As a child late in the last century, Daisy Ashford assumed a grown-up's voice--or her notion of one--to write the romance of Ethel Montacue and her admirer, Mr. Salteena. In its comic misapprehensions of tone, likelihood and spelling, "The Young Visiters," unearthed years later by J.M. Barrie, became a minor English classic.
Nicholson Baker has reversed the displacement. "The Everlasting Story of Nory" uses his notion of a child's voice to depict a 9-year-old American girl spending a year with her family in England. Baker's fertile shape-changing and playfulness of language do a lot to suggest a 9-year-old's butterfly speculations. Yet his venture, though sometimes attractive, doesn't really work.
A child dressing up as a grown-up displays not the grown-up but--charmingly in Ashford's case--the child. A grown-up dressing up as a child, on the other hand, runs the great risk of displaying the grown-up.
Some writers--Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll and other great inventors of children's worlds--overcome the risk. To create a fictional child, it is not enough to admire children. It is necessary to ignite, as an adult, the desperate spark that arcs across the gap between a child's longing for action and transformation and the realities that constrain it. Baker is a radiant admirer, a perceptive observer and extremely nice, besides, but his Nory is becalmed.
Nory's father and mother have moved her and her younger brother temporarily from Palo Alto to Threll, an English cathedral town closely resembling Wells in Somerset. Her teacher at the Montessori school in Palo Alto had used the words "fatal flaw" in criticizing her inattentiveness, and this, Nory assumes, was what caused the move. It is one of many faintly skewed perceptions, appropriate to a 9-year-old, that populate the book.
There were other reasons, no doubt; the father is a writer and free to move about. His books--so Nory gathers from her parents' amiably jokey table talk--put people to sleep. Baker, who draws heavily on his own family, is having a quiet joke at himself. Unfortunately, what is not true of any of his previous books ("Mezzanine," "Room Temperature," "Vox" and "Fermata") has some relevance here. "Nory," even in its felicities, can be tedious.
In the earlier books, Baker applied his unique miniaturization--a world seen in a grain of sand and intensified--to large adult preoccupations and fantasies. The very safe and protected 9-year-old world that "Nory" miniaturizes is already very small. It is a grain of sand seen in a grain of sand and seen, furthermore, at what comes to feel like considerable length.
We hear about Nory's younger brother, Littleguy, whose main interests are digging machinery and famous trains. God, he believes, drives a steam locomotive; the devil drives a diesel. Nory herself thinks of God as "a thoughtful, extremely supreme person." Her mother, who doesn't do much to enliven the story's bland ingenuities, sees him in the good in other people.
Nory opposes scariness. She is against scary books and movies, particularly those that seem benign and ambush you with a scary incident. Teeth worry her--preemptively, perhaps, she decides to be a dentist--and she dreams of ducks and cows with long sharp ones. She thinks a lot about bad dreams, tries to rearrange her thoughts to ward them off and, when they do slip through, mentally rewrites them after she wakes up.
This about does it for darkness; mostly, Nory's existence is cheerful. Her parents, who take the children on weekend excursions, are equable and attentive. When Nory worries about something called the Tweety Monster or Littleguy worries about owls, their mother reassures them that there are no bad things out there. "Only the gentle night," she goes, "and the squirrels all fluffed up to keep from getting too cold, and the raccoons having a pleasant chew of garbage." For Nory's part, when some harmless disagreement threatens between mother and father, she recites her own reassuring mantra: "Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of an argument."
Cuteness threatens, here and elsewhere, though generally Baker avoids it. A greater problem is coziness. He has drawn a 9-year-old devoid of tears, meanness and, above all, silence. "Nory" is less the portrait of a child than a continuous commentary about the child, ostensibly by herself: fluent, fey, imaginative and unstoppable. It is hard to see much through the words, however well Baker has chosen them.
Curiously, although the narration is couched in the language of an only slightly precocious 9-year-old, with a few touching slips ("up to sniff," "the biggest . . . by any means"), it is delivered in the third person. No additional perspective is added, and the freshness and immediacy of a first-person account--two qualities needed in this overly nudged story--are sacrificed.