U and I: A True Story — Nicholson Baker

U and IThere’s something weirdly winsome about U and I, but it’s definitely an acquired taste; much as you wouldn’t recommend a friend who’d never eaten fish start off by trying raw eel, I wouldn’t recommend a friend read U and I unless I already knew they were a) quirky, b) at least moderately well-read and c) interested in the process of writing. U and I is like—I keep resorting to similes because, really, I don’t know what else to do—the best written, longest blog post you’ve ever read.

It’s a meditation on memory that shouldn’t be taken too seriously (sample: Nabokov “detailed his three-by-five method of fictional composition so comprehensively that Gore Vidal said in some essay that he was sick of hearing about it”). And Baker has a sense of the absurd, which I find absurd and love; he gets academia too well: “I count myself fortunate in being able to extract all the pretend-scholarly pleasure I want out of my method without urging it on anyone else.” Actual scholars appear to get real pleasure by inflicting their method on others. “Urging” is too light a word for the things I’ve seen. Baker is very polite to use “urging,” and he’s polite in general, for all his opinions.

If he’s retained that politeness, House of Holes ought to be a rather unusual book given its reputedly pornographic and hallucinatory premise (a copy is sitting on my table, waiting for me to get around to it, while I slog through The Condition of Postmodernity—which is a definitive infliction of an academic system and the kind of book that ought to be paired with Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius so that one will at least come out the other side knowing where many problems in the first book lie. Sorry for the preceding paragraph. U and I makes me more digressive than usual. If you read it, you’ll understand. It’s an acquired taste, as I said, one that sometimes needs a bit more sugar and olive oil, but one I rather liked, though I can’t recommend it except to book obsessives, writers, bibliophiles, or the people foolish enough to want to understand them. Which probably covers a fair number of readers of this blog, but still. The warning is part of being polite.

He must not be an academic at heart: academics love to apply their theories to others, with as much intellectual violence as necessary to make it stick. It turns out that Baker hadn’t read all of Updike’s books, and, with many of them, he’d only read parts, which he doesn’t remember entirely. In fact, the book isn’t really about Updike all that much at all: it’s more about artistic neuroses, learning how to write, and playing with that fickle memory beast. For example: “Once you decide on a profession, you riffle back through your past to find early random indications of a learning toward your chosen interest and you nurture them into a false prominence: so it was naturally very important to me, as a writer on the make, to have this sixth-grade vocabularistic memory in its complete form.” Baker wants us to know that we create a narrative of success and set up retrospective wayposts that make success seem foreordained, when it probably isn’t. Even the less successful among us might think so: I remember my parents being astonished that I was going to major in English. They told me they expected business or econ. Now I better understand why. But in the long run, I’m not sure it matters. There were other possibilities one could’ve guessed based on my past. But I picked one and rolled with it. This is an example of me trying not to do intellectual violence to an idea: instead of saying, “Everyone works this way!” I posit some possibilities and move on from there.

Baker mentions “early Updike, whose boy-heroes are sometimes more sensitive and queasier-stomached than one wants them to be.” But he doesn’t go on to explain. He doesn’t really explain anything. He leaves the explaining to the reader; you get what he’s doing, or you don’t. In this respect, he’s the least academic of all: instead of wanting to elaborate us to death, he wants to let us be. I know what he means about boy-heroes; sometimes you want a giant animal to attack Rabbit and see what he’s made of, or for aliens to invade in Couples, offering Piet an opportunity to do something more than carpentry and cuckoldry. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, precisely, but, well, you hope for a bit more at times. Baker also gives good sentence, but they are often long sentences, like this one:

[. . .] many of the novels that I’ve liked lately (The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Swimming-Pool Library, A Single Man) have been so directly premised on gaiety: you feel their creators’ exultation at having so much that wasn’t sayable finally available for analysis, and you feel that the sudden unrestrained scope given to the truth-telling urge in the Eastern homosphere has lent energy and accuracy to these artists’ nonsexual observations as well [. . .]

Notice the ellipses on either end. Notice too Baker’s use of the funny word “homosphere” with the funnier adjective “Eastern.” Is there a “Western” homosphere? If so, how is it different? More tans, fewer references to ascots? And what is an ascot anyway? I’ve never known it save for the butt of a joke, and the word “butt” should be funny here in the context of the “homosphere.” Kind of, anyway. Like I was saying—Baker does go on. But that’s the pleasure in him. With him. Through him. Whatever. Still, this is enough quote for now.

No, actually, I change my mind. Writing about Updike’s book Of the Farm, Baker says that “A photographer would not so directly use his professional equipment in the metaphors he applied to his immediate surroundings—he would use it sometimes, but not in the first paragraph of the story he told. Film and f-stops are huge real presences to him, and can’t be so easily manipulated as tokens of comparison.” Not necessarily. Consider all the writers who use book and writing metaphors; I think our profession does get into our minds deeply enough that we might reach to professions for our first metaphors. Paul Graham’s writing is full of metaphors involved software and computers. That’s part of what makes it so rich.

It bugs me when I read books about doctors or lawyers or hookers or whatever and find characters who don’t think in the world in terms of their profession. I mean, a hooker probably doesn’t need to see every interaction as like something with a John, and a lawyer doesn’t need to view every interaction as adversarial or use terms like “estoppel” on every page, but once in a while, you know, it’d be nice. It’d work. I haven’t read Of the Farm, however, so I can’t comment on it. The problem with being a reader is that you’ll never have enough time to read everything you should. So you rely on memory, that uncertain beast, more than you should, and you end up be a scholarly pedant or a scatterbrained essayist. A false binary, but roll with it. On average, the latter seem funnier, and, in my own view, when in doubt, go funny.

For all U and I’s weirdness, I’m keeping the book instead of giving it away or reselling it. Maybe in a couple years it’ll say something new to me. I only worry that, instead of seeing it as weird, I’ll see it as normal.

One response

  1. I read U and I in my twenties. It was a terrific and fun read and a brilliant concept (though if I reread it today, I don’t know if I’d feel the same way). I enjoyed the pure frivolity of it.

    I like the fact that an author tried to write about an another without seeming to write literary criticism. Rather he just talked about how another author changed his life over time. Always a fun subject. Oddly, I read The Mezzanine and U and I, but none of Baker’s works afterwards…


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