Room Temperature







"...everything in my life seemed to enjamb splicelessly into everything else..."

Nicholson Baker's second book is one giant ramble. A father takes care of his baby girl (curiously nicknamed "the Bug") and thinks about his childhood, wife, and newly-acquired fatherhood. This guy is just weird— incredibly well-read and articulate, but content to discuss the history of the comma and the relation of nose-picking to marital bliss. His mind goes off on tangents, exemplified in the length of the sentences. And they are monsters, packed with adjective-rich descritpions, complex structure, and just enough information to make you vaguely uncomfortable.



I have selected quotes that I think illuminate the narrator as a character (the book is written in the first person) and that also show Baker's expertise for finding the amazing in the insignificant. I have presented the quotes in the order they appear in the book.






The Quotes



"I was extremely pleased that the sight of several silent far-off birds could remind me of the yapping frolicsomeness of a puppy—it seemed a tricky lateral sort of comparison in which the two terms threaten to be insufficiently disparate in some respects for the connection to work properly, as if you said that the sun was in some way or other like the moon."

***


"As a result of the weather, I was wearing a sweater for the first time in months, one Patty had given me for my birthday: a brown monster stout with various fugal inversions and augmentations of the standard cable knit and consequently glutted with insulational dead air, its corona of lighter outer fibers frizzing out three-eighths of an inch or more from the slubbed and satisfyingly clutchable weave that formed the actual structure underneath, so that the sweater, along with me, its wearer, appeared to fade without a demonstrable outer boundary into the rest of the room, as tuning forks or rubber bands will see in their blurred vibration to transform their material selves into the invisible sound they generate; a machine-made sweater, but manufactured apparently with Xenakian lurches and indecisions programmed into the numerically controlled needles that, unlike the chain flayings and bleaching stains used in production lines to antique new furniture, gave it to my eye and attraction distinct from the irregular grandmotherly alternations between close attention and indignant abandonment at historical preservation meetings prominent in handmade knitwear.”

***


“These papery swishes, the “negative spaces” between scribble units, contributed far more to the emotional soothingness of [my wife’s] diary-keeping than the word noise did—just as, when you listen to someone drawing your likeness, what is nicest are the occasional big hisses you hear as the eraser grit is swept from the page.”

***


“The very beginning of marriage always takes on an attractively primeval, sedum-like quality in retrospect, no matter how many years the two of you knew each other beforehand. In those first weeks in that apartment, for instance, we didn’t have any doorstops, and the cheap hollow-core doors were always being sucked into slamming shut as outside gusts created a temporary vacuum in one room or another—so that we suddenly would have privacy imposed on us and could knock on the newly closed door and pay a visit to each other and then leave the door open and feel the windy hugeness of all three rooms of our new life together.”

***


“...I thought ‘Hey, one of those things I can do is have a married life with a woman in an apartment that has doorstops! I can simply buy them!’...I had always envied normal households that had...doorstops wedged permanently into place under the open singing kitchen door. I bought five doorstops from Woolworth’s that day (extra, so we would never run out, no matter what size of house we ended up with) and jammed them in place, enjoying the simplicity of the concept: as pure a machine as the fulcrum, but charged with a task, not of making displacement easier, but of enforcing stability.”

***


“As [my wife] once told me years later...in repairing [an] object you really ended up loving it more, because you now knew its eagerness to be reassembled, and in running a fingertip over its surface you alone could feel its many cracks—a bond stronger than mere possession.”

***


“Fine, yes, I welcome all this imperfect mingling—I want this circling refluxion of [my wife’s and my] old reconditioned pleasures and our new genuine ones to continue for years, decades, until it becomes impossible to trace backward the history of any particular liking, just as it was impossible to unstir the rash dollops of red or yellow tint my mother used to add to the custom-mixed paints she got from Sears.”

***


“From my mother I already understood that women were the only route out of the brown world: women transformed the wood-paneled male principle, the terrene unctuoisty of peanut butter, into the female emanation of World’s Fair White breast milk, into dozens of intermediate colors of paint...into the subtle gradients of flushes and blue shadows on my daughter’s face.”

***


“But the Bug’s nose, its infantile tininess combining with its monstrous promise [of inherited largeness], was at the moment one of her nicest features and the best thing about it was what it shared with all babies’ noses,...the same amazing thing I had noticed at age five when shown a neighbor’s newborn: it was so clean inside. You looked into the translucent orange regions and saw surfaces of inconceivable perfection.”

***


“And in holding the Bug up until my arms trembled, I thought I felt the force of some wider, more emotional golden rule that stated that only after having experienced something from both sides—breaking up with someone and being yourself broken up with, and even being born and later assisting at birth...—did you stand any chance of understanding the event fully.”

