January 2003

Nicholson Baker’s fireside chats

By Nicholson Baker
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A Box of Matches is both the title and central metaphor of Nicholson Baker's new novel. The narrator uses matches each morning to build a pre-dawn fire, and his small matchbox also represents the contained days of an ordinary life.

While conventional novels have a central conflict that builds to a crisis point, A Box of Matches works on a cyclical, postmodernist plane. Readers are directly greeted by the narrator's cheerful "Good morning," as well as his report of the time, in chapters that read like fireside diary entries. We hear his observations on such mundane activities as showering, washing dishes, feeding pets, watching condensation on a glass and repositioning his toes to avoid a hole in his sock. Baker renders these common tasks in beautiful and strangely heartbreaking fashion, as in this description of his son: "I gave Henry a bath, and saw all of his forehead, as you do when your child is in the bath all that high, smooth forehead, as I rinsed out the shampoo, and I pointed toward the back of the tub, meaning Look way back,' so that his head would tip back enough for me to rinse the shampoo from the hair just above his forehead, and I saw his young face, trusting me not to drip water in his eyes . . . and I thought, I've got only a few years of Henry being a small boy." In such passages, the narrator's ordinary experiences quietly echo flashier ones thus examining the relentless passage of time and the logic of the novel's cyclical form comes to light, revealing a subtle conflict, existential in its nature.

Baker's experimental approach to fiction makes A Box of Matches a challenging read despite its brevity. The author aims to make his audience experience, the very sameness of days the narrator is coming to recognize. Thus, though Baker's conflict isn't immediately apparent, it couldn't be more universal. After all, we're all going through our allotted days just as the narrator works through his box of matches with contentment, dread and resignation.

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A Box of Matches

A Box of Matches

By Nicholson Baker
Random House
ISBN 9780375502873

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