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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
A Box of Matches: A Novel
GLEN O. GABBARD, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2245-2245. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2245
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By Nicholson Baker. New York, Random House, 2003, 178 pp., $19.95.

Emmett is a 44-year-old editor of medical textbooks. He decides to embark upon a project in which he will rise each morning before 5:00 a.m. The nature of this project and the reasons for its inception are not entirely clear. Not wishing to wake his family, when he awakens he wends his way through the dark house until he arrives in the kitchen, uses his sense of touch to locate the coffeepot, prepares a cup of coffee for himself, and then fumbles around on the dining room mantel to find a box of matches. Emmett then completes his morning ritual by starting a fire in the dining room fireplace and staring at the flames while contemplating the quotidian minutiae of life as the coffee beans work their magic on his brain.

Between sips of coffee, Emmett’s thoughts range widely. He worries about his pet duck outside in the doghouse braving the freezing cold of the Maine winter. He remembers the Olivetti electric typewriter his father bought for him when he went away to college. He reminisces about how he and his wife first met. He has fantasies of what would happen if the world were flat and one drove off the end of the earth. As the flames of the fire dance in front of his eyes, he also thinks about three contentious physician-authors who owe him chapters in the book on spinal cord trauma that he is editing.

Most of all, though, Emmett contemplates the passage of time and the inexorable march toward death associated with it. As he remembers washing his son’s hair the previous night he thinks, "How many years will be left before I have no child young enough to wash his or her hair?" (p. 74). The wail of a lonely freight train whistle reminds him of death. He has fantasies of digging his own grave. He is astonished at the rapidity of his transformation from a son into a father. As the reader gets farther into this clever little novella, Emmett’s motives become clear. He wishes to stop time. More precisely, he hopes to observe the passage of time in slow motion by awakening before sunrise and observing each microsecond to the fullest extent possible before the stillness of the slumbering world is disrupted by the arrival of the dawn.

Nicholson Baker’s theme in A Box of Matches is one he has explored to one extent or another in his five previous novels. In The Fermata(1), his protagonist is able to stop time completely and engage in mischief while everyone else is in a state of suspended animation. In all of his works, Baker reminds us that a great deal is happening around us if we only pay attention.

In A Box of Matches, however, Baker strikes a note of urgency that is new for him. As he enters middle age, Baker, like his narrator Emmett, seems to sense that life is largely a mourning process. No sooner have we overcome the loss of parents or grandparents than we notice that our children are slipping through our fingers before we have had sufficient time to rivet our eyes on them and fully appreciate their uniqueness. By the end of the book, one realizes that Emmett’s groping in the predawn darkness for the coffeepot is a metaphor for how we all stumble through our lives in the darkness, groping from one landmark to the next to find our way. Baker is desperately trying to communicate a message to us before it’s too late. Those little joys of existence involving the humdrum routines of daily interaction with spouse, children, and friends contain the essence of our lives. If we blink, we may miss them.

Baker N: The Fermata. New York, Random House, 1995
 
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References

Baker N: The Fermata. New York, Random House, 1995
 
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