Everyone who has ever had to evaluate anything will appreciate the opening of Nicholson Baker’s new novel, “Traveling Sprinkler,” in which the narrator dreams he has to review a cookbook, so he and his girlfriend make the octopus-walnut muffins, and he says they don’t taste so good, and she says, “Maybe you could praise the walnuts?”
That’s Baker’s rueful, funny world view in a nutshell, and, yes, he, too, makes terrible puns, or at least his narrator, Paul Chowder, does. We first met Chowder in Baker’s 2009 novel, “The Anthologist.” In that story, Chowder, a poet, struggles to overcome writer’s block and win back his girlfriend, Roz. Four years later, he hasn’t succeeded in either area, but he has a plan that should set everything right: He’s going to become a songwriter, he says, and be immensely successful and also reel in Roz. So he buys a lot of equipment and jumps in as only a Nicholson Baker character can.
Among writers today, Baker is our most genial obsessive. He’ll take any topic — here, songwriting but also predator drones, cigar smoking and the sprinkler mentioned in the title — and follow it down the rabbit hole in such a delightful way that you sometimes forget that you’re not really reading what most people would call a novel. Even Chowder has doubts: Toward the end, he wonders whether the story he is telling “is in fact a book,” and then convinces himself, “I think it is.”
Whether working on a song or planning his own life, Chowder seems more interested in rehearsing than in finishing anything. Usually, one gets a hint of a book’s ultimate shape in its first 20 pages or so. Here, though, I didn’t see where “Traveling Sprinkler” was going until — well, I never did see.
Or I saw on the final page, but that’s a little late.
All of Chowder’s songs are fairly terrible, but he’s a lovable screwup. At one point, he compares himself to a traveling sprinkler, a gizmo that moves across lawns doing what sprinklers do but only as long as everything is hooked up right. “I feel like a traveling sprinkler that’s gotten off the hose,” he says. “I don’t know where I’m going. I’m unprepared. Good for me.”
Good for you?
Baker has written some wonderful novels — “The Mezzanine,” “Vox,” “The Fermata” — but “Traveling Sprinkler” is a bit of an octopus-walnut cupcake. “This is fun!” you think as you bite in, and then you realize that the ingredients don’t really come together.
Kirby teaches English at Florida State University.
Nicholson Baker will be at the National Book Festival on the Mall on Saturday.