Nicholson Bakker apparently tends to write slow, thoughtful and literary texts- I say ‘apparently’ because I know this now, but not, unfortunately, when I started reading, and my expectations made for a disappointing reading experience. Instead of ‘contemplative literary novel’, I was primed for ‘book-themed thriller’, largely because I’d picked up The Book Thief and The Thirteenth Tale around the same time as The Anthologist, and both of those books are thriller-esque. All of which makes this review hard to write as an objective assessment of Bakker’s book- my dashed expectations are a very particular frame of reference. In short, although this book was well-reviewed by many critics, including the Paper of Record (“a tremendous success”! says the NYT), my take was more of a ‘meh, it was fine’.
The Anthologist focuses on the inner thoughts of Paul Chowder, a middle-class, middle-aged poet of middling success. Paul is suffering from writer’s block and cannot seem to draft the introduction to the anthology of rhyming poetry that he has been putting together. Conflict-wise, this procrastination is implied to be the reason his long-term girlfriend, Roz, has just left him (although they remain on good terms, and the possibility of her return is not ruled out) and is also the reason that his editor is hounding him to finish the introduction. This conflict appears early in the novel, and so the plot, such as it is, is really just Paul procrastinating on a variety of levels (rearranging his office, picking blueberries, etc.) while he thinks about poetry, ostensibly trying to think through the main question is introduction is supposed to address: why does poetry, particularly rhyming poetry, matter? At first I was worried about additional conflict popping up- how was Paul going to pay bills now that Roz is gone? Is he going to seriously injure himself as he absent-mindedly bumbles about while thinking about his introduction? (He slices his finger several times, and I was waiting/hoping there weren’t any worse injuries coming). In one sense I think this was a good sign- I cared enough about Paul that I wanted him to pull himself together and arrive at the Introduction unscathed. In another sense, I needn’t have worried- this is not the type of novel that creates conflict by throwing its protagonist into the flames of physical or financial trauma.
In terms of pacing and limited plot, I’ve been considering how this book measures up against A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is also a slow-paced novel in which not much ultimately happens. Unfortunately for Bakker, and despite the fact that I quite liked Paul as a character, The Anthologist comes out worse for wear. Where A Tree was shining a light on a world that was far from my own (the slums of 1900’s Brooklyn), Paul’s world is one I can more easily imagine (middle class academic in current New England). Moreover, I found myself frustrated with Paul in ways I hadn’t been with Francie, the protagonist in A Tree– I liked Paul, but I emphasized more with Roz, Paul’s long suffering girlfriend. Pull yourself together Paul and just write something! You need to pay the grocery bill!