How to return the familiar to the strange
This morning, I go to my studio with someone else’s voice in my head. This other person’s vocabulary, cadences, and literary proclivities – as imagined from the pages of his books – voice my internal monologue. It feels like wearing a new pair of shoes in the store and performing that self-conscious walk up and down the short aisle between rows of brogues and slip-ons, to see how they feel in motion. It’s always not-quite-right because you are paying close attention to enacting something that is naturally performed without paying any attention at all. This always results in an approximation of how you really walk. The surrogate voice for my thoughts this morning is an approximation of how the other person really sounds.
I am thinking of Nicholson Baker, author of The Mezzanine, The Fermata, and many other books, including my favourite, U & I. It was the first of Baker’s books that I read, his biography-not-a-biography of John Updike, followed by several of his novels. The voice in my head cannot be Baker’s because most of what I’ve read was written in the voices of his characters. Still, the mythology of literature gives us the idea of a soul-like something that persists throughout all the texts of a given writer. If the reader is savvy enough, it is supposed she can detect this essence in the breath between words and in the pulsating life of each sentence, however its façade may be constructed. And so –
On July 12, 2019, a Friday, I take my usual red mug of cafetière coffee and my copy of Baker’s U & I upstairs to my studio, to sit at the large oval writing desk that was identified once as “a nice bit of oak” and once as “definitely not oak, no way”. I open my brown faux-Moleskine notebook (loved for its Moleskine qualities of hard cover, perfectly distanced lines, and high-quality paper, and bought for the faux aspect of being much cheaper than the real thing) and I begin to write: On July 12, 2019, a Friday, I take my usual red mug ...
This will not do. I don’t have the imitator’s skill of throwing someone else’s voice onto the page. This attempt to pay homage to Baker is a poor pastiche. I consider writing my essay the way Baker wrote his book on Updike, in which he practised (possibly pioneered) a method of study by which the biographer deliberately avoids re-reading the subject’s work, relying instead on capturing the impression it made on memory. This results not in thoughts on the work itself, but thoughts on the thoughts and associations and echoes evoked by recalling the work read long ago.
I consider doing the same here, avoiding Baker’s books, lined up by publication date on the top shelf of my built-in bookcase, a chronology that means accepting an unsightly bulge in the series of spines where a hardcover is sitting incongruously between paperbacks. I imagine ignoring these books for my essay, trying to read in advance the hypothetical product of that experiment, thinking up justifications for doing it one way or another, and floundering because the excuses for both sides are equally compelling (or equally hollow, I’m not sure which).
The amateur wrestling match in my mind is a tie, but the referee of my subconscious makes a call: I am already flipping the pages of my Granta edition of U & I in search of the passage in which Baker sets out his approach for the book. As I flick each sheet of bound paper, I try to access that remarkable drawer in the filing cabinet of memory where readers store notable lines from books in pictorial form – we can somehow picture whether the sentence was printed on the verso (left) or recto (right) page, precisely how far up or down that page it occurs, and recall with an astonishing degree of accuracy where it falls within its paragraph.
Unfortunately, this method fails me as, although the content has stuck in my mind, I cannot picture where in the book Baker writes about his decision not to re-read Updike. I am, however, reminded by the promiscuous workings of association of a line in The Fermata that was so perfect – capturing the definite, weighty truth of a thing yet in an unceremonious, economic manner – that I laughed happily when I read it: On page 39, the righthand page, less than a third of the way down, near the start of a run-on sentence with about a dozen clauses (and one clause buried in parentheses), Baker describes a cassette-tape as “paragraph-shaped”. For some reason, as I recall this now, I know that this is a brilliant use of two words and a hyphen, but it doesn’t hit me with the same force it did on first reading. I go back to the book and read the whole thing. By the time I reach the quoted phrase, I am surprised by it again. Its magic exists in its being understated, in taking a modest place amongst everything else that is going on in the paragraph.
This is one of the many charms of Baker’s writing. (Not “charms”, that word is too effete. “Skills”? No, too technical, too devoid of the spark that his writing contains. I like the word “singularities” here: It conveys uniqueness and captures the refined density of Baker’s observations, microscopic yet packed with unfolding universes, like our own cosmos emerging from the original singularity of the Big Bang.) This is one of the many singularities of Baker’s writing. He has an ability – which might just be the authorial essence found throughout his work – to view the world in extreme close-up, noting the details of its details. More than that, though, it is what he does with these minutiae that matters: He uses them to reveal what he calls each object’s “primordial sense of strangeness”.
With this minor revelation (or re-revelation, having rediscovered or remembered what had once been revealed), I know what my essay will be about. I go back to the unfinished Word document in my folder labelled “Essays” and do the hesitant double-tap that opens the title for renaming, then I type: How to return the familiar to the strange.
