The Anthologist is one of the most original and gripping of novels I've recently read. I can always forgive a story where not much happens. (Really, that's my favourite kind of story.) But a story that starts and restarts a discussion about poetry while its author dallies in the torpor of his daily life hardly sells itself as an exciting premise.
Paul Chowder is the charismatic hero of The Anthologist. He makes many suggestions about how we might engage poems, how we might rethink our understanding of rhyming schemes and he calls out lines and words with sincere and infectious fervor. He's the kind of guy I love to talk to, who I take with a pinch of salt, but also feel is a vast font of knowledge. He feels familiar and fallible.
But he struggles with life just as much as the rest of us. He'd miss the mouse that lives in the kitchen if it went away. He seems to keep cutting his fingers. He sometimes wishes he was a canoe. And he wonders "...what it must be like to be part of something ongoingly huge like a number-one sitcom or part of a magazine when it's in its golden moment—like The New Yorker in the thirties—or a fashionable restaurant of a hit musical. Something that everyone wants to think about at the same time. Some people have that privilege. Most don't. And the ones who do are no more content than I am."
There's bathos too. Chowder is plucky, self-deprecating. He gives us little reason to hope for him or his project. But he's disarming so this doesn't aggravate in the usual way. And the transitions between his poetic reflection and plain talk are astonishingly good, themselves poetic.
The quiet tragedy of the book is that in struggling to complete the introduction for his poetry anthology, Chowder's ardent ramblings convey more passion for poetry and the lives of poets than any dried-up barnacle of an anthology introduction could. I looked up more poetry reading this book than I've been inspired to in a long time. And that's what makes it, in the end, such an uplifting read.