It Lives Up to Its Title

A couple of years ago I discovered the writings of Charles Baxter. He is a professor of literature and writing in Minnesota. But he does not exude the hubris of many professors. When I read Baxter, I sense a man who makes much of the proper things rather than of himself. His posture is invariably one of humility. And his zeal for literature overflows on each page.

Remember how pompous Harold Bloom was in his views? Well, Baxter comes across as the opposite of all that blustering. With Baxter, the focus is invariably upon the language, the power of the story, the figurative language used by masters of the writing craft. Every time I listened to Bloom, I grew more convinced that Bloom’s favorite sound was that of his own voice.

My copy of Wonderlands is all marked up now. Below are a few samples of passages I marked up. In the first passage, Baxter was addressing charisma that characterizes so much of mindless pop culture, politics, and Hollyweird, etc.

“Someone who gives up common sense and leads a go-for-broke crusade has got to be wrong–this is the settled position of the ironist who sees through every blind faith. For such an ironist, however, there is no such thing as a hero, and no such thing as heroism, For the ironist, everybody sooner or later proves to be a hypocrite. Everyone traffics in fraud” (154).

Baxter is a skeptic of the meta-anything. His stance is one of, “I’ll just wait and see.” His lament resonates with his readers because they, too, have grown so accustomed to being lied to that they’re simply weary of it all.

Here’s another taste of Baxter’s observation and awareness:

“At the time of writing this essay, I found myself in an elevator in downtown Minneapolis with approximately six other people. I was the only person on the elevator who was looking at the display indicating which floor we were approaching. Everyone else was gazing downward at their iPhones. Gertrude Stein once said that the only thing that changes from generation to generation is what people are looking at. Every time I see someone tapping away at an iPhone, I think of Gertrude Stein” (49).

Baxter has the poet’s eye to see “what people are looking at.” By noticing and understanding how people spend their time, the talented writer portrays the human condition.

In a passage entitled, “Things About to Disappear,” look at how keen is Baxter’s observational eye:

“The quiet bars of my youth, dark and mournful, whose tables were polished with the tears of the clientele, have given way to noisy sports bars with multiple TV sets, where the patrons shout raucously to each other. It’s another, newer way of being lonely” (54).

And here is one more from his chapter titled “Lush Life”:

“Transformative love is often a feeling of joy. We may also feel a negative fullness in panic states. And this fullnes stands against what many of us feel these days most of the time, which is emptiness and skepticism. Irony and flat assertions are the signal tonalities of emptiness. A feeling combining cold removal, withdrawal, suspicion, and barely suppressed anger is this style’s magnetic north. Irony is a form of protection, and it’s possible that we’re now all overprotected” (91).

When I read Baxter’s stories, novels, and essays, I become even more convinced that literature has something magical about it that gets to the heart of the issue like no other art can. “A word fitly spoken,” Solomon wrote, “is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” With Baxter the setting merits orchards of silver heralding such apples.

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