by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
March 16, 2010
Let’s say that the standards that apply to peoplethe basic character-defining requirementsare that a person be funny, smart, and kind. This is my rubric and possibly yours. If a person is funny, smart, and kind (or two out of the three) any other flaw can be forgiven.
It has never occurred to me to apply the same standard to books, which have an aesthetic dimension not even touched in the funny-smart-kind paradigm. And yet. In the case of The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker’s account of a poet named Paul Chowder in the midst of a creative fizzle, it seems the perfect criterion to apply, if only because The Anthologist nails all three qualities while feeling less like a novel than a companion.
How so? The book is digressive and inquiring, it has little plot, and it is engaging in the exact way that a charismatic person is engaging: weirdly and effortlessly so. What happens is nothing much. Paul Chowder struggles to write the introduction to a poetry anthology, finds distractions, lightly laments the loss of his girlfriend, Roz, and occasionally sees a friend. He lays down some wood flooring and plays badminton. That’s it. It’s a different sort of novel than we’re used to seeing, but not one that announces its exceptional qualities. Undercover brilliant is one descriptor. Charismatic, actually, works too.
But The Anthologist is also fucking weird. If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing Nicholson Baker speak (this interview is particularly good) you’ll hear the novel in his voice. I’m convinced this is how it is meant to be absorbed. Nicholson Bakersorry, no, his protagonist Paul Chowdersounds like someone with insanely twinkly eyes. In certain moods this is the greatest compliment a narrator can merit.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the collection of short stories by Wells Tower, is also very good. It is all the things you’ve heard it to be: funny, unpredictable, stylish. There are vikings and carnivals and ungainly teenagers. Towers writes in a manner that’s as odd as it is likable, a tough act that Edmund White was correct to compare to Lorrie Moore. It is a contained kind of weirdness, though, of a smaller (and less risky) scale than Baker’sand though it might be unfair to blame the form for this shortcoming, I was asked to judge the short stories of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned against a novel. And the novelbecause its weirdness sprawled and thundered on for almost too many pages, but not quitewell, we’ll say the novel won by force.