In his tenth novel, Travelling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker revisits Paul Chowder, the central character from his 2009 novel, The Anthologist. A poet in his mid-fifties, Chowder has lost his way and wants his ex-girlfriend Roz back. He has abandoned “difficult” poems for pop music, laying down tracks on synth software in his barn. When he isn’t writing songs, Chowder indulges in all the low-level addictive behaviours technology can offer. He is a YouTube autodidact, an intensive curator of his iTunes library and a close-reader of tobacco reviews on a website called The Cigar Inspector.
A song Chowder likes is a “genuine brainworm”—a tune you can’t get out of your head. Can fiction, too, have that effect? Partly, yes. It can be quotable and compulsive, as Baker shows, even when dealing with the most mundane topics. (Obsession is a familiar theme with Baker, whose third book, U&I, is a chronicle of his creatively paralyzing admiration for John Updike.) As in previous novels such as Room Temperature, Baker pursues the almost-banal: two characters dispute whether “inscrutable” is a better word than “cash.” Experiences are “good” or “impossibly good.” At one point, he transcribes throat-clearing: “Harrooom!” Chowder’s voice channels the melancholy banter of late night radio, with added quotes, puns, sorrows and sighs. And the narrative is carried by an energy like that of browsing the internet: amusing, surprising, finally noncommittal.