THE LAST few years have not been easy for fans of Nicholson Baker. He began his career with two dazzling novels, The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1989) and an essay (on Updike) that everyone should read, U & I (1991).
The genius of early-Baker lay in his ability to zero in on small, often neglected aspects of life and reveal extraordinary richness therein. He wrote meditations on what it feels like to brush your teeth, tie your shoe laces and be embarrassed at smart parties. His writing was elegant, funny and warm. It seemed he could do no wrong. But then, horrifically, Baker started turning out some strange stuff.
First came Vox (1992) an implausible and rather silly record of a phone sex conversation, then The Fermata (1994), an even more implausible and tedious story of a man's masturbatory fantasies. Fans waited patiently for better days. There was a reprieve of sorts with the publication of The Size of Thoughts (1996), a collection of Baker's idiosyncratic and razor-sharp essays written over the previous decade. And now comes a new novel, which can be summed up (in the colloquial American-ese often found in Baker's books) as sort of cheesy and sort of great.
The novel relates a few months in the life of Eleanor Winslow, a nine- year-old American girl who has moved to the cathedral city of Threll, a fictionalised version of Ely in Cambridgeshire, with her parents and younger brother (known as "Littleguy"). Echoes of Baker's real life abound. The back jacket tells us that Baker and his family spent "much of last year" in Ely, the book is dedicated to "my dear daughter Alice, the informant" and the fictional Nory's father is a writer (Nory thinks he writes books that send people to sleep, because all the books she knows are good for doing that).
The great problem with the novel is that its heroine is unbelievably cute, far too cute for her own good as a fictional character. For the first third of the book, everything we're told about her is designed to reinforce one central message: that Nory Winslow is a sweetheart, generous, funny, off the wall. She rescues ladybirds, is nice to her little brother, sticks up for an unpopular girl at school, stands up to bullies and loves her parents. When she's grown-up, she wants to be a dentist or a paper engineer, but definitely wants to get a PhD because her mother's told her that's what really clever people have. She's also a bit of a genius. She writes great stories about princesses and dolls and teddy-bears and has some seriously evolved thoughts for a nine-year-old. The problem, as the reader soon notices, is that Nory's inner life owes far too much to Baker's own sensibility. Take this image of her baby brother's mind: "His head was still basically a construction site, filled with diggers and dumpers driving around in mushy dirt, and it was hard for him to tell what were the real outlines of his ideas." Which is a lovely image, but doesn't ring true when it's supposed to come from Nory, and is in fact very close to an image Baker used in one of the opening essays in his collection, The Size of Thoughts.
The other main problem is that Baker has chosen to narrate the book in a childlike voice. For instance, "Threll school was started by a kind- looking person with a fur collar whose picture hung on the stairs ... " or "In Venice she ate pitch-black spaghetti. The black was squid ink and it was quite good." This can get very grating and could prove intolerable for readers on this side of the Atlantic.
But that would be a pity, because there are also some good things here. Despite initially trying too hard, Baker does eventually succeed in getting the reader to like his heroine, expanding her from a xzero to at least a two-and-a-half dimensional character. Moreover, he is brilliant at describing the politics of children, how nasty they can be and what psychological tortures regularly go on in the playground.
For the first time in a Baker novel, there's a plot of sorts, with Nory juggling between her friendship with the unpopular girl of the school, double-jointed Pamela, and Kira, the leader of the cool gang. The dilemmas she faces are so stark as to evaporate the cloying sentimentality of other parts of the novel. And even if Nory's reflections are often a little too big for her age, some of them are very funny. For example, Nory's thoughts on the expression "the last straw": "This was not," she reflects, "the last straw in the machine at a restaurant that when it was taken meant the machine was empty and you would have to drink your milkshake sadly without a straw."
The book is also genuinely touching: the account of Nory's life may be marred by the over-enthusiasm of the doting parent, but then, nine-year- old girls can at times be very sweet and interesting, and one can't help but be moved by the depth of Baker's interest in his little heroine, who must owe so much to his own daughter Alice.