'A Box of Matches' -- the serenity of contemplation

January 12, 2003|By David Rakoff | By David Rakoff,Special to the Sun

A Box of Matches, by Nicholson Baker. Random House. 192 pages. $19.95.

Emmett, an editor of medical textbooks, living in Maine with his wife, two children and Gertrude -- a pet duck in a blanket-draped doghouse in the yard -- has decided to rise each morning at 4 a.m. He makes his coffee in the dark, a process that requires palpating objects with his fingers -- the delicate prizing apart of the tissue-thin paper filter, "a sensation similar to turning the pages of an eighteenth century book"; a finger dipped into the grounds to gauge the depth of the coffee -- and then building and lighting a fire, his only light the one of his eventual creation.

There is no grander purpose to Emmett's waking than to sit there with his morning thoughts, enjoying "a hollow, sleep-deprived feeling in my head, ... a feeling that is precious to me." And that is pretty well that.

Except that this is Nicholson Baker, who knows a thing or two about spinning compelling writing from seeming nonevents. He displays virtuosic command of the beautifully rendered, microscopic detail (a glass pane of dark window has "a good smell of summer afternoon dust in it") as well as a masterfully playful grasp of the ways in which the mind scudders along from topic to topic. (A meditation on lichen on a gravestone reminds him of a similar "lovely turquoise exudate," furred around one of the poles of his car battery. The satisfying granularity of chewing on a ripe pear is likened -- lichened? -- to a similar feeling of grittiness transmitted through the blades of scissors when cutting into paper, and on to the observation that scissors have been vastly improved in our lifetime.)

But as Emmett's thoughts veer in and out, from micro to macro and back again, one is ultimately left wondering in the end what A Box of Matches adds up to. Emmett's all-too frequent suicidal musings and the almost unendurable poignancy he feels in watching his children grow too quickly go a long way to lending a depth to the proceedings. Without an actual story -- and at a scant 192 pages -- A Box of Matches seems initially to lack a necessary heft. A scant hour or so after reading it, however, it becomes clear that this is a problem of reader's expectation, not writer's execution.

The book is called a novel by the publisher, which I suppose it is, although it seems much closer in its observational, quiet way to a spiritual tract of sorts, like Kamo no Chomei's 13th-century Buddhist masterpiece of restful pessimism, An Account of My Hut. In its 33 short chapters -- one for each of 33 mornings when he uses one of the 33 matches in the eponymous box -- A Box of Matches is best approached as an exercise not dissimilar to Emmett's own decision to wake up early. There is meditative beauty here for the taking; one need but adopt a small amount of the protagonist's contemplative mien to find the serene pleasure in this book.

Like sitting in the dark, quietly watching a fire, A Box of Matches emits a placid, mesmerizing charm.

David Rakoff is the author of Fraud, a collection of essays, currently in paperback from Broadway Books. He is a frequent contributor to Public Radio International's This American Life and The New York Times Magazine.

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