This holiday break I read Nicholson Baker’s VOX, a novella entirely comprised of the dialogue between two people who have called an adult phone service. The conceit is impressive — Baker holds the reader in the position of the eavesdropper. The only context we get for either character is that which is provided through the conversation. I first came to Baker through another novella, The Mezzanine, which is almost entirely composed in lengthy footnotes. Rather than supplemental information, the footnotes serve as a diversion, parallel to the diversions the main character inserts into his own pattern of thought to distract himself from handling any genuine emotional turmoil.
Baker’s texts are appealing to me in that they offer a form of constraint for the reader that thoroughly impacts the way in which we are capable of reading the text. I, as the reader, am both intimately involved and seriously distant from the two conversationalists who explore their mental and sexual selves with each other. I am only given what I am given. Inference is a necessity. I have the same burning desire to know more that the characters do.
In poetry of constraint it is often the system that is contained — a specific process (Christian Bok’s EUNOIA is the perfect example — he had to find all of the words that only contained single vowels and sort them into chapters to establish his lexicon before he could even begin to put those words together into a narrative). Baker’s projects present a constrained product but not process as a specific intention for the audience. The system allows for surprise and wilderness in the result, the product allows for the audience to feel placed at a specific point of access to the narrative unfolding. I find both compelling — I wonder if it is the element of plot or narrative movement that feels so energized by what is left out?