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That literary project became flesh in the early 1990s, when Baker started doing freaky things with sex. "[E]ach of these thousands of times you have come alone constitutes a perfectly unique moment," Vox's male phone-sexer protagonist tells his female counterpart, whom he has never met. "I almost think that each one of the times a woman comes in private in her life has to continue to exist as a kind of sphere, a foot-and-a-half-wide sphere … and I would happily spend my life floating up to one after another of these unique orgasm-spheres and looking inside and I'd be able to watch you make yourself come that one time."

This is not exactly an epigraph-worthy sentiment, but it provides an excellent voyeur's window onto Baker's literary goals. The uniqueness, subjectivity, and time suspensions of sex gave him an excuse to focus in on one kind of experience: the "unique moment" of ecstasy he describes, sealed for posterity. It's an artistic fantasy more than a lurid one. In Vox and The Fermata (whose protagonist can literally pause time for his study and fantasy) he uses sex, with its private vocabularies and ineffable thrills, as an extended metaphor for fleeting consciousness. To be physically aroused by his kinky writing is to acknowledge his ability to use words to capture, and then to deliver, spheres of personal sensual experience.

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Subtract the dildos from this pageant, and it's all, of course, been done before. Late in the 18th century, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge got together with his friend William Wordsworth to launch a joint project they hoped would both give "the charm of novelty to things of every day" and convey "incidents and agents [that were] in part at least, supernatural." Mixing these approaches as two sides of a single coin, they thought, would help convey the "sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sunset diffused over a known and familiar landscape." Today, Coleridge's and Wordsworth's creative goals are considered a cornerstone of the Romantic movement, a loose grouping of 19th-century writers who shared a creative interest in these sudden charms and accidents of light. (The literary critic Paul de Man has described the Romantics' preoccupation as a "new kind of relationship between nature and consciousness," reaching "from a certain kind of nature, earthly and material, to another nature which could be called mental and celestial.") It's as a 20th-century update to this tradition that Baker's scattered body of work starts to make sense.

Baker's 1991 fanboy book about John Updike, U and I, is a case in point. U and I is unusual as a literary study, because—to name just one thing—Baker confesses early on to having read "most or all of" only eight Updike books. (There were 30 at the time.) He decided not to fill in the gaps, he says, for fear of losing track of why he was writing about Updike in the first place. Instead, dowsing for his true passion, he made a list of favorite scenes and lines in Updike's work. It turned out he had misremembered some. The list went in the book anyway. Baker later explained:

[I]f we want to know how we think about a writer without the artifice of preparation, how we think about Updike in particular only when we discover ourselves thinking about him, when some feature of the world or of our own thoughts spontaneously recalls a tone or tick or glimpse of his work, or even merely brings up the image of his face in a particular photo (like the Poorhouse Fair shot of him sitting on a bench in which my mother thought he looked too pleased with himself) or the memory of some fifth-hand story one has heard or read about him—if we want that sort of elusive knowledge, even rereading a paragraph or a line while our meditation was in progress would be fatal.

This is, depending on your perspective, either a crackbrained way to write a literary study or an ultra-nuanced, "accidents of light and shade" insight about reading. It's a theme his nonfiction often returns to. In the title essay of his collection The Size of Thoughts, Baker wrote in praise of "lovely, brief insights" we encounter while reading that ultimately "leave us filled with large, calm truths." The implication was that these small and private revelations—maybe more than what is actually argued or narrated on the page—give authors purchase on their readers' hearts and minds. In fact, the content of the text itself is often oddly incidental to Baker's ideas about reading. In Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, an eloquent case against microfilming and jettisoning old newspapers and other print media, his esteem for physical newspapers comes down partly to the experience of browsing them, of "circling around the opened double-page spread." In The New Yorker two years ago, he described reading a passage from Love Conquers All both on the Kindle and in print and finding only the book version funny, because it "wasn't the same in Kindle gray." Data points like these can make Baker seem like a dandruff-on-bifocals Luddite. But he's also spoken passionately about his great nostalgia for the long-lost websites of the early blogosphere, about the pleasure that reading them used to offer. His guiding light is, rather, a romantic interest in the sensual and personal experience of reading, the little extra-textual ecstasies by which writing conjures joy and electrifies its message.

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