Subsoil (short story)

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Author Nicholson Baker
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Gothic fiction short story
Published in The New Yorker
Publication type Newspaper
Media type Print
Publication date June 27, 1994

The short story Subsoil by Nicholson Baker first appeared in The New Yorker periodical on June 27, 1994.[1] Subsoil is aabout Nyle T. Milner, who meets his doom after being assaulted and forced by attacking, sprouting potatoes that lure agriculturalists into their sleepy Krebs Cycle.

Main characters[edit]

Nyle T. Milner is the main character in Subsoil. He is an agricultural historian, who is researching and writing a book about the early harrow.
Manager of the Harvey Motel (No Name Given) is mentioned in passing towards the beginning of the story. It is said that she is very interested in Nyle's work, and goes out of her way to make his stays comfortable at the hotel.
Bill Fipton is the owner and curator of the Museum of the Tractor in which the main character visits multiple times, and during the course of the story.
The Taits are the inn keepers, of which Bill Fipton suggests Nyle stays during his visit. Their inn is noted for having an "interesting" soup.
Raymond Purty is mentioned while Nyle ponders if he will ever finish his monograph. He was an expert on early silos and was working on a manuscript about them, however while working on it he was suffocated under three tons of raw soy.
Juliette, is a worker at "The Taits". She makes the labor-intensive and infamous soup.
Douglass Grieb was mentioned in passing during dinner. He was a controversial figure in his line of work. Not only that but he was the last person to use the room in which Nyle was occupying during his present stay at the Taits'.
Shelby Hemper Fairchild was dreamt of and felt sorry for by Nyle. She was a minor engineer, who died from inhalation of a cotton ball. She also developed Bleidman & Company's famous Guttersnipe (an erratic but groundbreaking turf flail and trencher).


Nyle T. Milner, a hard working agricultural historian, is busy researching and working on a book about the early harrow. He is in the process of traveling to the Museum of the Tractor located in Harvey, New York for the fourth time. He asks Bill Fipton for recommendations of accommodations, and Bill offers up "The Taits" inn stating that they make an "interesting" soup. He explores the hotel room and comes across a Mr. Potato Head Kit. He opens the box quickly and is surprised to find a real potato with all the facial features still punctured into it. The mummified potato startles him.

Following his encounter with the potato, Nyle makes his way down from his room for dinner. He learns that the menu was leek and potato soup; however he is the only one eating it. After some time, he mentions the Mr. Potato Head Kit he had found earlier and states how it had startled him. After dinner, Mrs. Tait leads Nyle into the kitchen, revealing to him dozens of potatoes all shapes and sizes and making sure to mention that they only use "fresh" ones. Nyle leaves the Taits and proceeds to his room. While trying to fall asleep he wondered why Mrs. Tait used the word "fresh".

He wakes up to venture back downstairs to the kitchen, though when he gets to the door he notices a sprout coming through the keyhole. He opens the door and notices a dozen or more potatoes coming toward him. Nyle goes back inside and tries to blockade the door. The potatoes are coming after him. Nyle tries to escape; however the dead Mr. Potato Head's spuds spawn veer toward Nyle's face, causing him to fall. The potatoes begin to inhabit his body planting themselves within. After some time Nyle wakes up in a very dark place - the box he originally encountered upon his arrival at "The Taits". A child begins pushing the Mr. Potato Head features into Nyle and puts him back into the box. Many years later, a man opens the box and is frightened by the mummified potato which ultimately begins the new Krebs Cycle.

Major themes[edit]

Subsoil is filled with humorous irony and many hidden lessons for its readers to learn. The story is filled with very ironic circumstances - one of the major ironies is the idea of an agricultural historian being fearful of potatoes. Normally we would expect that the man could overcome this fear and find it laughable. We did not expect that the disfigured Mr. Potato Head and a band of vengeful potatoes would attack and inhabit Nyle. The normal/expected outcome of the story was washed away by an absurdity/illogicality.

Regardless of the fact that the story is about a man fearing potatoes, within there are deeper undertones. In reading the story, take notice to how many of the characters died and the events surrounding their deaths. There is a common reason they all died, which is work. Raymond Purty who is mentioned in the story worked for years as an expert on the early silos and was working on a book about them, died due to three tons of raw soy suffocating him. Also the engineer dreamt of by Nyle, Shelby Hemper Fairchild, died at the hands of her own work the Guttersnipe. Lastly the main character, Nyle T. Milner, was highly invested in studying harrows(which of course harvest potatoes). Although a harrow itself didn't outright kill him, the potatoes which it harvested did. He as well as the others were consumed by their own work.