***


“My diaphragm wasn’t nearly in the shape it had been when for three days I had crammed for my own tenth birthday party by trying repeatedly to blowout an entire lit candelabrum, amazed that people approached this nakedly public moment of wish-making and potential humiliation after going a whole year without practice...”

***


“This room was astir—astir with history. If, using some as yet undeveloped high-resolution technique of flow visualization, I filmed the motion of a cubic yard of air around [the Bug’s] mobile...for twenty minutes, and if I studied that film for four hours a day, during the Bug’s two naps—just looked at it, leaned into the idea of it with my entire self—at various speeds, and took the videotape from one international congress on turbulence to another, and made men of science look at it so that I could read in their polite expressions some of the particular complexities it offered their more geometrically manipulative minds, would I begin to feel that I could deduce from its veils the infinitesimal insurgence and reversion the objects in the room around which the air had flowed before it entered this domain of record? Would I deduce the shapes of the half-inflated plastic globe and the cheese grater on the rug, the superball in the fireplace, my dusty collection of mechanical coin-sorters on one of the bookshelves—and infer that a man breathing steadily through his nose in a rocking chair rocking at roughly one cycle every two seconds had held a baby also breathing through her nose on the verge of sleep?”

***


“Would I die without knowing the true history of the air, not world-wind-wide, but even confined to twenty minutes in a small cubic area of my daughter’s room? I wanted to roar something defiant against this stifling limit to understanding...”

***


“I remembered the calming sensation of roaring at full volume directly into a pillow and feeling your outburst sift slowly into the antique atmosphere between the down’s barbules, which had felt no humid influx since the last time you wept profoundly enough to infiltrate that preserve of old emotion, or laughed to the limit of breath into it as your father played the opening of Bach’s D-minor Fantasy on your back to tickle you, at your request.”

***


“The idea of the commas as an oasis of respiration, a point of real as opposed to grammatical breath, of momentary renewal and self-marshaling in the dotty onslaught of sixteenth notes, overlaid itself on my idea of the commas as a unit of simple disjunction in written English. How had we come up with this civilized shape?...Timidly and respectfully it cupped the sense of a preceding phrase and held it out to us.”

***


“[T]here was an implied high culture in [the comma’s] asymmetrical tapering swerve that gave it a distinct superiority over the Euclidean austerity of the full point, or period. You might in fact have expected these two elements of disjunction to exhibit reversed functions: the commas seems more of a foil to the progress of the eye, a fallen branch partially impeding a stream, while the period, a mere dot, a small cold pebble, should allow sense to slip smoothly past. But perhaps the functions were as they were, I thought, because the graceful purling motion necessary to the creation of the comma, that inclusive flip of the pen, is similar to the motions we use in writing the prose that surrounds it, while the period is an alien jab, tacking the sentence with finality onto the paper.”

***


“The breathing Bug was civilizing me; she was my comma.”

***


“In nearly all culture nose-picking is considered a disgusting habit, and I debated whether I should tell her the truth [about my nose-picking habit] straight out or merely apologize...[My wife and I] often used unsavory physical revelations to test adoration’s power to absorb and transform the crudest provisions into lovable and revealing things about each other.”

***


“Was there a limit between us? Would disgust ever outweigh love?”

***


“When I made some comment about how incredible it was that the human female vagina could stretch the way it did, [my gynecologist friend] said, with pretend old-handness, "Eh, sometimes it tears, of course, but as the resident who's taking us around says, 'Man, you just put two pieces of a vagina in the same room together and they'll heal!'" I had told this to [my wife] immediately, but she had...forbade me to share it with her friends... Yet as I lay next to her...the idea of two wizened but perky pieces of a vagina perched like Agatha Christie characters in opposite corners of a room catching sight of each other and waving and putting their teacups down and eagerly healing their way toward each other seemed funny all over again."

***


“...I remembered something else: a mezzo-soprano in my [music] theory class at Eastman with a very hearty rich laugh, but a laugh whose component “hahs” of mirth, if removed from the many “hah-hahs” on either side of them in the descending series, would have sounded like wails of inconsolable remorse; and I felt a surge of pity toward his mezzo-soprano...because her laugh represented what I now thought life was like for people who were single and without a family. I felt a huge near-miss sort of relief, not quite complacence yet but approaching it, to be established, with an apartment, with this Bug in my arms, with this sweater on and wife who had picked it out, and I felt that though I had not proven to be a composer or a horn player...I was nonetheless doing alright.”





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