Lovable Losers

By Guriel, Jason | Parnassus : Poetry in Review, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Lovable Losers


Guriel, Jason, Parnassus : Poetry in Review


Nicholson Baker. The Anthologist. Simon & Schuster 2009. 243 pp. $25.00

Roberto Bolaño. The Savage Detectives. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2007. 577 pp. $27.00

Every so often, a subculture, especially an insecure one, likes a reflective surface held up to its mug, if only to confirm that it does in fact exist. Surely many readers of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (1995) - specifically, those who fancied themselves connoisseurs of popular music - enjoyed seeing their record-store world represented in print as much as they enjoyed the novel itself. At the very least, High Fidelity had therapeutic benefits. It allowed a notoriously difficult type - the usually young, usually white, and invariably male record collector - an insight into certain of his own tendencies: the obsession with obscure vinyl, the making of the mixtape for purposes of mating, the compilation of the top-five list in the event of exile to some desert island. By identifying his tendencies, the novel was also gently satirizing them, but no matter; High Fidelity was still a pleasure, if only because it enabled that most satisfying kind of voyeurism: the prolonged peek at oneself.

A good deal of the excitement that greeted Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist issued from the poetry world, which recognized in the novel something like its own High Fidelity. The Anthologist concerns a middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder, one of a few fictional characters in an otherwise real world - our world, the one in which a man named Paul Muldoon serves as Poetry Editor for The New Yorker and a Ted Kooser has "sticky-outy ears." Chowder, we're to understand, is a bit of a has-been; it's been years since he got his Guggenheim (the "Old Gugg," as he puts it), and the appearances of his poetry in The New Yorker have tapered off (not that there were many to begin with). He ought to be applying the finishing touches to an anthology, Only Rhyme, that he's been editing, but he can't quite bring himself to write the introduction. Instead, he has holed up in his barn and taken to kibitzing with the reader; in fact, for long stretches the novel assumes the form of an improvised primer on poetry. (When Chowder says, "Woops - dropped my Sharpie," ten pages in, we realize he's been diagramming.) It's as if he's running an MFA workshop in an empty room. He's not wrestling schizophrenia or anything; he's merely rehearsing his ideas to the drywall, as lonely poets are apt to do. "What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class," Chowder explains. (He no longer can bear to teach the real kind of class, with live students.) He's also weathering a break-up, although the romantic subplot, as in High Fidelity, seems a litde incidental. But then so does the main plot, such as it is. Poet pines, poet procrastinates, poet serves on panel at conference: That's about all we get.

Much of the novel's pleasure derives from Chowder's musings on poetry and anecdotes about the subculture. And yet the many names of living, breathing poets dropped by Chowder are mostly ends unto themselves. If you're hoping for a showdown between, say, Franz Wright and William Logan, for some fisticuffs between aggrieved poet and ruthless reviewer, your bloodlust won't be sated. If you're agreeably scandalized when Chowder calls Billy Collins a "[c]harming chirping crack whore," you're let down a sentence later when Chowder withdraws the cheap shot. ("I know nothing about him," he says, like a good adult. "I know only my own jealousy.") Robert Pinsky, another big name, strikes Chowder as "a pretty smooth dude. He used to be the poetry editor of The New Republic. Rejected some things of mine and more power to him." And yet it's unclear what Chowder means by "smooth" - an artist's sprezzatura, a careerist's crassness, a Don Juan's slickness? For a thwarted poet addressing an empty room, he can be remarkably ambiguous, if not cautiously diplomatic, about his contemporaries; he names names, but to no great effect. …

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