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U and I: A True Story by Nicholson Baker

U and I: A True Story (1998)

by Nicholson Baker

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I'm only reviewing this book a little late (it was published in 1991): but I'd like to make the case that it should be required reading for writers and readers who care about the sort of thing David Foster Wallace was also trying to do, beginning in the early 1990s.

For me, the book splits into two "model authors" (that's Eco's formulation, in "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods).

First is the self-absorbed, insecure, hyperbolically self-interrogating ingenue author, the one who fawns and obsesses and preens over his hero Updike, and then chastises himself for preening, and then finds a reason to credit Updike for his capacity to chastise himself, and then bemoans the fact that his awareness of the fact that Updike gets the credit for a quality he'd thought was his means that his estimation of Updike unexpectedly decreases rather than increases, sending him into a spiral of nested second- and third thoughts, expressed four or five asides and illustrated by non sequiturs, arranged in parentheses, square brackets, and em-dashes, and ending several pages later on some unrelated topic.

The second is the model author who would really love to capture as much of his articulateness as he possibly can, even if it means sentences several pages long, or strings of subordinate clauses, or multiple interruptions. This author is concerned with putting what Baker calls his "intelligence" on the page. The topic--a young author's obsession with a famous author--doesn't really matter for this second model author. The book could have been about anything.

In "U and I," the first of these is nicely captured in Baker's meditations on the elusiveness of genius, on the anxiety of influence, and the intemperate behaviors elicited by proximity to fame. The second is well captured by Baker's thoughts on "intelligence," which he contrasts, late in the book, with "genius."

I have a different way of thinking about these two model authors. For me, the first is fun, but trivial and trivializing. If I want depthless insecurity coupled (inevitably) with hyperbolic self-aggrandizement, I would rather read Salvador Dali. Or if I'm after a tortured imagination that bores into itself, guts itself, feeds off the guts, heals itself, and starts all over, I'd read "Notes from the Underground." By contrast with texts like those this is playful, and of course it's meant to be: but it's also meant to do a decent job of capturing most of what a youthful ambition and literary devotion is about.

The second model author is much more interesting. There is an uncanny parallel, at times, between this book and the almost contemporaneous "Infinite Jest." Both are partly about pushing language so it is at once impeccable vernacular (faithful to what counts as spoken, or thought, language) and outlandishly technical (faithful to the microscopic discriminations that the authors see as their plague and their talent). Wallace was seven or eight years younger than Baker, but the authors who occupied his imagination (initially DeLillo, and then Markson and many others) were a good generation younger than the ones that concern Baker (aside from Updike, that's mainly Nabokov and James). Nevertheless the strain both Baker and Wallace put on vernacular language is amazing. If Baker is less impressive -- and even now, 25 years after Baker's book, and in this very obscure venue tucked away among the thousands of anonymous internet reviews, I still hesitate to write this, because the narrator of "U and I" is so tensile with fear of criticism -- it's because his prosody has more to do with older writers, from Updike and Gass (who goes unmentioned) to White and Trilling and Wilson and Nabokov back to James. He behaves himself better on the page; his periods are long and well-tempered, and so a little less of his "intelligence" gets out there on the page.

It is a problem that is very much still current. There is still no limit to this sort of search, and Baker is still one of the best practitioners. ( )
  JimElkins | Mar 25, 2016 |
Little did I know before reading this gem that Baker had already treated fiction and literary criticism in as original and hilarious way as he did poetry in "The Anthologist". Not only that, but now I have to go back and read as much John Updike as I can--Updike lost me after "The Coup", although I did briefly attempt to read "Brazil". Thanks, Nicholson Baker, because now I also have to read those of your books I have not yet read, and I owe it to you to review those I already have read... ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
A little too much for my tastes. Is it possible the dude has low self-esteem? That he is a bit of a poseur? I write about the book here and I would love for you to read about it:

http://mewlhouse.hubpages.com/hub/A-Story-of-Love-Between-Updike-and-Baker ( )
  MSarki | Mar 31, 2013 |
Twenty years ago (in 1991), Nicholson Baker wrote U and I: A True Story, a 179-page memoir about Baker’s obsession with John Updike. As odd a topic as it seems, it is often entertaining reading – although sometimes I wondered if it’d have taken on a different tone if written in today’s internet age — where, at one or two clicks away, one can find just about anything about everyone. Of course, if you have zero interest in John Updike, you might not want to pick up U and I. On the other hand, if you are interested in what runs through a writer’s mind (at least that of Baker’s) and literary influences, U and I is worth a try. ( )
  ValerieAndBooks | Jun 6, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679735755, Paperback)

Nicholson Baker is most famous for Vox, the phone-sex novel Monica Lewinsky gave President Clinton, but the vastly superior U and I contains Baker's own dirty little secret: an obsession with John Updike. Not since Salieri in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus has one man's genius so publicly tormented another. Baker's ambition is a naked thing shivering with sensitivity, like a snail bereft of its shell. Yet his book about himself thinking about Updike is as hilariously self-knowing as it is excruciatingly sincere. And Baker is not mad (not quite). He does have a few things in common with his idol: fiction precociously published in The New Yorker, psoriasis, insomnia, a keen eye for everyday minutiae, and a mischievously felicitous prose style. He is, however, funnier. Hunting for Updike at The Atlantic's 125th anniversary party, he gets brutally snubbed by Miss Manners--U and I is a fine comedy of literary manners--and cheers up when Tim O'Brien chats with him. But when O'Brien mentions that he golfs with Updike, Baker is hurt:

It didn't matter that I hadn't written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn't written a book of any kind, and didn't know how to golf: still, I felt strongly that Updike should have asked me and not Tim O'Brien.

He justifies this reaction with a remarkably intricate series of associations between his life and Updike's, starting with the major impact a golf joke in an Updike essay once had on him. When Baker reads in the paper that his local cops offer to X-ray kids' candy for razors, he plausibly imagines the droll "Talk of the Town" piece Updike might have spun from the item, glumly noting that Updike's piece would have been better. He even teasingly confesses that U and I constitutes "a little trick-or-treating of my own on Updike's big white front porch." By the time he actually meets his hero (at Rochester's Xerox Auditorium!) in 1981, Baker has transformed him into a character in a Baker story. Quite a trick--and a treat.

In his elegy for Yeats, Auden wrote that a great poet's words are modified in the guts of the living, but Baker proves what really happens: at best we misremember and mangle, shamelessly remaking the master in our own image. --Tim Appelo

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:59 -0400)

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