In Nicholson Baker's 1994 novel-cum-Penthouse letter, The Fermata, an office drone enjoys the ability to freeze the flow of time with a snap of his fingers. And what does this latter-day Leopold Bloom do with his God-like facility? Mostly he undresses pretty women and masturbates--in other words, indulges pedestrian fantasies of what he would do if he could stop time. That casual absurdity is vintage Baker. Indeed, The Fermata might be the quintessential variation on the author's major theme--the compulsive, doomed pursuit of lost time. Yet, as is clear from his latest novel, A Box of Matches (Random House)--in which a man spends hours literally navel-gazing--Baker's fascination with time's ebb and flow isn't limited to prurient or fantastic possibilities. You get the sense that, were the author afforded that same clock-stopping power, he would be just as content making a close study of lichens or contemplating the insoluble mystery of bellybutton lint.
A Box of Matches is all about time--the title refers to the unit by which the narrator, a middle-aged editor of medical textbooks, measures a month of winter mornings spent by the fire recording his thoughts. "Good morning," he begins each entry, "it's January and it's 4:17 a.m., and I'm going to sit here in the dark." The man is, like most Baker characters, outwardly unexceptional: father and husband; caretaker of a pet duck; beset by insomnia and occasional fantasies of suicide; on balance, happy; and obsessively sensitive to time's passing.
In a characteristic Baker gambit, the narrator resolves to fill every instant of his empty mornings with thought: memories of his grandfather, for instance; or reflections on the pleasure of eating an apple; or a mental catalog of the varieties of fungal disease; or musings on the emotional life of the family duck; or strategies for peeing in the dark. In spirit, he's a sort of cheerful inversion of Dunbar, the character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, who tries to extend his life by filling it with distasteful moments (logic being: If life is boring, it will seem longer).
Consider one typically digressive reverie: "Passing me by, passing me by. Life is. Five years ago I planed to write a book for my son called The Young Sponge. I was going to give it to him as a birthday present. It was going to be the adventures of a cellulose kitchen sponge that somehow in the manufacturing is made with a bit of real sea sponge in it, giving it sentient powers. It lives by the sink but it has yearnings for the deep sea; it thirsts for the rock crannies and the briny tang. Then Nickelodeon came up with a show, and a pretty good one, about a sponge. My idea was instantly dead: my son would think I was merely copying a TV show. Nickelodeon had acted, I had only planned to act."
The current rap on Baker is that he's a miniaturist, a monkish cataloger of arcana like Nickelodeon shows and the proper care and feeding of ducks. That's true after a fashion; you might have to go back to Proust to find a writer who's written more about less. But there's something else at work in Baker's best fiction, a creeping sense of mortality that lends gravity to his recorded musings. (One could argue that this informed last year's Double Fold, a quixotic broadside aimed at saving the world's old books from the ravages of microfilm transfer.) That may be what gives A Box of Matches its droll, mournful poetry. Baker doesn't need to stop time; he already wrings a world's worth of pleasure out of its ordinary rhythms.