An indescribably magnificent world
There is a quote from Henry Miller that might not actually come from him. It’s one of those quotations that is oft-cited though never with source citation, like so many popular witticisms Oscar Wilde never actually uttered. In this instance, Henry Miller’s attachment to the quote doesn’t matter because in the solipsistic world of my mind, the words come from my partner, who wrote them down for me at the start of our relationship, perhaps because she thought I’d find them inspiring, or possibly they represented something she saw in my own writing, or maybe simply because she knew I loved Quiet Days in Clichy. I decide to ask her about this later, and for now I use Google to find the full sentence:
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
As I read this, part of my mind seeks examples of this close attention giving rise to magnificent worlds, and it finds a half-remembered line in an essay from Baker’s The Way the World Works. He observes that darkening clouds overhead “had the look that a glass of rinse water gets when you’re doing a watercolour”. I find the book and look up the paragraph because I have intimations of what follows; the words “black roilings in white water” emerge within the image of an oceanic sky of soft summer whiteness flooded with the grey wash of dense clouds that demand the pathetic fallacy, because they don’t billow but bellow, not blown in by wind but barrelling ahead with purpose. While my memory is fallible, the page preserves the words exactly: Extending the watercolour imagery, the dark clouds are “... slowly diluting black roilings which move under the white water that you made earlier when you rinsed the white paint from the brush”.
The quotation is a mere forty words, three-and-a-half lines on the page, taking a fleeting 6.4 seconds to read (yes, I timed it). Six seconds, from which the fundamental essence of clouds that I have seen myself are described by a person I have never met, and from which are brought back to life the atmosphere of entire afternoons spent with books in a deep chair and mornings slouching to school and evenings made dark early by the clouding of the setting sun, scenes taken from a thirty-two year lifetime, all mentally relived in their fullness in the space of six seconds. This is Baker’s ability to “give close attention” and show us an “indescribably magnificent world”.
Baker found the perfect method for this literary microscopy in his novel The Fermata: the narrator’s power to “drop” into “the fold”, a timeless eternity in which the world around him is frozen. Able to suspend in time a conversation on the cusp of turning sour, the faecal deployment partially emerged from the back-end of an overhead pigeon, a lawnmower’s grass-stained blade mid-rotation, or any other facet of our constantly animated world, the narrator can observe it at leisure. As William Blake writes in Auguries of Innocence:
“To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”
As I re-read this stanza and consider its poetic elegance and what point it might lead me to in my essay (which makes me feel a little guilty for using this thing of beauty in such an ugly utilitarian way, like choosing a section of Vivaldi to score a car advertisement), it occurs to me that Baker himself can drop into the fold. Better still: He can drop us, his readers, into the fold and freeze time to show us the very small parts of very big things. His writing does this.
There is a transcript I read some months ago of a talk Baker gave on how we communicate objects in words. I go back to this transcript and sift visually through the strata of black textual lines until I find the gold I am after, where Baker describes using our attention to slow time and hyper-focus on the world’s details. “With language, we can focus in and enlarge and point and push all distractions aside and pull in metaphors if we’re in the mood ...” This is where I rediscover his evocative declaration that is a manifesto in a single sentence: “We’re trying to use words to reassemble this object’s primordial sense of strangeness.”
The writer in me is elated at the aspirational elevation in this idea; the child in me, from whom the writer springs and through whom the adult dreams, is excited by the sentence in the same way I used to thrill at finding a large hardcover book in the library that promised adventure in its pages. The front cover might depict the alien absurdity of dinosaurs, the hidden worlds lost to explorers but always found in my imagination, or the half-section of a planet, the Titanic, an Egyptian pyramid, or an eyeball, an image defying lived experience and yet somehow intuitively intelligible. Yes, my child self might think, that’s exactly what the inner workings of the lower intestine look like.
These images have a maze-like quality. The intricacy of their workings, like the springs and pivots of a Rube Goldberg machine, invite the viewer to follow its logic and map out the terrain of the bizarre. How could anyone with the ability to dream say no? How could anyone who’d forgotten how to dream look at these unfolded, magnified, x-rayed images and fail to begin imagining again? Indeed, how could anyone read a sentence with the words “primordial sense of strangeness” and not detect at least a hint of that very thing?
Between words and objects
It is often said that Magritte, through his art, “returned the familiar to the strange”. This quote is frequently attributed to the artist himself as a statement of intent, but I cannot find a source for that. Like the Henry Miller “quote”, of course, this doesn’t really matter. His work does exactly that, whether he used those words or not.
Magritte’s most famous work, the image of a pipe above the scripted text announcing, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”), is a demonstration of the simplicity of expression and the complexity of ideas contained therein. It seems obvious that once you shift the object of the sentence from what the image signifies – a pipe in reality – to what it truly is – pigments of paint on canvas – this clearly is not a pipe. Obvious, and yet it upset aficionados when it was revealed and continues to captivate our thoughts today. Through it, the simple everyday truth of how we use language is revealed to us again.
