What makes it a novel? What kind of novel is it?

A box of Matches these are the following questions in the book Nicholson Bakers œA box of Matches you are to choose one of the following questions and write a 2 page paper on it. 1. Baker considers this a novel. What makes it a novel? What kind of novel is it? (This is important to muse about at the beginning, because whatever else it is”and there are some strong contenders”it is also a novel.) 2. Now consider other ways to conceive of this text. What other labels (genres or sub-genres) help us to understand its structure, themes, and rhetorical purposes (other than story-telling)? Explain your choices. 3. There is a kind of predictability to the segments of this text that reflect a combination of habit, discipline, obsessiveness, experimental focus, and devotional ritual. Describe the elements of the narrator’s morning ritual and try to determine his reasons for following it. Based on your observations, how does the rationale for the ritualized practice affect your understanding of what kind of novel this is or what its underlying agenda is [from Baker’s perspective]? 4. Why would the narrator (or, behind him, Baker) have chosen January, winter, and the pre-dawn hours for his ritual? What do your reasons lead you to see in the text? What other choices contribute to your understanding of the ritual? 5. Emmett, the narrator, makes much of the box of matches, lighting a match each morning, and building and watching the fire. Identify some of the passages that show particular focus on these topics. After rereading them very closely, I think you’ll begin to see the symbolic substrate of these passages. Venture some hypotheses about how Baker sees these subjects as profound metaphors or symbols. (It helps to ponder the symbolism of fire in human history and throughout literature, and also to consider the characteristics of fire.) 6. It could be said that this novel is a contemporary or postmodern take on more commonplace or more prosaic œHow to Build a Fire texts”such as those in Boy Scout manuals or on œSurvivorman TV shows”or even an extended homage to Jack London’s famous short story, œTo Build a Fire (which is provided for you in the folder for this novel). London’s story is about extreme, desperate survival in the Yukon wilderness. How is A Box of Matches fundamentally different from these analogues in its imaginative scope and purposes? How is it fundamentally similar, unexpectedly? [R] 7. This novel is undeniably quirky and comedic, but it has a profound subtext that runs under the surface like a powerful and invisible river. It’s hard to let go of the first impression we have of A Box of Matches as a novelty text and its narrator as a kind of squirrelly eccentric (duck and all). As a result, most first encounters with this novel never go beyond the surface level”which is successfully executed in its own right. Eventually, however, usually in the middle of a second reading, the whole picture suddenly shifts and the novel becomes something completely different than we originally thought it was, because we begin to see the patterns in the narrator’s musings and the symbolism of his homely props. It becomes something like a meditation“on human mortality, on the brevity of life, on the preciousness of each moment, on the incandescent beauty of small things, on the enormity of the universe, on the nearness or inevitability of death. This opens the reader to a different narrative that drives the books quirky progress, turning it into something akin to a medieval œbook of days, or a cloistered monk’s prayerbook, or a zen exercise, a meditation, or even a poem to mark the approach of dawn (an œaubade). The subject matter of the book becomes less literal (material) and more symbolic, less worldly and more transcendent, less mundane and more spiritual, less trivial and more important. It contemplates not so much the everyday things that it seems to be about (in its bumbling, seemingly accidental way), but addresses more deliberately those eternal verities instead. These are the human questions asked in the most serious philosophical and religious texts: What is life for? Why is it so brief? What is my responsibility to others and to the world? In this vein, speculate about what is alluded to in the novel’s inclusion of the following seemingly trivial or incidental things (choose only one for online discussion): concern for the duck, the battered briefcase, the lighted minivan in the dark, œsaving the colonists, the sleeping Claire, references to monsters, or a passage of your own choosing. 8. This novel develops several motifs”seemingly concrete and literal things that we realize have symbolic weight and support the deeper themes of the story. A motif recurs throughout a text and may appear in different forms. Choose one of the following motifs to document in specific passages and unpack for their deeper meaning: references to the stars and night sky, references to various man-made devices and machines, light/shadow and day/night, falling leaves (and related emblems of decline or transition, like dying embers). 