Archive for October 25th, 2009

The Anthologist and the Abandonment of Plot


A few months ago, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist came out to a reception of some very generous reviews. This shouldn’t be totally surprising; Baker’s book, about a minor poet struggling to write the introduction to his forthcoming anthology of rhyme, is infectious and endearing. Paul Chowder, the poet in question, spends a lot of time thinking about poetry, meter, rhyme schemes, free verse, as well as his ex-girlfriend Roz, his career, and his financial situation.

But here’s the thing: Chowder doesn’t actually do much of anything for the entire novel. He sits in his attic, he walks his dog, he picks blueberries—but there is no real plot at all. In fact, there aren’t really any other characters: Paul interacts with some people, but nobody for more than a few pages at a time, and nobody who gets more than the most superficial treatment.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. Baker is clearly more concerned with developing Paul than he is with introducing a plot. And spending a few hundred pages in Paul’s mind provides a telling illustration of writer’s block, specifically the kind of a writer so infatuated with and invested in a certain subject; Paul is paralyzed at the thought of saying anything about poetry, for fear of saying something wrong or not expressing himself completely. Continue reading