Book Review: A Box of Matches

A trip to the beach on New Year's Day with his wife and kids convinces Emmett to wake early each morning and think. In the dark, he prepares a pot of coffee, starts and stokes a fire and tells about the now, the recent and the distant past. Thus is the premise and content of Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches.

I am not a morning person so I spend my moment alone with my thoughts at night. This ritual is an almost sacred time when I read and watch my wife sleep. My last thoughts of the day are usually fleeting but occasionally there is a spark that I try with all my might to bring into a new day. With this in mind, I was drawn to Baker's celebration of the ordinary and the often forgot. I have also read and enjoyed his book The Mezzanine which similarly chronicles a ride up an escalator for 200+ pages.

Each chapter begins with the time and an observation about Emmett's now. At its best, the attention to detail makes it feel as though you are living the experience. With an archivist's detail and a poet's flair, the scenery, events and memories live beyond the page. Baker effectively displays every facet of Emmett's life like a jeweler appreciates a diamond through a loupe. It is a marvel to behold.

There is a weakness to this type of narrative, though. With each chapter baring an isolated vignette, it would seem the sum would paint a fairly complete picture. But the persistence of past / present and elimination of narrative makes the whole effort disjointed. Emmett never ponders the future or exposes his hopes and/or desires. He just keeps reliving the same ritual until his box of matches is empty.

I count on a plot or a character to give me continuity from night to night. Thinking about what I read the night before and where the story might go is as enjoyable as actually reading. Unfortunately with A Box of Matches I kept finding myself thinking about the next book I'll read.

A Box of Matches is written by Nicholson Baker and published by Vintage Contemporaries in 2003. ISBN 0-375-70603-8