9. The narrator seems a bit strange, maybe neuro-atypical. Baker himself has (and acknowledges) many similar eccentricities that show up in his other writings. Do some research on the author to discover some of these characteristics, not only to compare him to his narrator in this novel (who is not Baker but a construct), but also to discuss how he uses these unusual traits strategically and thematically. Maybe you could consider whether this highly individual man is in some sense an ˜Everyman,’ or a stand-in for all of us in our magnificent variety. Or not¦. [R] 10. So, this is also a domestic novel, isn’t it? It’s stage is the home and the family. But it plays on our expectations in sly and artful ways. Talk about how Baker takes the conventions of the domestic novel and spins or subverts them (and also selectively honors them) for his imaginative purposes. What do you find surprising about this novel’s relationship to the domestic novel tradition? It might help to use one or two more traditional domestic novels as benchmarks. [R] 11. There is a long tradition of poems, prayers, novels, allegories, and essays premised on a speaker contemplating the place of man in the universe (of space and time) from a perspective of one alone in the dark. Three examples are Philip Larkin’s poem œAubade, Coleridge’s poem œFrost at Midnight and Paul Auster’s novel Man in the Dark. If you know any of these, or another in a similar vein, construct a thoughtful intertextual reading of A Box of Matches. [R] 12. The narrator is a man with interesting reading preferences and habits. He mentions liking specific Robert Service’s poems, editing medical textbooks, reading Kipling, reading users’ manuals, and other kinds of texts. Zero in on some of these passages that mention or allude to other texts, research what you can, and explain what you think these details tell us about him and about Baker’s larger themes in the novel. [R] 13. What are the narrator’s core concerns and values and goals? Some of these appear as very œsmall and mundane concerns, some are revealed in fantasy riffs, and others are mentioned in passing. However, taken together, they rise to a high level of moral and humane commitment, if we can see them as modest ways to talk about big issues. Explain his moral philosophy and use specific passages to flesh out your insights. (Some starting points: What does it mean to be committed to making a fire everyday? Or to protecting the duck outside? Or to deep consideration of small things?) 14. How does Baker make the Duck (œGreta) a bit like Emmett? What ties them together in not only the novel’s narrative but also its philosophy of life? Develop an extended comparison. You’ll be surprised by what you find once you begin to think of them as alter egos or analogues. [Other possible alter egos to explore: Emmett’s grandfather (playing his one last etude), the œlone survivor ant, Emmett’s son”all as animate analogues. Possible inanimate analogues: the match, the fire, the day.] 15. If you could extract Emmett’s homespun instructions for the good or well-lived life, what simple tenets would it be based on? Try to arrive at œEmmett’s Top Ten Rules for Life, based on the little stories and mental meanderings the novel documents. As an example, one might be œUse all your senses, not just your sight (as he does every morning while making coffee in the dark and then immersing himself in the little epiphanies than arise from his blindness). 16. Emmett’s morning reveries lead to some wildly imaginative fantasies. One (pp. 20-21, on the fifth day) is reminiscent of a famous story by Julio Cortazar called œA Continuity of Parks. See if you can find it to compare to Emmett’s version. Any thoughts on Emmett’s brain, or Baker’s?? [R] Why does Emmett riff on suicide? 17. Despite the implicit comedy of this text, there are several deliberate and explicit references to sadness sprinkled throughout the novel. Note several of these. What are the underlying sources of this sadness and how does this theme relate to the novel’s deeper agendas? (Sometimes the sad notes are comically linked to trivial losses or anthropomorphizing observations about inanimate things, but that’s just how Emmett thinks about philosophical issues”concrete things become stand-ins for abstract things.) 18. On first reading, the journey into œEmmett’s brain makes us think that his thoughts are hopelessly disordered and random. He seems easily distracted and distractable. However, he may be more focused that we initially realize, just in a kind of creative, radial, associative kind of way. Even though every œchapter or pre-dawn musings seems full of random and non-linear musings, a close reading reveals that many of the daily segments have a dominant focus or theme”e.g., loss, graves, care, sadness, children, etc. Choose one chapter that illustrates this unexpected focus well, and show how the pieces of that day’s meditation circle loosely around one specific topic. 