Pictures of Matchstick Men

A Box of Matches
Nicholson Baker

It happened gradually, starting sometime. after I
turned 40.

Always an early riser–always being defined as since age 12 or so when my dad helpfully taught me to get up on my own to deliver the Sunday Long Island Press by grabbing the mattress handles and dumping me in a heap–I started awakening earlier and earlier. Nowadays I sleep-in only on Saturday, when I arise no later than six AM.

Emmett would understand.

Emmett is the narrator of this short Nicholson Baker novel, which is of a piece with others of his I’ve read, even if Emmett is, somehow, less distinct than his other protagonists. That in itself is sort of a trick given Baker’s signature style, which is an intensely close-up and detailed rendering of seemingly everything related to the matter at hand.

I should probably issue my usual caveat: I miss many things other readers see. That might reflect my deep commitment to superficiality, or I might just be a little slow on the uptake.  I like to think, though, that I try to have more than a simple aesthetic reaction to whatever I’m reading,


“Okay, why a duck?”

Emmett is a middle-aged, married, medical textbook editor who lives with his family in Maine, though they did spend an extended stint in the San Diego area once when Emmett’s employers decided the only way to get a text they urgently wanted published moving was to plop the editor in close proximity to the authors. We never actually meet any of them but we learn about his wife, Claire, daughter, Phoebe, and son, Henry as he shares his pre-dawn thoughts with us. They share their life with a cat and a duck, the latter of which remains outside the house.

Emmett seems to be the sort of guy who falls into things. Take his career. As a teen-ager Emmett took on the task of helping his grandfather, a pathologist with a specialty in fungal diseases,  prepare the text he was writing for publication. Decades later it’s what he does for a living, which I suppose is what happens to a lot of people. I’m always surprised by people who seem to have always known what they wanted to do and are delighted to still be doing it.

Similarly, these early morning monologues–he’s talking to us rather than with us–have arisen happenstantially, which I don’t think is even a word but really ought to be. Claire decided the family should greet the New Year by driving to the beach to watch the sunrise. Though they seem to live somewhat remotely the fact is Maine is not a terribly populous state and most folks live closer to the coast than to the mountains. Emmett finds the entire experience of pre-dawn life eye-opening.

A cup of hot coffee, a book, peace and quiet. That’s wealth.

Part of that, I think, might be the selfish delight one finds in having the world to oneself. I can rationalize the time I spend in the dark. I’ve sat, nodding my head in agreement, as I’ve heard speakers talk about how much they accomplish while most of the world is still in deep communion with their pillows. In reality, though, getting up before the birds allows me to experience what so many folks claim to crave: peace and quiet.

I reward the gift of that solitude with little rituals. Emmett does, too. His involves coffee and lighting a fire. In fact, each chapter begins with a report on the time of day and the status of the fire. I understand the primal allure of fire. I’m less certain about starting one in the dark. But it’s Emmett’s ritual, not mine, and if he–a somewhat absent-minded fellow–wants to fumble about with matches in a dark, old, wooden house, who am I to judge?

Once the blaze has been kindled it’s time for the serious work of ruminating. Emmett is forty-four. Mathematically, if not psychologically, he’s approaching the midpoint of life if he hasn’t already met it. This is what happens, right? The great existential questions well up and preoccupy us until at some point, years after all the other things we’ve tried have been found wanting, the sports car or its equivalent sitting close-by, a three-dimensional monument to midlife crisis, we make peace with the life we have.

I suppose such things might set one to thinking.

Emmett thinks about the hole in his sock. That’s not fair. Emmett doesn’t only think about that hole. Even Baker couldn’t wring 180 pages out of a ravel. Well, maybe he could if it were an actual ravel, but it’s a hole, isn’t it? Unless the hole is also a void.

I cannot say, definitively, if it is because that thought honestly just occurred to me. Yet what are all these minutiae about if not filling one’s consciousness full of details? A mind that finds each observation a wonder and a marvel,  each as fascinating and important as the next, can quickly get filled up. Maybe that’s the point. It certainly leaves less room for despairing.

It’s not just the hole in his sock that captures Emmett’s attention, almost anything might. Allow a partial list to illustrate what I mean: The manner in which various kindling materials catch flame. The number of weeks in the year (good) as compared to the number of months (needs work). The duck’s behavior when eating. The woman who cuts Emmet’s hair unless she’s unavailable, in which case there is a barber. How a car rocks out of an icy declivity of its own making. Dishwasher.s Coffee makers. The bulge in the middle of a stack of envelopes.

Some toys never cease to exist, even if their residents do.

There’s something almost poetic in lavishing so much descriptive language on so many otherwise ordinary things. After a prior encounter with Baker, one that ironically featured a poet, I opined that his writing reminded me of Shaker furniture in that the artistry in plain sight was so expertly hidden. I believe that more now.

Ultimately Emmett exhausts his box of matches but not before relating the tale of Fidel, the wonder ant. That bit after the comma is mine but I think Baker might approve because Fidel is a survivor. He’s an original resident of an ant colony, one of those plexiglass and sand contraptions that every family I knew growing up seemed to have.

The farm was sent by mistake and the activities of the ants quickly absorbed the family’s attention, even as the ants began to die. Eventually, only Fidel remained standing until he too met his end and the colony, its tunnels still visible but now purposeless, remained. When the family moves Emmett carefully packs the ant farm only to find on arrival that the move has obliterated evidence the colony ever existed.

I suppose then that this really is a book about voids. Emmett is a wiser man than me. When he lights his last fire he ends up returning to bed with Claire to get up when everyone else does.

As for me, I fear I’m addicted to the enveloping arms of solitude.



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