If the story wasn't ironic in the sense that many of the characters were killed by their line of work, the main point which Baker was trying to convey to his audience wouldn't have been as forcefully made. By having the irony of the characters being killed by their respective lines of work, Baker is trying to express the message that we should take our work seriously and have pride in it, but we should also not let it consume us. We should have some time for play as well, or else it will end up taking over our lives completely. This theme is more apparent and easier to pick out than the next one.

Another theme presenting itself within Subsoil is that we cannot subdue nature. Anything in life can influence us in a positive or negative way, it all depends on how we handle it - if you can take something scary and laugh it off, it won't be as scary. However, if you struggle to make it less serious it can take over your mind and ultimately affect you.

Gothic elements[edit]

Throughout the short story, Subsoil, there are many Gothic elements present. Nicholson Baker infuses a variety of elements into this riveting story in order to create an uncanny/surreal experience for the audience. By challenging boundaries and limits of everyday thought, strains the readers mind and imagination allowing for an ingenious, humorous, and terrifying tale of a man who is inhabited by vengeful potatoes.

The most noticeably employed are betrayal of innocence, fear and extremes. Baker took a simple childhood memory, a Mr. Potato Head, and a simple vegetable and warped them into cold hearted killers. Forcing readers to throw out the fun loving images of a Mr. Potato Head, as well as their original thoughts on a dinner-time side dish and replacing them with this new fear invoking extreme.

Another element Baker used to make this story even creepier was the concept of horror. Subsequent to Nyle seeing the shriveled up Mr. Potato Head he is left with a feeling of revulsion and fear which intensifies onward through the story.

A third concept engaged was that of the abhuman. In Gothic fiction this refers to something that has only remnants of being human, in the process of becoming monstrous.[2] It may not be extremely clear how a human and a potato can be interrelated or even comparable. Yet Baker accomplishes this feat by giving the potatoes, specifically the Mr. Potato Head life as well as emotions (specifically revenge).

The last major Gothic element that can be found in Baker's story is Darwinism. This notion is basically "survival of the fittest" which is demonstrated by how the potatoes overpower and inhabit Nyle's body.


Baker's tale of vengeful potatoes is truly a weird story. However, it has plenty of humor and wittiness tied together with perfectly placed irony. Some aspects of the story don't really make sense, yet it simply works, but if you don't understand potato humor it seems almost hopeless and won't be appreciated it. The extreme of potatoes having the power to take control of a human being is also a bit of a stretch - requiring imagination to capture the true essence of this story.

The final part of this story in which potatoes take control can also be seen as describing a nightmare or hallucination resulting from a case of solanine poisoning caused by eating old potatoes, many of which are present in the Taits' cabinet.[3] Mr. Tait even says at one point that "the secret to a good earth-apple (i.e. potato) soup is to age the ingredients."

Unfortunately there are not any documented criticisms of Nicholson Baker's Subsoil. However, there are criticisms of other works by Baker which may be applicable for critiquing this particular story. Baker's writing is gimmicky and whimsical - he writes comedic novels and stories that do not carry a plot - leading many critics to take him and his writing with a grain of salt.[4]Baker is also notable for altering common/everyday activities into superb twisted descriptions of thought and serious consideration. He is also widely recognized for his "originality and linguistic virtuosity".[5]

Publication information[edit]

Subsoil by Nicholson Baker, originally appeared on June 27, 1994 in The New Yorker newspaper.[6] Two years later it appeared in the American Gothic Tales anthology created by Joyce Carol Oates, and published by Plume Publishing.[7]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Baker, Nicholson (6/27/1994), "Subsoil", The New Yorker: 67-78,
  2. ^ Lloyd-Smith, Alan (2004), American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction, New York: Continuum, ISBN 0-8264-1594-6,
  3. ^ MedlinePlus Encyclopedia Potato plant poisoning - green tubers and sprouts
  4. ^ Gale, Thomas (4/27/2008), "Nicholson Baker (A profile of the author's life and works)", Contemporary Authors Online
  5. ^ Nicholson Baker (A brief review of the author's life, works, and critical reception)", Contemporary Literature Criticism-Select, Retrieved 7/15/2009
  6. ^ Baker, Nicholson (6/27/1994), "Subsoil", The New Yorker: 67-78,
  7. ^ Oates, Carol J. (1996), American Gothic Tales, Plume, ISBN 0-452-27489-3,,,9780452274891,00.html?American_Gothic_Tales_Various

Saltzman, Arthur (Retrieved 7/15/2009), "American Novelists Since World War II", Dictionary of Literary Biography, 227 (Sixth series)  Check date values in: |date= (help)

Walkenbach, John (3/9/2008), Nicholson Baker Fan Page, retrieved 2009-07-16  Check date values in: |date= (help)