Baker muses on the creative process via his obsession with John Updike.
The gimmick, and one I quite like, is that Baker deals with the influence of his memories of Updike's lines, and only after the fact does he go back through and find out what the actual phrases are. The leaky nature of influence is fascinating - there's a sequence in Rilke's "The Notebooks of M.L.B." that I've always been terrified to look up because it's been so influential on my writing - and Baker is, as ever, hilarious.
But. I have a little problem dishing out a terse, considered and witty review, howevs. I read so much there is SIMPLY NO TIME to write all these reviews. I still think Updike represents an old-school Harvard upper middle-class WASP gloatingness (and perhaps Baker does too?), but this man (Baker) writes pedantically pleasurable sentences of cuddly hilarity, erudition and wonder.
Ah, Nicholson Baker, would you were here to witness it - you'd be off and running for 50 whole pages I should think before your brain had ceased to parse the metaphor, irony and sheer unlikely circumstance with which this little murder (I haven't seen the fly since) was imbued.
Nicholson Baker If ever there was a book that begged to be discussed prematurely, a book that pleads to be mocked in what I believe is the goodreads catchphrase 'a parody homage', this is it. (Thinks to self, this paragraph is Baker.) ((Thinks to self, I only wrote that last thought because it is what Baker would do.)) But if I do this, read part of the book and then write, and Nicholson Baker himself reads it, what will he think? I could not help, as I read this over breakfast this morning, considering the very prospect of what my spontaneous memory of this book will be in the future, the one that comes to me from nothing. Reading You and I over breakfast, considering the very prospect of what my spontaneous memory of this book will be. I know he will be utterly spoilt by the fantasy of Bakers reverie. And now Im being fucking Baker again, arent I?
Nicholson Baker has an almost neurotic obsession with not wanting to sound like another writer and not to enter into manuscript words or phrases another writer has previously used. Nicholson Baker really cares too much what his readers think of him. I have read very little of John Updike and this book U and I does nothing to make me want to read him either. I read this book by Nicholson Baker for his audacity, or because of his presumed premise for audacity. In other words, Baker thinks you ought to like him if you read him, and is worried to some degree that what he has to say, and the way he might say it, could turn some readers off, so he is very careful. But not careful enough because I don't like him as much as I did when I first started reading this book. While listing the four vocabulary words his father gave him when Baker initially began compiling a journal of them, or when he first began to want to compile a list of vocabulary words, the last word of the first four his father gave him was acerbic which was recalled to his mind while in the midst of relating a story regarding Marcel Proust, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, John Updike, and his alimonied ex-wife. The story made me remember a morning last week as I was composing a poem and struggling over which word best fit what I was trying to say. I do not like the way Baker refers supposedly to the woman he loves as his "now-wife". Baker's claim of heterosexuality in concurrence with his hero Updike and near-hero Nabokov in light of his once-homophobic tendencies leaves me with some sickening in my taste for reading more from this fucking idiot.
Baker's wisdom is as much about what he doesn't remember, and how he interprets those losses, and what those feelings evoke, and where those thoughts lead, and what those other thoughts remind him of, and where those second-generation thoughts lead, and how they remind him of that one time he and his mom saw Updike speak in Rochester in 1981. And Baker's anxiety, a writer's anxiety (something that should be familiar to anyone stupid enough to call himself a writer) is practically jumping off the page too. Either way, much of what this book really is (as opposed to a critical study of Updike) is a mediation on the process of writing, on what good writing is (and isn't), on the cannon itself, on feeling like you are wasting your time, or, paradoxically, that you need a little more recognition for what you've done. How does he find that much to say about that sliver of a quote he sorta remembers from that one Updike review that he thinks appeared in The New Yorker in the late seventies?
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. 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. 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.