We know that a painting is not the thing it portrays, and we know that when we speak or write, our words are something other than the things they are meant to stand for. But why is this the case? What is it about reality and communication that creates this strange relationship between the two? And is the distance between words and reality always a failure, a sign of incompetence on our species’ part, a net loss of actuality as it is sieved through the rough strainer of language?
The answer for Magritte and Nicholson Baker is no. “Between words and objects,” Magritte says, “one can create new relations and specify characteristics of language and objects generally ignored in everyday life.” I detect a “new relation” forming between Magritte and Baker as the painter’s words link back to those of the writer, where Baker discusses how language can “focus in and enlarge”, much the way Magritte here tells us that the tension between language and things can “specify characteristics of language and objects”.
A loss often comes with the familiarising of things, as we become desensitised to the everyday. A quirk of language expresses this propensity: the word mundane travels back through Old French (mondain) and Late Latin (mundanus) to the Latin word mundus, meaning “world”. We once used mundane to refer to the secular and earthly, and now we use it to mean “dull” and “humdrum”, as if the ordinary is not interesting. Against this, Baker is pointing out the ridiculous and universal three-finger grip with which we cradle hot floppy pizza slices and paperback books; he reminds us of the existential “incredulousness and resignation” caused by disruptions to our routines, such as “reaching a top step but thinking there is another step there, and stamping down on the landing” and “drawing a piece of Scotch tape from the roll” and suddenly “reaching the innermost end of the roll, so that the segment you have been pulling wafts unexpectedly free”.
There is joy and connection to the wider world in having so familiar a thing described so perfectly by another person. It can buoy you through the tempestuous temperament of a universe that tosses us into life with no concern about whether we can swim, or if we woke up that morning without the energy to even doggy-paddle. Some might dismiss scrutinising trivia as a lesser venture than exploring the esoteric and the cosmic, but I see two problems with this:
(a) the “profound” paradigm-shifting stuff is, by its nature, harder to come by than the everyday. If profundity can be found in the mundane, then we need not wait for the numinous to come to us;
(b) we need transcendence to lift us out of the anaesthetic of normality and realign us with those truths that get obscured from us by quotidian preoccupations with bills, sickness, the traffic that we might be able to miss if we take a different road, whether we can eat this slice of cake because we did have a salad for lunch but then again we ate two biscuits instead of one with our cup of tea this morning, travel plans and not-travelling-enough regrets, and ... But what if we could find deeper meaning and be reminded of higher ideals not by avoiding these otherwise banal things but by looking at them differently, more closely, and seeing them the way children see everything for the first time?
As I go about my day with Baker’s books in my head, I leave my studio (forever mournful that I cannot drop into the fold and stay writing in a sempiternally cool morning with the soft wash of warming sun on my back), and I find “new relations” between the fixtures and ephemera of my life. I go to the cinema with a friend to see Jaws and notice that my favourite scene is the one in which Brody broods over dinner as his young, unevenly-toothed son mimics his body language. Brody tells the boy to give him a kiss. “Why?” his son asks. “Because I need it,” says the father. In a big movie about the dramatic adventure of fighting a great white shark, this scene precisely observes an intimate familial moment. It wakes that deeper part of me that reacts to truth in art like a crazed evangelical who wants to yell, Yes! This! This is right, everyone should come and look at this, experience this! Of course, I keep quiet in the cinema.
The next morning, before my partner runs out to the car to leave for work, she shows me a video-clip of a hummingbird moth. It hums as it hovers, its wings a faint haze in the perfect shape of their fan. I notice that this blur is perpetually darker at the top and bottom of its motion, which reminds me of the first footnote on page 1 of The Mezzanine: Baker’s discursive narrator tells us that he loves “the constancy of shine on the edges of moving objects”. As soon as I hear the familiar grumble of my partner’s pigeon-shit-stained car starting up, I seek the book from the shelf and reacquaint myself with the rest of the passage.
“Even propellers or desk fans will glint steadily in certain places in the grayness of their rotation; the curve of each fan blade picks up the light for an instant on its circuit and then hands it off to its successor.”
I recognise this constant gleam on rotating metal in the interminable shadow fixed in place within the light grey blur of the moth’s wings. The hummingbird moth hovers in front of its plunder, siphoning nectar from the flower through its straw-like protrusion. Like the same astonished child who flipped through those library books of bisected creatures and objects, in which I could sift out the undersurface answers to surface-inspired questions, I had asked my partner before she left, “So it eats pollen?” She nodded, “Pollen, nectar ... Basically all butterflies and moths drink flower juice.” I double-checked that caterpillars do eat leaves. “Yes,” I was told, as if she now also saw me as that simple child.
