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Nicholson Baker
The Anthologist
Simon & Schuster
US Trade Paperback Reprint Edition
ISBN 978-1-416-57245-9
Publication Date: 07-06-2010
244 Pages; $16.00
Date Reviewed: 10-13-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  General Fiction  

From the very first sentence of Nicholson Baker's 'The Anthologist,' Paul Chowder promises everything. For the next sweet, smart, funny two-hundred-something pages, Baker delivers that in an utterly engaging experiment that subtly slicks up stream of consciousness into a low-key love story. Chowder's raw, roaming, genuine voice is such a pleasure to read that we're willing to sit on the pins and needles provided as he evades every responsibility in favor of fretting and procrastination.

Paul Chowder is a minor poet, as he sort of tells it. He's been tasked with creating an anthology of rhyming poetry, and Baker spends a lot of time talking about poetry in a unique style of prose; it rambles, it lectures, it free-associates and every word has the ring of truth, a personal truth for our protagonist, Paul Chowder. Things are not well for Chowder. His girlfriend, Roz, is losing patience with his woolgathering ways. His editor is calling only slightly less often than his creditors. He's kind of a mess.

But what a mess, and in Baker's hands, a wonderful engaging, fun-as-hell to read mess. 'The Anthologist' tells readers quite a bit about poetry and nearly as much about Chowder, by way of what he evades both telling us and doing. We meet his neighbors, his friends and watch with a combination of fear, sympathy and wonderfully nuanced narrative tension as Chowder makes his l,' even a conclusion itself.

Baker's prose is a complete joy to read, and Chowder's discourses on poetry, his penchant for setting poetry to music and his mastery of self-sabotage are all in good fun. Baker is a master of understated characterization. He gives readers what will prove in our reading memory to be a vividly-etched group of friends, neighbors and associates in a series of thrown away asides, tiny episodes and seemingly mumbling mentions. For all the evasive side-stepping on display, Baker's prose is remarkably consistent and engaging.

In 'The Anthologist,' Nicholson Baker shows the incredible power of literary slight of hand and misdirection. As we are immersed in the meanderings of Paul Chowder's mind, our own minds are set free as well. The little things that make of up most of our lives are allowed to loom large. The minutia of our melancholy moods, the momentary shivers of joy that break them up, and everything between — it all comes into focus, crisp and clear and there on the page, captured in the prose of a man who loves poetry. No matter how you feel about poetry going in, you're going to love it as well when you finish 'The Anthologist,' even as you recognize that prose, the prose you've just been immersed in, has all the power and all the poetry of poetry. Don't try to hard to wrap your brain around the contradiction. Enjoy it, and this novel. This is the ease of everything you know.

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