A BOX OF MATCHES
By Nicholson Baker
Just what is Nicholson Baker’s latest novel about? Every morning the narrator, a medical text editor named Emmett who lives with his wife, two children, one cat and a pet duck, wakes up and lights a fire. As he sits by the fire, he enters his observations on life into a laptop. So it is a book of Emmett’s observations.
Observations aren’t considered thoughts or developed arguments. They are more like impressions. Emmett seems determined to reduce things to a bare minimum. He prefers getting up in darkness and feeling his way around the house to simply turning on a light. It would be too easy to limit his observations of household objects to what they look like when he can first go through the process of identifying them by touch, taste and smell.
There are no limits to his indulgence of the mundane. Among other things, Emmett considers the hole in his sock (“at night the edges of the hole come alive”), the effects of yawning (“sometimes a yawn will take on a life of its own”), the shape and texture of a roll of navel lint, the light from the little green bulb in the smoke detector, how to squirt dishwashing liquid from a bottle so as to avoid “the unpleasant floozling sound”, how to pick your underwear up off the floor with your toes, how to fart at night without making a lot of noise, and how to pee in the dark without getting it all over the seat.
There are four pages – four pages! – on how to pee in the dark.
There are several ways of explaining (or defending) a book that dwells so lovingly on such matters. You can say that these little things really mean a lot, and that such close attention to trivial details is part of a greater appreciation of life. You are made to notice common things as though for the first time and enjoy pleasures so small they are almost imaginary. “The nice thing about putting on your glasses in the dark is that you know you could see better if it were light, but since it is dark the glasses make no difference at all.” How true. Or take this: “I’m glad there are fifty-two weeks in the year – it seems like the right number, and there is the interesting incongruity with a deck of cards.”
If observations like these don’t satisfy, you can go on to say that little things really stand for something more important. For example, the fact that the intersection of four triangles of paper at the back of an envelope creates a raised lump may be full of significance. That lump, or “nugget,” is “something that isn’t in the envelopes but is of the envelopes.” Shades of Zen. “I would almost say,” Emmett almost says, “that there is a hint on the meaning of life there, in that revealed kernel.”
Finally, the whole exercise may be justified by the quality of the writing. Unfortunately, much of it reads like an exercise in a creative writing class where the student is asked to make a description of someone tying their shoelaces both accurate and interesting. Baker is a writer capable of doing this, and much more. Emmett’s minute account of the operation of his jaw as he chews an apple is a good example. We feel in it the charm and poetry of the everyday. And maybe we need to be more aware of such things. But A Box of Matches remains a little book that little is done with. It is a miniature portrait of the fine sensibility that may inform a quiet life without ambition, but it never makes the case for why we should care.
Review first published February 22, 2003.