So here I am, thirty-two years old, sitting in my studio with my notebook open and pen uncapped, wondering why a creature eats one type of food in one form, then another kind of food when it takes on a different form. I link it to how humans drink breastmilk as infants and graduate to vegetables and coffee and chocolate fudge sundaes when we are older. The momentary mystery of this morning is easily explained, but now I am wondering about our changing dietary needs as humans. Which leads me to consider lactose-tolerance (this carriage attached to my train of thought at the station where I left behind babies needing milk), from which I am led to the agricultural revolution, to hunter-gatherer societies, to the tribe of cannibals in Papua New Guinea whom David Attenborough once greeted with a smile to win them over, to David’s brother Richard Attenborough, to Richard’s role in Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg, who also directed Jaws, and with no better word than “Eureka!” to express the jump-out-of-the-bath-with-inspiration moment I have, I am writing about how my favourite moment in Jaws uses the same close attention to detail that Baker is famous for.
The sense of an ending
I have the frustrating ability to recognise genius and how it is achieved without having the ability to produce it myself. I pay attention to thinkers whose intellectual content is intimidatingly profound, and who go further by matching the quality of content with quality of delivery: The sharpest ideas are conveyed in pithy phrases that are terse, lucid, lively, and unencumbered with needless adjectives as lesser writers might resort to, as if adding to a list of descriptors will produce clarity. Despite being able to deconstruct their brilliance and see the cogs at work, I need ten pages and a day’s worth of research to offer what a Hitchens or a Sontag can do with a single quip.
A friend recently told me he believed we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. I agree with the sentiment and have always read those who are well beyond my capabilities in the hope that I may improve through intellectual osmosis. This is the reason that as I struggle to end this essay, I turn to the last pages of U & I. But writers writing about writing is an esoteric genre difficult to pull off and harder to interest non-writers in, and while Baker succeeds, I am not convinced I am capable of the same. So how does Baker do it?
At the end of U & I, he gives an example of a tenuous connection between his writing and Updike’s, a frayed thread pinned to a few sentences from Baker’s first published story and stretched to reach a small section in a novel from Updike. Baker is aware that the similarities between the two are faint, but he suspects that “because [he] exists in print, Updike’s book is ... ever so slightly different”. This reversal of the direction of influence is “all the imaginary friendship” Baker needs. This is his final act of magnification in this wonderful, slender book: to deconstruct through close examination this infinitesimal possible-connection between himself and his subject. We finish the book on what it has been about all along – not Updike nor Baker, not biographee nor biographer, but the relationship between the two subjects, the dynamic created by the interaction of two entities.
We live our lives as if the world were made up of things. We move around obstacles and pick up objects and consume items. We pay attention to the universe of nouns, but perhaps we should pay more attention to the reality of verbs. It might be that life and meaning are found in the interactions between things. An object is only worth our attention in as much as it is (in some broad sense) useful to us – be it the plate of food we eat to subdue hunger, or the tree we climb for fun, or the door that permits and denies entrance, or the sunrise that signifies a good time to sleep or a bad time to be outdoors or that pleases the eye and soothes the soul. The thing is less important than the connections between it and other things.
We praise innovation for the seemingly new things it brings into our lives, and we admire originality for being apparently unlike what came before. With the zeal and narrow focus of 16th century cartographers and explorers, we assume that innovation and originality will only come from places where we have not yet looked. What if we are already surrounded by innumerable sources of wonder, some as yet unnoticed and others simply forgotten? Rediscovery, after all, can be as exciting and fruitful as discovery.
Nicholson Baker does more than simply notice the details. He opens them up to expose the multitudinous connections and contradictions and juxtapositions each thing takes with other things. He creates “new relations” by showing us the features of the world “generally ignored in everyday life”. Dropping into the fold is one thing, but Baker’s true superpower is returning the familiar to the strange.
I pause at my desk, look back at what I have typed, and think, That’s not a bad sentence to end on.
Thanks to my patrons:
I am grateful to everyone who has shown their support through Patreon, and an especially huge thank you to Hayley Whitehouse-Jones and Max Smith. Patrons get early access to the essays, exclusive content, and are vital to keeping Art of Conversation going. Click here to be part of the conversation at my Patreon.
• U & I, Nicholson Baker (1991)
• The Fermata, Nicholson Baker (1994)
• The Way the World Works, Nicholson Baker (2012)
• Auguries of Innocence, William Blake (1863)
• Wrapping Sentences Around Things, transcript of a talk by Nicholson Baker at “Lingua Franca: The 2014 D-Crit Conference” (2014)
• The Treachery of Images, René Magritte (1929)
• This Is Not A Pipe, Michel Foucault (1983)
• The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker (1988)
• Jaws, dir. Steven Spielberg (1975)