Or, Something Funny Happened On The Way Down To Tie My Shoelaces. Yes, after a few (highly idiosyncratic) non-fiction outings we’re back in the terrifyingly detailed world of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. Where there were escalators, urinals and drinking straws, there are now cafetieres, soap bars and envelopes.
The novel is 33 short letters from Emmett, 44, to no one in particular, each one presumably representing one of the matches that he uses to light his early morning fires. He has the idea of waking at around 4am each day to be conscious when no one else is, leaving his wife and two children upstairs asleep. This gives him the chance to fully examine his thoughts, which range from oddly lyrical reminiscences about a pet ant to noting how "painfully incongruous" a sock in a bin is – all in some way to do with entropy and a phobia of forgetting (Baker’s narrators always recall Brian Friel’s Translations, "To remember everything is a form of madness"). And, of course, this is not so much a mid-life crisis as a seminar about one.
But for all its many pleasures Baker’s prose is as sharply intelligent as ever the even, measured sentences of Emmett can be tiresome. The Mezzanine and its hilarious footnotes had a purpose of tone and variety of cadence that drove the recounting of the exploded lunch hour, whereas Emmett’s reveries with his coffee and pet duck and log fire in the dark are all a bit too cosy, a bit enervated.
Perhaps Baker slyly alludes to his return to this world of micro-observation: "The way to make steady money in the textbook business," writes Emmett, "is to bring out a new edition of your book every two years, whether it needs to or not." Disappointingly, A Box of Matches is in the latter category. Compared with earlier, similar fare then, "average contents" indeed.