In Travelling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker revisits floundering poet Paul Chowder, the protagonist of 2009’s The Anthologist, and finds him abidingly disengaged. Pining for ex-girlfriend Roz, he seeks solace in protest songs, political hand-wringing, garden implements and other passing distractions, including a desire to be taken seriously as a cigar aficionado. Through it all, he has an irrepressible itch to complete a new poetry collection called The Misery Hat, based around the idea that all the world’s sadnesses and wrongdoings may be made visible to everyone. Baker’s highly individual knack for unconventional observation is scored and amplified by the music of Debussy, Tracy Chapman and many others (including Chowder on guitar, bassoon and vocals) as he explores the expansive realms beyond America’s back yards. I catch up with him via a quick Q&A.
MR: How would you describe Travelling Sprinkler in up to 25 words?
NB: Well, let’s see. A minor poet tries to write songs, be a decent person, make sense of life, and help his former girlfriend through her hysterectomy.
How many cigars (and which varieties) were smoked during the making of this book?
Faustos and Bone Crushers were the most helpful cigars I smoked. I don’t know how many – too many. It’s a foul habit. As with playing the bassoon, there’s a lot of saliva involved.
In what ways has The Axis of Awesome’s ‘4 Chords’ (see below) affected your appreciation of popular music?
The simple harmonies of pop music undergird its infinite textural and melodic variability. In a way that’s the moral of ‘4 Chords’. It’s true of a lot of classical music as well.
Paul Chowder sets out to write protest songs, but those intentions are put aside in favour of love songs. Did the plotting and writing of the novel follow a similar trajectory?
Yes, what actually happened was that I set out to do a non-fiction book about trying to write a half-decent protest song, and after a few months I discovered I was writing in the voice of my Anthologist alter-ego, Paul Chowder. He’s in love and he’s got moments of political outrage, as we all do, and he’s excited about rediscovering music. The songs happened pretty much in the order that they occur in the book – I recorded the plinking of an egg slicer and eventually used it in a song about a doctor, and I recorded a broom thump and used it in a song with lyrics by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’m not a good singer, but I like singing, and it was easier to sing in character than to sing as myself.
What are your own favourite protest and love songs?
A few of my favourites are tossed into Travelling Sprinkler: one is Eric Bogle’s ‘Green Fields of France’, as sung by a kid on YouTube who calls himself Kirobaito. Also Tracy Chapman’s ‘Change’, and Mattafix doing ‘Darfur’.
Is ‘The Sunken Cathedral’ Debussy’s greatest work, and why?
Probably his greatest work is La Mer, but ‘The Sunken Cathedral’ gets me every time. His music is uncannily visual, and he understands the sadness of the piano.
Aside from the travelling sprinkler, what is the most impressive innovation in the field of home gardening?
The hose that powers it.
Chowder drives a battered old Kia Rio. What are your preferred wheels?
My Kia died, and now I’m driving my wife’s red Suzuki with 170,000 miles on it. I love this car!
Which musical instruments or music-making software do you play or use?
Apple’s Logic Pro is the main piece of software, with a bunch of plugins. Alchemy, by Camel Software, has a library of hybrid sounds that can be endlessly fiddled with. I have a small keyboard that I can use on a train or a plane.
Why is the bassoon Chowder’s defining instrument?
It’s old and it’s made of wood, with far-reaching noisy keys and slappy cork pads – it’s a nice combination of levered absurdity and baroque tradition. It begins The Rite of Spring, the anthem of violent modernism, but it also sings the lullaby in The Firebird.
If President Obama tried on Chowder’s misery hat, what would he do next?
I hope he’d beg for forgivenness and resign.
How often do you find yourself looking at the world from beneath a misery hat?
I guess it’s every few months or so. The worst misery hat experience I ever had was writing Human Smoke.
Do you share Chowder’s incomprehension at governments setting out to tackle global warming ahead of stopping military build-up and war?
Well, Chowder was registering a passing mood. His point was that it’s easier to stop killing people in distant countries than to reverse global warming. Just stop killing people. Start simple. Of course we should do better with carbon emissions. I was trying to write a book that did justice to the inconstancy and variability of political emotion. One afternoon you’re mourning a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan, and later that day you’re tinkering with a melody on the keyboard, or eating an egg salad sandwich. For most of us, far from war zones and political decision-making, that’s the way life is.
Should the CIA be abolished?
Yes. The CIA was Harry Truman’s second biggest mistake, the first being the decision to drop the bomb. A bureaucracy of secret-keepers attracts sneaks, plotters, habitual liars, killers, and profiteers.
How should Archibald MacLeish be remembered?
He wrote some beautiful poems as a young man – especially the one about the shadow of darkness traveling over the earth – and some not-so-good wartime speeches. He also invented the high-brow, Yalie, quasi-professorial cover for the dirty tricks of the Office of Strategic Services, which was reborn a few years later as the Central Intelligence Agency.
Chowder’s bemused affability, quiet anger and underlying belief in human kindness would not be out of place in a Kurt Vonnegut or Richard Brautigan novel. Has either been a direct influence on your writing?
That’s very kind of you. I haven’t read Brautigan – I really should. Slaughterhouse Five is fascinating and carries a moral wallop, and Breakfast of Champions is funny. Vonnegut is a mad genius, no question.
Which authors do you most admire?
Changes from day to day. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of E.B. White. I avoided him for years because The Elements of Style was used as a textbook when I was in college, and I struggled against its rules, some of which are just plain wrong. White’s essay ‘The Ring of Time’ is a wonder.
Is this the last we will see of Paul Chowder?
I hope not – he’s got some life and hope left in him, I think. He’s probably the best character I’ve come up with and I miss him already.
Nicholson Baker was born in New York City in 1957 and grew up in Rochester. In his fiction and non-fiction (including Vox, Checkpoint and Human Smoke), he has written about John Updike, about getting up early in the morning, about the inner life of a nine-year-old girl, about a man on his lunch hour, about the beginnings of the Second World War, about sex, and much more besides. He lives in Maine with his family. Travelling Sprinkler is published by Serpent’s Tail. Read more.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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