Monday, May 14, 2007

Dark Mornings of the Soul

I got up way early this morning, which is not unusual for me, and rather impulsively plucked a small paperback from the bookshelf that I've long been meaning to read: Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches, which is, also, about a guy who gets up every morning at 4 a.m. Funny how these things sometimes work.

Baker is maybe the world's most famous literary minimalist. He writes quite eloquently and often movingly about the most ordinary things in the world, and this book gives him a lot of domestic banalities to work with. The narrator of this book is an impassioned, curious noticer of the common everyday, and this comes to him partly by trade, as he's an illustrator of medical textbooks. Every morning he makes coffee -- always careful to somehow manage to do it in the dark, a process he explains in some detail, and lights a fire, using whatever's at hand (newspaper circulars, an Quaker Oats container, used envelopes from the day's mail) to get it going. Sometimes he digs the lint from his belly button and watches that burn, too.

He describes all this and a great deal more (the best way to ease yourself out of pajamas, the way his toes reactively reflex when he drops soap in the shower, the feel of a stubborn skillet stain when you're washing dishes, the advantages of sitting down when you get up for a midnight piss) in fascinating detail; fascinating mainly because so much of it is extremely familiar and because you may have never seen it described in print before -- sort of the way joke can be surprisingly funny when it's based on an observation you recognize but never thought worth mentioning.

These observations gradually and casually lead to others involving his life, which is not bad -- he has a wife who apparently loves him and kids who are happily ordinary and untroubled. In fact, there isn't a lot about the life of this man that seems troubling from the outset, except that there is: at 44, he's becoming increasingly aware of how fragile life is, and how time is going by, and how eventually he's going to go by with it. He is "extremely date conscious" -- careful to note the dates on his letters and photographs. Shoveling out his fireplace, he becomes aware of how quickly things can be reduced to ash: "The ungraspableness of history, which can seem thrilling or frightening depending on your mood, can assert itself at any moment."

He fantasizes different elaborate methods of suicide, none of which he'll likely ever attempt, if only because he's something of a control freak on this subject, and the appropriate follow-through of a suicide is as important to him as the set-up.

The family has a pet duck whose life is as precarious as the narrator's own, except that ducks aren't gifted with thoughts of what it all means.

You can feel strange worries about the nature of consciousness when you try to imagine what a duck is thinking about all night closed up in a doghouse with a bowl of slowly freezing water and some food pellets, with a screen door over the opening to keep out coyotes and a blanket over the screen door. Every so often, she roots a little in the shavings -- looking for what? She wants grubs and worms, but there aren't any now, too cold. Why does she exist? We as a family exist to be nice to the duck, and the duck exists to puzzle us.

He returns to thoughts of this duck several times, such as late in the book, when he steps outside to turn off the dome lights of his mini-van.

I stood for a moment to sense the cold's spaciousness and impersonality. It was remarkable to think that human beings felt that they could endure in this dark, inhospitable place. If I slipped and fell and was unable to move I'd die. And yet the duck, more or less immobile under her shroud, lived through the night just fine, and was ready to burble in the warm water of her eating bowl as soon as I came out.

Our narrator is seizing the day because life has seized him; beneath his many close observations is a fading, not especially confident desire both to understand life and to hold on to it. The morning fire is his defense against not just a cold winter, but a world that is itself cold and indifferent, and contrary to what Faulkner said about art and literature, it is the small particulars of this narrator's life which serve as "the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

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