19. Choose one of the following from the text to explicate, indicating what the larger meaning might be and relating it to something else in the text: œEach Lego piece is as light as a raisin, but they become heavy in the aggregate (p. 40); the recurrent sound of the train; references to Emmett’s dying laptop; medical textbooks and Spinal Cord Trauma; Sears and Home Depot. 20. Is the box of matches a gimmick or something more? What associations can you make for the following?: striking a match; 33 matches (33 years used to be a lifespan, and thus the scope of a generation; is it more?); a finite number of matches; the brevity of the flame; the small radius it illuminates. What else might be symbolic and tied in with a larger theme? Can you think of other symbols that writers have used (or that myths employ) as similar symbols? 21. What does this book have in common with one of the following?: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Thoreau’s Walden, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem œSpring and Fall (œMargaret, Are you Grieving?¦), Shakespeare’s œHamlet. [R] 22. Why will a movie never, ever be made of this book? (Think about that, but don’t choose this for online discussion.) 23. We can guess that part of the technical challenge of writing this novel was finding rich language for small, homely things and familiar, mundane moments. Another challenge might be slowing down enough in our noisy, clanging, fast-paced, over-stimulated world to contemplate the experience of the micro-moments that make up living”like reading a thermometer, or noticing paper towel designs, ¦¦..Discuss these and one or two other technical challenges you might imagine that writing this novel entailed, with specific textual supporting evidence to help explain your insights. 24. Relate the following passage to the novel’s larger themes and recurrent images: œIn place of the Richard Brinsley train station there is now a parking garage¦.All that’s left of the original station are the tiles in my parents’ fireplace¦.permanently fixed in my head; when I look up at night I see them in the constellations, surrounded by black grout [152]. 25. Why do you think Baker included the story about the ant farm and further references to its œlone survivor? Note the metaphorical quality of the line about œ[Fidel’s] purposeful life between those two close-set panes of plastic. What does the ant farm come to suggest”in Emmett’s thinking, and in the reader’s understanding of Baker’s spiritual and philosophical themes? What do you make”in relation to the ant farm”of the later passage that has Emmett outside his house looking into his living room where he sees his fire glowing? 26. Pretty consistently throughout the book, Emmett muses on the small, material things in life in fairly literal terms, without disclosing explicitly that they are symbols. (As readers aware of what writers tend to do, we unpack these for their symbolic value on our own.) However, there is one passage late in the text where Emmett himself breaks the pattern of œliteralness and essentially reveals the symbolic substrate of the novel. Look at the references to envelopes in the Day 31 chapter: œA succession of days is like a box of new envelopes, and œas you reach around them and squeeze them you feel the nugget, the something that isn’t in the envelopes but is of the envelopes. I would almost say that there is a hint on the meaning of life there, in that revealed kernel. [emphasis added] Usually he plays it straight, but here Emmett is thinking unexpectedly like a poet rather than a medical textbook editor or a fan of software manuals! Comment on these passages and at least one other where the symbolic substrate is very close to the surface of the novel. 27. How would you describe the ending? Unpack the particulars that end his ritual. What might it mean for it to end in a warm bed with a loved one? If this were an allegory (or a poem), what would it be saying? You’ll want to connect this ending to the themes of the novel. [Do you know the ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses? You might be able to reference it here.] 28. If you were explaining this quirky book to someone who hadn’t read it, and you wanted them to know what to look for on the first reading, how would you frame it? Assume the potential reader is an insightful and experienced reader. Is there a way to open up awareness of the novel’s œunderground river from the first page?ORDER THIS ESSAY HERE NOW AND GET A DISCOUNT !!!


 

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