Investigates the complex and controversial reputation of the writer lauded by Vanity Fair as "the best writer of our generation"
In addition to being celebrated as a prose miniaturist for such works as The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, Baker is widely viewed as a best-selling highbrow eroticist for Vox and The Fermata. In Understanding Nicholson Baker, Arthur Saltzman engages these provocative fictions as well as Baker's renowned nonfiction to show how his seemingly disparate works derive from and demonstrate an unremitting zeal for explicit detail, along with descriptive obsessiveness and linguistic virtuosity.
Through close readings of Baker's work—including his 1998 novel, The Everlasting Story of Nory—Saltzman provides not only an introduction to a sublimely spirited writer but also a systematic appreciation of the rewards of his writing. Taking issue with reviewers who have labeled Baker a minimalist, Saltzman argues that the novelist's work has none of the poverty or predictability that the term suggests. He also defends Baker against charges of chauvinism and vulgarity for Vox and The Fermata, maintaining that the intricately detailed passions of these erotic novels are in accord with the intricate detail in The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. Saltzman contends that voyeurism is a natural extension of Baker's other obsessive attentions.
Saltzman describes Baker's nonfiction as a similarly inventive, unpredictable, and minutiae-oriented body of work. He offers analyses of U and I: A True Story, a quirky homage to John Updike, and of The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber, in which Baker visits his witty erudition on subjects ranging from the history of punctuation to the treasures of library card catalogs. Saltzman concludes that Baker is consumed with fundamentals—from arriving at a drugstore, to getting a baby to sleep, to rooting out the history of a plastic bottle or a bit of slang—and that Baker's aim is to revise the very nature of literary adventure.
Arthur Saltzman is a professor of English at Missouri Southern State College. Author of The Novel in the Balance and Understanding Raymond Carver, Saltzman also has published essays in such journals as Modern Fiction Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Literal Latte, Gettysburg Review, and Ohio Review.