LOS ANGELES — Nicholson Baker never meant to write a sequel to "The Anthologist." And yet, he explains by phone from his home in Maine, the narrator of that 2010 novel, a poet named Paul Chowder, kept demanding to be heard.
"It was more a refusal," Baker notes, "a refusal on Paul's part to be overlooked. I was writing a different book, in my own voice, and I kept slipping into his voice. At a certain point, I just gave in."
Baker's new novel, "Traveling Sprinkler" (Blue Rider: 292 pages, $26.95), picks up Paul's story a few years after "The Anthologist." He is 55, and at work on a new collection of poetry, which isn't going anywhere.
As the book progresses, he gets involved in music, creating a suite of songs by which he hopes to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Roz.
He reflects at length on the French composer Claude Debussy, who died at 55.
If this sounds a little formless, a little loosely plotted, it is — and gloriously so. "The novel," Baker declares, "is the freest, sloppiest, most attractive form of writing. You invent a few obstacles for your characters, but mostly the idea is to re-create the textures of a recognizable life."
As in "The Anthologist," Paul reflects on poetry and meter, and their relevance (or lack thereof).
Here, however, Baker takes Paul's struggles further, highlighting his disenchantment with writing itself. "He's wrestling with these poems," he says of his protagonist. "He likes thinking about them more than actually writing them, which is why he starts making up songs."
In that sense, then, "Traveling Sprinkler," like "The Anthologist," is an example of the novel as slice of life. The big subject, albeit largely understated, is how to make the most of the time we have.
"Where have I delivered something really good and beautiful?" Baker asks, a question that applies both to him and to Paul. "It's just a book," he elaborates, speaking for both himself and his character. "He's just trying to write a book. Which is what I was trying to do."