One man's simple, colloquial meditations on his past, his family, and his life's daily minutia are the substance of Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches. Feeling that life is passing him by, Emmett, a middle-aged medical textbook editor, decides to wake up early each day to sit by a fire in his country house and record his thoughts in a diary. "Good morning," Emmett begins, "it's January and its 4:17 a.m., and I'm going to sit here in the dark." From this vantage point, Emmett reflects stream-of-consciousness style on whatever occurs to him, no matter how mundane: his recent trip to Home Depot, how he met his wife, the habits of the family duck. Routines, such as how he makes his morning coffee in the dark or picks up his underwear with his toes, are described with childlike reverence and directness. All told, nothing much happens in A Box of Matches, which seems to be the point. Baker is more interested in the idea that for many, life is made up of such apparent trivialities, and that only by pausing to appreciate them can anyone gain any lasting satisfaction. Baker emphasizes this through the moments of understated wisdom and joy that Emmett derives from ordinary occurrences, such as the daylight through the window: "a simple light that goes everywhere but with no heat, aware that it is taken for granted and content to be so." This is the philosophical equivalent of a one-joke premise, however, and there are moments when Emmett's naiveté and laundry list-like narrative wear thin. Likely understanding this, Baker has wisely kept things short. A curious, often charming novel, A Box of Matches will inspire some readers, while inspiring frustration in others. --Ross Doll
From Publishers Weekly
The science of the insignificant has always been Baker's field of study. Treading a fine line between microcosmic dazzlement and banality, he has carved out a minuscule kingdom for himself. After his recent excursion into nonfiction (the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Double Fold), he returns to fiction with a novel in the classic Baker tradition. For Emmett, a 44-year-old father and textbook editor, the predawn wintry darkness is an invitation to musings and meditations on life's events-make that nonevents. Each chapter begins virtually identically ("Good morning, it's 4:45 a.m...."), with Emmett reflecting on something as he sips coffee and warms himself by the fire: the family's pet duck, outside in the cold; a well-worn briefcase; an alternative career as a lichen expert; the idea of collecting paper towel designs. His family-two children and wife Claire-occasionally appear in his ruminations, and his love for them is palpable. But they never emerge as more than background figures, because Emmett's preoccupation is with himself; at one point, he (literally) gathers lint from his navel. Baker struggles to manufacture drama ("Last night my sleep was threatened by a toe-hole in my sock"), and his prose is evocative (a match bursting into flame becomes a "dandelion head of little sparks"). He is such an excellent writer, a master of descriptive detail with an unusual perspective on the world, that he can almost be forgiven for his tendency to focus on the mundane-almost. Emmett's life may seem rich to him, but it isn't rich enough to propel an entire novel. Even readers with a weakness for Baker's particular brand of minutiae may find themselves hoping that next time he will find a subject worthier of his prose.
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