Mr. Coffee

Nicholson Baker Starts a Fire

Good morning, it's 4:12 a.m., and I'm rereading Nicholson Baker's hypnotic sixth novel, A Box of Matches, in front of a fire.

"What you do first thing can influence your whole day," writes narrator Emmett, an editor of medical textbooks who lives in a small Maine town with his wife and two children. Emmett begins each chapter with "Good morning" and the time—tricky concepts at this hour—until I feel I'm watching Mister Rogers for adults, a pleasant way to go given the alternative: "If the first thing you do is stump to the computer in your pajamas to check your e-mail, blinking and plucking your proverbs, you're going to be in a hungry electronic funk all morning."

Imagine, then, the morning of a man who makes his coffee by feel, careful to poke his finger into the final mound of grounds because "when in darkness you scoop new coffee . . . the danger is that the coffee will unbeknownst to you stay stuck in the scooper, and that you will think you are pouring in scoop after scoop when in fact nothing is going in," and stares into a fire until he loses all sense of scale. "Sometimes I think I'm steering a space-plane into a gigantic fissure in a dark and remote planet," Emmett writes in deep blue on the black screen of his laptop—for all his fumbling in the dark, the very act of writing casts an artificial light that may break the fire's spell. "Continents are tipping and foundering like melting icebergs, and I must fly in on my highly maneuverable rocket and save the colonists who are trapped there," runs the end of this Box's first paragraph; by simply striking a match, Baker has traveled through space and time to set a world on fire.

For anyone who's been wondering what the savior of old newspapers (Double Fold), chronicler of shoddy cataloging at the San Francisco Public Library (The Size of Thoughts), and author of, among other fictions, The Mezzanine with its descriptions of straws and shoelaces more erotic than most other writers' descriptions of sex, The Fermata whose time-stopping and blouse-removing office temp can make a reader wish Baker had stuck to straws, and a very scary horror story about potatoes (Emmett himself tries to write one about fungi) would do for his next trick, the answer is: Write in such a way that science fiction and Thoreau are one and the same, and outer space is in your fireplace.


Good morning, it's 4:31 a.m., and the Baker publicity machine is on fire, literally, a balled-up letter from his publisher blooming as it burns. A stack of his previous books looks like one big book in the dark—a book in which Emmett shares Baker's bibliophilia (grabbing a coffee filter is "a sensation similar to turning the pages of an eighteenth-century book," while his pet duck's beak moves "like the typing ball on an old IBM Selectric"), Baker's prim-and-dirty take on sex (a boy on whom Emmett's wife used to have a crush is "gentle and aloof" and rumored to have an "unusually attractive" penis—a line that works whether or not you think penises are attractive), and even Baker's head (balding with a beard, which Emmett shaves to find a "plump weak face" instead of the "thin weak face" of his youth), so that the occasional paragraph on editing medical textbooks comes as a shock. The difference between this "novel" and a memoir is not clear by any light.

Such confusion is in the spirit of a book that crumples space and time. At the simple end of the spectrum there's the nice surprise in "I'm finding that a flat slab of junk mail dropped in the mail-slot created by two hot logs can sometimes get an unwilling fire to take the next," while at the simpler end there is Emmett's advice on how to break a chunk of apple off in your mouth. "If you do it slowly, it sounds like a tree falling in the forest," he notes, so that the old question about whether a falling tree makes noise even if no one's there to hear it becomes: Can you hear the tree falling in your mouth?

Much of the novel reads like a manual on how to perform life's most basic functions. How do you get to sleep while your spouse reads with the light on? Lay a sock across your eyes; it will fall off in the night. How do you pee in the dark? Men, don't even try to do it standing up. How can you tell if the dishes in the dishwasher are clean? The upturned bottoms of all the mugs have shallow tide pools of warm water.

Starbucks will probably never honor Baker with a drink called a "Baby's Brain," so here is the recipe:

First you pull out the old filter, with its layer of coffee sludge, and pin its sides together like a soft taco so that you can get it safely into the garbage can without spilling, and then you rinse out the filter basket and carafe, taking special care to clean the little hole in the plastic top of the carafe, which is like the hole in the top of a baby's head, where the coffee tinkles down from the basket and into the baby's brain.

This is also how to write—and whether you are the kind of reader who just likes coffee, or the kind who likes coffee tinkling into babies' brains, the metaphors build as slowly and as well as one of Emmett's fires—from the fact of "filter" to the transformation of the coffee into sludge, the sludge into taco-filling, the hole into a hole in the top of a head, the carafe into a brain.


Good morning, it's 4:10 a.m., and some lines make no sense—doughnuts showing through the plastic window of a box look "like the mailing address to a world in which everyone spoke with his mouth full"—and others seem torn from a children's book: "The idea is to remove all traces of soap [from a dish], because soap tastes bad." Such are Baker's powers that, as Emmett's kindling may be apple boughs one day and an apple core the next, all become part of the blaze.

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