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Friday, October 1, 2004


Will Layman

My Almost Interminable Conversation with Famed Literary Minimalist, Nicholson Baker

August 2004
Sheraton Suites on the Hudson
Weehawken, N.J.

nick: Testing, testing …

will: What’s with the tape?

nick: Don’t you think it lends an air of subtle post-modern “observed-ness” to this conversation that will bring gravity to even the small-fry stuff we may discuss?

will: I don’t know about that, but it will make it easier for one of us to write it all down if that seems commercially feasible.

nick: That would be apropos if this were a real conversation rather than an ironic miniaturist construction by one of today’s most acclaimed writers.

will: That comment would be true if you wrote this, Nick, but I did. I’m not really acclaimed.

nick: Yet.

will: You’re very kind.

nick: But that’s not why I asked you to meet me here.

will: Man, I’m dying to find out why you called. I’ve never had one of my favorite writers summon me, utterly out of the blue, with an urgent request for a meeting at a hotel suite in Weehawken.

nick: It’s not quite that unusual. One time Pynchon rang me and insisted we shop together for exotic-flavored Doritos in the mini-malls of Westchester County. He gets tired of Cool Ranch when he’s constructing a monologue that balances ironic anachronism with references to both Parsifal and “Who’s the Boss?”

will: Pynchon eats Doritos?

nick: It’s not like Updike called me. Now that would be exciting. But he was probably too busy with another poem for The New Yorker. Pynchon—he goes a decade between books and, you know, he gets the munchies.

will: Anyway … . You wanted to discuss the finer points of milk cartons or the engineering of the nail clipper?

nick: Sorry, Will, but I’m past that kind of stuff. By the way, you look good.

will: Lost a few pounds on an all-hot-dog diet last April. But you’ve never met me before, so … .

nick: No, I meant the shaved head. Two bald guys alone in a hotel room with a tape recorder. Now that sounds like a Nick Baker novel!

will: So—tell me what’s up.

nick: O.K., I’ll just say it. Ehhhh …

will: Go ahead.

nick: I’m going to assassinate my literary reputation.

will: What do you mean?

nick: Ruin the esteem in which I’m held by both critics and smarty-pants readers like you.

will: You’re kidding, right? You’ve tried it before—the phone sex book, the book about the guy who can stop time and uses it to undress women without their consent. Not to mention the long and self-righteous book about libraries. No matter what you do, we just love you that much more for your oddball perversity.

nick: No, no—I’m really going to do it this time.

will: C’mon. You’ve tried already. It’s impossible. Despite its peculiar modesty, your literary career is indestructible.

nick: Watch me.

will: O.K., tell me how. What? You’re going to write a thousand-page novel about tennis and addiction featuring hundreds of hard-to-follow footnotes?

nick: Ha ha. You’re such a fan of mine—you know that’s not my style.

will: So … ?

nick: Simple. I’m just going to write a book so bad, so transparently NOT interesting or well conceived or precisely described that critics and readers alike will start to wonder whether all my other books weren’t the same thing. Like, pseudo-profundity in the guise of careful observation.

will: A fine plan, but I say you’re bluffing. I’m going to need details.

nick: Done: I’m going to write a book in which I straightforwardly propose the assassination of George W. Bush. Lay out the case point by point—just blatantly encourage the killing of the president with a minimum of metaphoric play.

will: Dude—you can NOT do that. You can’t. That would be suicide.

nick: Exactly! I mean, c’mon—admit it. That would be genius.

will: You’re going to combine the transparent non-interesting-ness with the forceful and non-ironic advocacy of presidential assassination?

nick: I wanted you to be the first to know. I’ve heard stories—the time you ordered my three earliest “novels” and read them in quick succession as a way of avoiding spending too much time with your in-laws over the holidays. That’s dedication, Will. I thought I owed you this much.

will: This is a cry for help. Clearly you want to be stopped.

nick: No, no. You misunderstand. I thought you’d be proud of me. With my career in tatters, there’s really a much better chance that we can become friends. We can spend our afternoons perusing card catalogs together.

will: Well … that would be cool.

nick: Hey, maybe my next book—after the Bush-assassination one—can be about you. Or … about us.

will: But that’s my idea!

nick: What better way for a formerly famous literary figure to climb out of obscurity than through theft?

will: In which case I’ve got to stop you. It’s in my self-interest.

nick: You make one move toward my pen and I’ll pull an expensive German automatic pistol from these trousers and end this conversation, man.

will: You will not. You’re Nicholson Baker. You don’t have a Luger. Your wife would never allow it.

nick: Well, then go ahead and confiscate my pen. It doesn’t matter. I write on a classic front-stroke Underwood anyway. And the knowledge that you’re trying to stop me will simply speed my efforts.

will: How is your wife, by the way?

nick: She’s having a splendid summer actually. You should see her garden.

will: You mention her often in your books and interviews, but rarely—or never?—by name, so she’s a bit of a shadow figure.

nick: Oh, she’s not a shadow.

will: She’s not one of those “security moms” who’s going to be voting for Bush, is she? Nick?

nick: I don’t want to talk about it.

will: Now we’re getting somewhere. You’re advocating political assassination—and thereby literary self-assassination—because of a petty marital squabble. That is quite Nicholson Baker.

nick: Hey, let’s order room service.

will: I’ve touched a nerve, haven’t I?

nick: You want a nice steak? Peppercorn steak?

will: You’re serious, aren’t you?

nick: Sure I am. It’s dee-licious.

will: I mean about destroying your own literary reputation. Do you have the Underwood here in Weehawken, Nick? And paper?

nick: Sure. They’re in the closet, there.

will: You’re bluffing. Shit, Nick. Holy shit—this is a vintage Underwood.

nick: Ha! And now it’s got your fingerprints all over it.

will: Let’s get out of here. We’ll bury it.

nick: No time for that steak? Or maybe some Doritos?

will: You’re a maniac, Nick. Let’s go.

nick: The irregularities of the manuscript’s type will lead the Secret Service to this typewriter, then the fingerprints will lead them to you! Who’s destroying my literary reputation now, Mr. Layman?

will: Take off the gloves, Nick. Put away that Mauser!

nick: Over and out, Mr. Layman. Over … and out.

Will Layman used to be wise beyond his years, but then the wisdom kind of slowed down and the years just kept coming and ... well, you get the picture. Now he is simply itchy beyond his years. When not furiously scratching, he teaches in Washington, D.C., plays the rock 'n' roll music, and pursues the pot of gold at the end of the Little Humor Pieces on the Internet Rainbow. Dig his work on National Public Radio, McSweeney's,, and at Contact Will, if you dare, at