Tournament of Books 2015

Wednesday, March 12th, 2003


A Box of Matches

by Nicholson Baker

The Witness

A review by Adrienne Miller

Emmett's wife decided they would drive out to see the sun rise this past New Year's, and they did, and so began his interest in getting up before dawn. Emmett arises now hours before his wife and two children, sits alone in his cold living room, strikes a match, lights a fire, watches it burn. Emmett, although he wouldn't believe it (being the baffled, unassuming man he is), thinks like an artist. Which is to say, he is essentially flummoxed by, and in awe of, the Beauty, or, as Walker Percy would have it, the Mystery. Emmett has had his own little artistic impulses, too — he'd once intended to write a book for his son called The Young Sponge, for example, but then along came TV's Sponge Bob, so there went that project. He is a spectator, a witness, not a creator, and derives tremendous joy simply from watching. His observations, during the course of Nicholson Baker's charming novel, are the products of an odd brain, and a loving heart. "Why are things beautiful?" Emmett asks. "I don't know. That's a good question." He, in perfect Baker fashion, thinks, and thinks, about many things: the fire, into which he feeds objects (papers, cocktail napkins, apple cores, bits of belly button lint, what have you), the low mournful whistle of a distant train, the unlucky life of juvenile chimney sweep circa 1819 ("...when I read about the climbing boys, I wanted to right the wrong immediately — I wanted to mail letters urging legislative reform...."). My own personal favorite ruminations involve Emmett's duck, Greta, who was a prize, of sorts, from his daughter's summer camp. Greta, who has "enriched our lives considerably," lives outside and terrorizes the household cat ("…no animal likes to be pecked on the anus by a duck."). About his son, Emmett says, "...I wanted to make low animal noises, growlings, of love for him." Since his very funny first novel The Mezzanine, Baker has been perhaps our sharpest and smartest observer; in his exquisite new novel, he's become a writer of expansive moral concern, too.

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