Nicholson Baker's new novel Traveling Sprinkler is ostensibly a sequel to his 2009 book The Anthologist, following protagonist Paul Chowder's efforts to win back the woman of his dreams. But at its heart, the new release stands on its own as a smoothly-flowing set of thoughts on music and how to write the perfect protest/pop/funkadelic song. And in writing Traveling Sprinkler, Baker blends the lines between physical book, music, and the internet.
As a 56 year-old, balding writer with a thick white beard, one who lives in Maine to boot, Baker hardly seems like a person dialed in to pop music. But then again, he hardly seemed like the person who would write the phone sex-focused bestselling novel Vox, the book infamous for its use as a gift from Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton. And so Baker does the same with Traveling Sprinkler and talks plenty of pop music, weaving in and out of his views on The Beatle's "Blackbird" ("how perfect and simple a song it was,") to Kanye West ("Boy, he’s got his hands full with Kim Kardashian,") to the music in Zach Braff's film Garden State ("Now, that’s a soundtrack").
The book is impossible to appreciate without at least a decent knowledge of pop music, and is best read alongside internet access. Baker knows this, and frequently writes about his thoughts watching YouTube or listening to his extensive iTunes library, subtly encouraging the reader to do the same.
Other times, those suggestions are not subtle at all. At one point, Baker places a literal YouTube URL in the text that would, if online, link to a song by one of his favorite artists, Stephen Fearing: "Listen to it on YouTube and you will be happy: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiJjLdcFF6Y." For the hard-copy reader, it's genuinely startling to see that "word jumble of nonsense letters" in print, as Baker said in a phone interview with The Atlantic Wire. And that's the point, he explained.
Despite URLs' garbled appearances, Baker said, "They lead you to something beautiful. It's a very strange thing. It's sort of like here is a secret code that we take for granted, that we use every day. We don't know how it works," Baker said in his typically thoughtful manner on minutiae. "So I thought, well, let me just type them out, let me include them, and make people look at this moment — this link — that they can't click on, and just think about it for a second."
Readers on an e-reader or tablet will surely have a different experience, particularly if they purchase the enhanced version of Traveling Sprinkler, which includes 12 of the songs Baker wrote for the book that get significant discussion time. "The fruits of my labors," he calls them.
Sadly for Baker, he couldn't quite complete a good funkadelic dance song. Though that wasn't for a lack of trying, as Baker has a deep appreciation for its bass-heavy beats.
"It keeps me thinking in a way — I listen to dance songs while I'm writing a lot. I've written several books with music just sort of thumping in my ears," Baker told The Atlantic Wire. "And at some point you think, well, I'm grateful for this. I want to mention these things."
In the end, the book reads almost like a Twitter feed, as it dances and prances around a range of topics in short bursts of literary flare. Baker adores the short and sweet sentence. Still, he has yet to join the 140-character writing masses.
"It feels too self-promotional. I'm still old school in that I like to float a book out there like a frisbee and let it land where it lands," he said.
But if he did have a Twitter, you might see some thoughts like this, quoted straight from the book.
@Nicholson_Baker: On Fountains of Wayne song 'All Kinds of Times': "Holy shit, is that a good song."
@Nicholson_Baker: "Dylan's singing is sometimes a little shaky."
@Nicholson_Baker: "Here’s to you, Bob Marley, you reconciler of opposites, you peacemaker."
@Nicholson_Baker: Tracy Chapman's 'Change' "may be the greatest protest song ever written. It's good partly because it offers no specific event or action. It's not protesting anything by name. It leaves it all up to you."
Like a frisbee, Traveling Sprinkler lands on bookshelves Sept. 17.
(Photo of Baker: AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)