Field Notes: Room Temperature, Typee

ROOM TEMPERATURE

SYNOPSIS: Nicholson Baker’s 1990 sophomore novel, about a man who, while giving his six-month-old daughter a bottle, lets his minder wander.

CONDITION: Vintage paperback, bought basically new from Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: Mines similar territory as Baker’s debut, 1988’s The Mezzanine, but in a quieter, more domestic setting. Still molasses-slow—the narrator blows a puff of breath towards his daughter’s mobile, but the mobile doesn’t start to move until pages and pages later. Still relentlessly brainy. The sentences dance. The punctuation a series of well-placed ramps and slides. Narrator is a kind, erudite, middle-class man—just like Baker himself. Tangential thoughts covered include: the “lunar surface” of a just-opened jar of peanut butter; the limits of what a husband and wife can share with one another re: bodily functions and not be disgusted; and the narrator’s nostalgia for his father’s bacon and peanut butter sandwiches. The sandwiches are nicknamed “graveyards.”

Still a delight to spend time with a character so willing to follow his memory down every rabbit hole, and a writer so eager to stay in the moment until the moment has revealed something new. To him, and to us. Baker’s gift is in expertly plucking out average but universal moments you didn’t even know you’d held onto. Example:

[M]y second-grade essay about garbagemen that had no commas at all and capitalized the first letter of every noun and used a ditto sign each time a word coincidentally appeared below itself on a line…

Had, for the first time in five books, a brief moment of doubt. That maybe, for all his stylistic glamour, Baker doesn’t take any real risks. That recognition is not enough. That a novel like Room Temperature might actually be the height of self-absorption—that the things I take delight in are just a smug affirmation of how great it is to be white and middle class and comfortable in every way. Not sure how to respond to this.

But the project is worthwhile. We’re all surrounded by objects, and by memories. Both get swept aside and ignored; both are important. Both are connected. Baker is really a re-animator, and an elegant one at that. Still, in those moments when his gifts falter—there are several mid-career novels I hear not-great things about—I wouldn’t be surprised if that kind of rote back-patting is the trap he falls into.

* * * * *

TYPEE

SYNOPSIS: Herman Melville’s 1846 debut novel, a heavily autobiographical account of a young man who jumps ship in the South Pacific and falls in with a tribe of natives who are, in all probability, cannibals.

CONDITION: Bought used from Vancouver’s Pulp Fiction in 2008. A beautiful 1996 paperback put out by, of all places, the Quality Paperback Book Club.

THOUGHTS: Most people probably come to this checking for any nascent signs of later Biblical grandiosity and stratospheric ambitions. Also, to see how Melville first tried to present himself as a writer—especially considering that this was the most popular of his books during his own lifetime. Probably not surprising that Typee's a pleasant book. I suppose an informative one, too. But Melville obviously hadn't re-read his Shakespeare collection yet.

Nearly everything seems autobiographical, though the timeline is stretched out. The narrator abandons his poorly run ship along with another sailor. They run into the jungle on Nuku Hiva, one of the Marquesas Islands. Three valleys to choose from; three different tribes of warring natives. They wind up amidst the worst: the Typees. But they seem nice. They won’t let the sailors leave their sight, but the cannibal rumours seem greatly exaggerated. This is no small consolation.

Thought about noble savages. Melville makes their lives seem noble indeed: no pesky Christianity, laws, or even monogamy to clutter things up. Just coconuts and swimming all day long. (Though reports of orgies are also greatly exaggerated.) Narrator indicts those tourist journalists who report from afar—but is Melville’s real three-week immersion enough to give him the authenticity card?

Some lovely writing. Too many anthropological reports for my tastes. Twists and reveals in the third act handled nicely. Shows few hints of future greatness, aside from a basic moral openness. The physicality of distances and spaces are vivid throughout. Maybe this is key to the later success of the “Chase” chapters in Moby-Dick. Important: how cool is Melville? How many writers see the world whaling, then hang out with cannibals as royalty for a month—all by 23? Fewer descriptions of breadfruit would have been nice.

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