As you will probably have guessed based on my post from a few days ago, I enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s novel Room Temperature. It’s his second novel, and it follows a similar format as his first, The Mezzanine: both take place during a small chunk of time — in the first novel the time it takes to ride up an escalator, and, in the second, the twenty minutes it takes for the narrator to feed his infant daughter — and they both range outwards and back in time to fill in details of the narrator’s surroundings and his life.
Both have narrators who, much like Baker himself (as evidenced in his essays at least), are extremely observant of and curious about the world around them, especially when it comes to the objects that surround them and fill their lives — the things that most of us take for granted. The Mezzanine’s narrator was obsessed with many things, but I remember, in particular, long passages on shoe laces and on drinking straws, and in Room Temperature, the narrator reminisces at length about glass peanut butter jars and the sound they make when first opened. The narrator is a former music student and aspiring composer and he once dreamed of writing a symphony that began with exactly that peanut butter jar sound.
If books about shoe laces and peanut butter jars sound boring, they are not at all. Instead of boring you, Baker inspires you to look more closely at the world you live in. There’s so much to see and learn, the books imply, so much we don’t even notice that’s right in front of our eyes. In fact, in Room Temperature Baker plays with the idea that we can reconstruct much of our own history and the history of the world if only we looked closely enough at the present. He makes this argument directly in at least two places in the novel:
I certainly believed, rocking my daughter on this Wednesday afternoon, that with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected; that is, that there was enough content in that single confined sequence of thoughts and events and the setting that gave rise to them to make connections that would proliferate backward until potentially every item of autobiographical interest — every pet theory, minor observation, significant moment of shame or happiness — could be at least glancingly covered …
This passage sums up his aesthetic in both novels — to narrow down his focus and in the narrowing to see how his vision actually expands to include a whole life. But the passages continues:
… but you had to expect that a version of your past arrived at this way would exhibit … certain telltale differences of emphasis from the past you would recount if you proceeded serially, beginning with “I was born in January 5, 1957,” and letting each moment give birth naturally to the next. The particular cell you started from colored your entire re-creation.
You will not obtain an objective view following Baker’s method, but you wouldn’t obtain an objective view no matter what method you used anyway; any way you choose to look at the world or your life is going to shape the way you see it.
In a later passage Baker takes up this narrowing idea again, not to describe a life but to describe the world. Thinking about the miniscule currents of air moving through the room in which he’s rocking his daughter, he wonders:
If, using some as yet undeveloped high-resolution technique of flow visualization, I filmed the motion of a cubic yard of air … and if I studied that film for four hours a day, during Bug’s [the daughter’s] two naps — just looked at it, leaned into the idea of it with my entire self — at various speeds, and took the videotape from one international congress on turbulence to another, and made men of science look at it so that I could read in their polite expressions some of the particular complexities it offered their more geometrically manipulative minds, would I begin to feel that I could deduce from its veils of infinitesimal insurgence and reversion the objects in the room around which the air had flowed before it entered this domain of record? Would I deduce the shapes of the half-inflated plastic globe and the cheese grater on the rug, the superball in the fireplace, my dusty collection of mechanical coin-sorts on one of the bookshelves — and infer that a man breathing steadily through his nose in a rocking chair rocking at roughly one cycle every two seconds had held a baby also breathing through her nose on the verge of sleep?
And he goes on from there, wondering just how far he could take the information he’d gather from watching air flow through one cubic yard for twenty minutes. I thought that was rather wonderful — everything is connected to everything else, whether it’s through air or through memory, and one object or patch of air or memory will take us to another and another and another until eventually we’ve covered everything.
This book is intellectually interesting and it’s charming too. The narrator tells stories about Patty, his wife, as well as his daughter; he describes not only the air and the peanut butter jars in such great detail, but also his relationship with his family. The feeling that comes from all this is an infectious joy. This is a book about contentment; it’s curious and searching and about happiness and wonder. You can feel it in the long sentences and paragraphs Baker uses; it’s as though he’s trying to squeeze as much experience and as much life into his book as possible, and the sentences threaten to break apart with the energy and effort it takes. But they don’t — instead those Proustian sentences take you every which way, and you are happy to follow wherever they lead.
That said, I do think The Mezzanine is the better book of the two. Room Temperature takes a while to build up the kind of energy I’m describing; it has a beautiful but rather slow beginning, as though Baker needed some time to generate momentum. It does get that momentum, but overall, it’s a quieter book than The Mezzanine. The Mezzanine had so much of the energy I’ve described that it could hardly contain itself and burst out into those footnotes I wrote about a year or so ago. Still, Room Temperature is a beautiful book, and I’m determined to read more Nicholson Baker novels.