THE EVERLASTING STORY OF NORY
By Nicholson Baker
224 pp., $22
My six-year-old daughter recently asked me about the giraffe in our house.
"What giraffe?" I asked.
"That giraffe you and Mom felt coming down the stairs."
"That was a draft, some cold air, you know, a breeze."
She nodded skeptically, as though she'd stumbled upon an exotic smuggling ring. For me, her question was a reminder of the miraculous, perplexing world in which children live.
Nicholson Baker has written a most beguiling novel about that world. "The Everlasting Story of Nory" perfectly captures the ordinary life of a kind, creative nine-year-old girl. In the cacophony of novels, memoirs, and talk shows about the harrowing hazards many children face, Nory's story is a charming reminder of the life children need and deserve.
Nicholson presents Nory with a degree of gentle irony that makes this novel sweet, but never saccharin. The book's sustained comedy stems from Nory's attempts to make sense of her year in England, where her father is taking a sabbatical to "write books that help people get to sleep."
Leaving behind her dear friends in Palo Alto, Calif., and moving to the little town of Threll, Nory must figure out a new school, defend her accent, and negotiate the complexities of playground politics. She manages all these tasks with great concentration and success, but she devotes at least as much effort to her everlasting series of dreams and tales that pit a little girl against extraordinary, sometimes gruesome challenges.
"You need something to fail in a story," Nory observes, "because then when it fails it has to get better. Usually with a story there is a moment at which you're supposed to think some person or animal has died or some other really sad failure has happened - and if you don't know that that's how stories are supposed to work you can become quite upset and have to run out of the room to escape the squeezing feeling in your chest, like at the end of 'Lady and the Tramp.' "
Indeed, much of this short book concerns Nory's simple but profound discoveries about the nature of language and fiction. While most of us race through words like bored commuters on familiar streets, Nory studies words like a jeweler. She takes no colloquial phrase for granted. She realizes immediately that "the last straw was not the last straw in the machine at the restaurant that when it was taken meant the machine was empty and you would have to drink your milkshake sadly without a straw." And she knows a camel's back is unlikely to be broken by that straw. He would kneel down long before the burden got too heavy.
Even when being taunted for befriending an unpopular classmate, Nory mourns how difficult it will be to recall the details of childhood. "You live your life always in the present," she notes. "And even in the present, this day, dozens and hundreds of little tiny things happen, so many that by the end of the day you can't make a list of them. You lose track of them unless something reminds you. Say someone says, 'Remember when you dropped your ruler this morning?' And you do remember. But then that is lost in the tangle."
Baker has untangled those memories with loving precision in what's likely to become a classic book for adults about childhood. If there's any real "failing" in "The Everlasting Story," it's that fourth grade isn't everlasting after all.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.