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U and I: A True Story Paperback – February 4, 1992

4.2 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

Baker ponders novelist John Updike in this alternately self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing essay.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (February 4, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679735755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679735755
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 0.6 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #589,443 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I've written thirteen books, plus an art book that I published with my wife, Margaret Brentano. The most recent one is a comic sex novel called House of Holes, which came out in August 2011. Before that, in 2009, there was The Anthologist, about a poet trying to write an introduction to an anthology of rhyming verse, and before that was Human Smoke, a book of nonfiction about the beginning of World War II. My first novel, The Mezzanine, about a man riding an escalator at the end of his lunch hour, came out in 1988. I'm a pacifist. Occasionally I write for magazines. I grew up in Rochester, New York and went to Haverford College, where I majored in English. I live in Maine with my family.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
Nicholson Baker's semi-demented account of his Updike fascination begins from perhaps the slimmest premise a writer ever attempted to build a book upon. He admits that he hasn't even read most, or even half of Updike's work all the way through, and yet he can't help measuring his achievement against Updike's. Which, when you look at the imposing bulk of Updike's work against the handful of slender volumes that is Baker's, seems fair enough, at least if you think quantity is a virtue.
Yet Baker writes so well, not just about the nuances of his quasi-Oedipal relation to Updike, but about Stuff Generally, that we keep reading. When he says that a particularly sarky remark of Samuel Johnson's "merited a shout and a thigh slap", the economy of that phrases reassures us about his own talent; likewise his description of a hamburger as "substantial, tiered, sweet and meaty" makes you want to go out and chow down straight away. This is not only about Updike - although it's very good on Updike - but chiefly about Baker, and his own determination to wring poetry out of the everyday.
Perhaps Baker's real direction, if the manic momentum of "U and I" is anything to go by, is more towards the torrential worry of a Thomas Bernhard than the Olympian repose of an Updike. I only began to read Updike years after I'd read this book, and I find him a bit of a let-down. But Baker has gone on to do some entertaining things with sex, some excellent essays and a kid's book. He has demons far more volatile than Updike's; I think he should let them roam a little more freely.
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Format: Paperback
Baker has a gift for writing very funny pieces about subjects that are usually dry and serious. Nominally about John Updike, U and I is mostly concerned with how young writers are influenced by the "tradition" of past writers. He's anxious, for instance, about "The Anxiety of Influence." Has Harold Bloom covered the same ground already? Baker doesn't know, because he hasn't read Bloom, and now refuses to do so, for fear that the book will "take me over, remove the urgency I feel about what I'm recording here." His vague ideas of Bloom's argument have come second hand. "Book reviews, not books, being the principal engines of change in the history of thought." That doesn't stop him wildly speculating about what Bloom would say, and then sheepishly confessing to some of the books that have directly influenced his own work in progress, such as Exly's A Fan's Notes and Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot.
John Updike, in an interview that appeared in Salon, praised the book himself. "It has done me a favor, that book, because it's a book like few others. It's an act of homage, isn't it? He's a good writer, and he brings to that book all of his curious precision, that strange Bakeresque precision."
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By A Customer on October 31, 1996
Format: Paperback
Imagine a late-night chat session around a few beers, in
which a good friend who happens to be a writer starts to
tell you about his obsession with John Updike; but the
story is a little too weird to take seriously (your friend
starts off telling you that he has only read a small
percentage of Updike's work) and a little too funny to be
true (your friend's mother gleefully introduces him to
Updike at a book signing); so you, entertained, listen to the whole
story in a state of somewhat suspended disbelief. The story
turns out to be brutally honest, of course, because the
friend turns out to be Nicholson Baker, before his name
became synonymous with anxious, detailed fiction. The
inflated relationship to Updike, sustained hilariously in
his mind like a zeppelin, turns out to be based on a couple
of fan-meets-idol encounters, since the story is about Baker
as a young, unestablished writer; but this doesn't mean that
Baker and Updike aren't (or weren't) linked together by some
fundamental literary bond. This book is Baker's attempt to
examine the roots of that bond, and the results are
delectable, side-splitting, and painfully embarrassing.
Drink a few beers while reading.
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Format: Paperback
This eccentrically gripping book will remind you of every all-night college bull session you ever participated in. Baker's increasingly discursive rants about Updike reveal more about the present author than the Great Man, of course. Keep this book in mind the next time you read a really annoying review of an author you admire. It's just some poor slob trying to justify his existence. And that's the real point of this memoir, of course; we all make our own solipsistic uses of other people. If we are lucky, we grow out of it and get some objectivity. In the meantime laugh along with Baker AND DON'T TAKE LITERARY POLITICS SO SERIOUSLY!
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Nicholson Baker is reputed to be a miniaturist. In Baker's opinion Updike's obituary in THE NEW YORKER for Nabokov was a model of its kind.

In the opening pages a crisis arises when Baker reads an AP story in his local paper that Donald Barthelme has died. He strives to compose an obituary of Barthleme for THE NEW YORKER. Baker's obituary comes out eventually in the 'Notes and Comments' section of the magazine. Baker considers working himself up to a fanatical receptivity of Barthelme's work, but then thinks to himself that Barthelme would never know. The intellectual surface given to the dead writer's work changes in texture and chemistry. In the dead, autobiographical fidelity in the work becomes less important. Baker comes to feel that Updike is more important to him than Barthelme, particularly because Updike is still alive. Baker resolves to make a book about his obsession with Updike.

At first Baker seeks to write a commissioned article on Updike. He contacts THE ATLANTIC. Baker, 25 years younger than Updike, notes that older writers are wary of younger writers. THE ATLANTIC responds. An editor says the results could be good or creepy.

Nicholson Baker started reading Updike at Christmastime, 1976, when he was on leave from college. Like the rest of us, Baker's actual coverage of Updike's works is spotty. Both Baker and Updike have psoriasis. Baker offers up the facetious suggestion that book reviews, not books, are the engines of intellectual change. In wonderful fashion, Baker teases out the meaning of, and circumstances surrounding, an Updike observation made pursuant to reviewing Edmund Wilson's journals that a set piece on a sunset would clog, would break the momentum in the writing of a novel.
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