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Book Review - A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker

A Box of Matches Fails To Light

A Box of Matches
Nicholson Baker

Published by Random House

Review by W. R. Greer

There are passages in a novel when the author catches a moment or a scene perfectly and the reader has an "aha" moment where they instantly identify with it. These passages, seemingly minor in detail, bring realism to the character or the setting of time and place. The reader is instantly transported deeper into the character and the story, nodding their head in agreement as they read that the author has gotten it just right.

Nicholson Baker's novel A Box of Matches is full of those "aha" moments. Actually, that's all this short book contains. There really is no plot. The narrator of the book, Emmett, has a wife, two children, a cat, and a duck in his household. Each morning he tries to rise early, usually about 4AM, make a pot of coffee, light a fire in the fireplace, and muse about his life. He lights the fire with a match from the box of matches, and when the last one is used, the book is done. No action transpires and no drama unfolds.

Good writers are observers of human nature and physical detail and Emmett takes this to the next level. He could be described as hyper-observant, going into minute detail about everything from eating a piece of fruit to peeing in the middle of the night. While there are the "aha" moments that make you smile with recognition, there are many more passages that are just tedious. If Emmett was standing next to you at a party going on about all these topics, you'd leave to get your drink refilled.

Emmett tells about his past and how he came to be who he is and where he lives. He talks about his wife and kids and his relationship with them. The family member he talks about most is the pet duck. Or perhaps it just seems that way since the duck appears to be the most interesting member of the family. If this were a movie (and please don't let it be), the duck could steal the show. As I read each chapter, I kept hoping that as Emmett talked about his life and his family that he would come to his own "aha" moments and we would share in his growth and knowledge. These never happen, though, and Emmett goes merrily along chattering about the minutiae of life.

This is not to say that this is a bad book. It's more like reading a series of writing exercises. The chapters are short and the book is slim at 180 pages, so it doesn't take long to read. Nicholson Baker has proven before that he can master these small moments of time and place and character and he fashions his scenes and sentences superbly. Perhaps this book is better enjoyed in small bursts, a chapter or a two at a time where the reader can explore the intricate detail provided for each scene.

For those readers who can enjoy a novel without much plot but filled with these "aha" moments, then A Box of Matches will satisfy them. Personally, I need more structure and character development in the novels I enjoy, so a lot of this book was like being stuck next to Emmett at a party. I kept needing my drink refilled.

Copyright © 2003

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