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Book reviews: Poetry and a Twisty Tale

Published 12/16/2009 12:00 AM

 

"The Anthologist"

By Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster

$25.

 

You could call "The Anthologist" a novel, in the loose sense of the term. There is a plot - Paul Chowder has been commissioned to write the introduction to a poetry anthology, but he can't seem to complete it. In a paroxysm of writer's block so dire that it prompts his live-in girlfriend to leave him - which, on the face of it, seems like a pretty lousy reason to dump somebody, and one that, if it caught on, could leave a lot of writers single - he spends his days thinking and talking about poetry but not writing about it. One chapter actually begins, "Another inchworm fell on my pant leg." That's about the extent of the narrative tension here.

Aside from that slim story line and a few minor characters, including a badminton-playing neighbor, Nan, that he briefly desires, this book is nothing more than a vessel to contain everything that Chowder knows about poetry. And Chowder - that is, Baker - knows a great deal. He can explain meter and rhyme in a way you've never heard before, so that you find yourself tsk-tsking when you spot a poem in The New Yorker where one line butts into another.

He knows all the arcane details about poets' lives, such as how they died. He knows the precise circumstances under which rhymed poetry went out of fashion, and he mourns it.

"The tongue is a rhyming fool," he writes. "It wants to rhyme because that's how it stores what it knows."

Instead of writing all this down for his anthology introduction, Chowder takes a plastic chair to the second floor of his barn, where he tries to write and tries to lecture and ends up with nothing. He sets up the lawn chair and an easel outside next to a creek, but gets distracted by Nan. All the while, his head is humming with everything he knows, seemingly too much to be contained in an anthology introduction, especially as it comes to him in random spurts, inspired by a wasp in the barn or that inchworm, which he plays with while writing a placating e-mail to his editor. In these random spurts a contemplation of e-mail itself can lead him to a comment about Swinburne, and a fruitless search for a poetry file prompts a trip to see John Greenleaf Whittier's house. And all the while we are along for this madcap ride of meter and rhyme.

Try to read "The Anthologist" slowly, to savor it, but don't be surprised if you find yourself taking the book in huge, appreciative gulps, drinking in Chowder's insights with delight and surprise.

 

"A Reliable Wife"

By Robert Goolrick

Algonquin Books

$23.95.

 

They call it the inciting incident - the action at the beginning of a novel that sets the plot in motion. In film, Alfred Hitchcock called it the "McGuffin," a circumstance that often is irrelevant to the rest of the story but nonetheless sparks all that will follow.

In the first pages of "A Reliable Wife," businessman Ralph Truitt is waiting for his mail-order bride, Catherine Land, to arrive on a train in the subzero temperatures of the 1907 Wisconsin winter. Widowed for many years, Truitt has suffered silently while his conjugally satisfied neighbors and employees enfold him in a cloak of pity. As Catherine's train heads toward their meeting, the reader quickly surmises she is not the "reliable wife" she's promised him but a cagey woman on the take who has sewn her jewels into her skirt as a backup plan.

As if all this isn't enough to set a story in motion, author Robert Goolrick unleashes his McGuffin as the two ride home in a carriage: A deer spooks the horses, who send Truitt flying. Catherine manages to stop them on a frozen river and save her own life, and then must rescue her fiancé as well.

The wild horses have little to do with the story that unfolds, but the incident immediately throws the characters, and the reader, off balance. The dynamic we had expected is subtly altered, the expectations for these characters shifted. Truitt has imagined "a reliable wife," but what that means will evolve in unexpected and startling ways. Catherine imagined Truitt to be a stooge, but she will play a complicated, duplicitous role that even she does not fully understand.

The McGuffin is unleashed in the first 35 pages. It's impossible to describe much more about the plot without ruining the thread of discovery and nuance that Goolrick brings to his story, one of twisted motives, changing perceptions and ethical dilemmas. None of the characters can claim a moral superiority; in fact, sometimes it is difficult to decide just who is the protagonist, and what you would wish for them. The climax of "A Reliable Wife" may feel right, but the reader is left with a bad taste in his mouth, as though rooting for a convict whose rehabilitation never quite atones for the original crime.

 

Betty J. Cotter holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and is the author of the novel "Roberta's Woods."