A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker – a review

Alright, trying to get back on the horse and start cranking out some more book reviews, starting with this little read by Nicholson Baker. A little while back I reviewed Baker’s unapologetically raunchy House of Holes and found it fitting in with pretty much everything I have ever read of Baker’s. This was by no means a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoy Baker. Regardless of how deeply he dives into the sexual, I’m not sure I’d ever call him pornographic in the sense that he’s just doing it to do it and to titillate through it. I may just see too much in it, but I believe there has always been something more to Baker’s writing, that there has to be something more, because amidst all of the boobs, asses, penises and whatever else he works onto his pages, there’s also a breathtaking humanity. A Box of Matches is that humanity in focus.  Nowhere in these pages will anyone shoot through a drier at the laundromat to a sexual oasis. Instead, it will be page after page of a middle aged (or slightly passed middle age, depending on how pessimistic you want to be) man getting up every morning, making his way to the living room, starting a fire, and then ruminating for a moment on life.

what stands out to me now is how the narrator begins with attempting to get up earlier and earlier, attempting to find moments of true solitude while also avoiding waking himself up any more than he has to. He trains himself to work in the dark, but has a bit of a disaster when this or that item isn’t where he was accustomed to leaving and finding it. The only light he wants in the morning, at least until anyone else is up and about is the fire light. This makes me think of Werner Herzog’s recent documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In it, Herzog talks of not only the images on the walls, but how firelight must have played across them, and how the flickering of the light may have given them movement, a sense of liveliness.  I have to think that there is something similar to the narrator’s wanting to sit in front of the fire every morning, without any other lights intruding upon the dance of the flames and how the flames resemble the narrator’s memory.

While trying to make sense of life, recounting episodes from the previous day or from years before, his memory seems to ave that same flickering appeal. Really, they are very much like paintings in a dark cave. They are always there, they were put there for a reason, but they need to be illuminated to be noticed, to be significant. Not only do they need light cast upon them, but they need a special light to make them alive.  With each passing chapter, the narrator seems to be attempting to throw new light onto his life, to see it a different way, to divine something from the flickering images on the wall. I can’t say he dissects his life, it never comes across as that distanced and cold. In fact, the use and image of the fire works to dispel this idea. It’s not always the warmest practice, but there is a closeness to the narrator’s continued efforts that makes his journey distinctly human.

Also, sitting in the dark in front of the fire has a primitive aspect to it. The idea of dissection is scientific, modern. Baker’s searching narrator is anything but modern. He doesn’t use a lighter, but matches. He doesn’t have a gas fire with fake logs, but a real honest to God fireplace that has to be loaded with wood, lit with care and then managed. He goes out of his way to not light a lamp or hit a light switch. The only allowance he does seem to make to modernity is using a coffee maker. No matter how desperately you want to get back a simpler life, I guess you always have to have your coffee.

It seems significant that as the novel comes to a close, the narrator comes full circle.  He crumbles up the now empty box of matches and decides he wants to just go back to bed and lay with his wife.  Is he moving away from embracing memory and deciding to embrace the present instead?  I think there is certainly a hint of that here. Baker seems to be saying that memory has its place, but sitting in the solitude of memory involves sacrifices of its own. While the flickering images of the past can be comforting, even mesmerizing, they are still only images being played against the wall of the cave. While these moments are not forgotten, they are most certainly gone and attempting to live within them is foolish. Instead, there is the now, the forging of new memories that matters.  Even when that memory is just going back to bed.

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