30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2000
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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2001
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."
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 1996
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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!
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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. Writing involves an unbelievable amount of memory. A prolific writer works to avoid reapeating himself.
In the end THE ATLANTIC runs an excerpt of the author's essay on Updike. Belittling the Franklin Library, the author states that Updike teaches even in his transgressions. The book is a marvellous piece of writing and encompasses many writerly concerns.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2006
That may be true for most books, but it's doubly true for this one.
This book appealed to me because the author and I share a common interest (though in the case of Baker, it's more like an obsession) in the form of Updike's writing. Even so, it must be said that I agree with the negative reviews; many of them are right on. This book is often frustating and exasperating, particularly in the way Baker focuses on himself, his insecurities, his worth as a writer, and the way he does and doesn't hold up next to Updike. Not to mention the fact that several times he seemed about to, yet never does, come up with an explanation for why Updike's writing is so memorable and his words and images so long-lasting in the mind of the reader. I found myself wanting to read Updike more and Baker less...probably not the intended result (and, for the record, if Baker's own reading list is accurate, I've read way, way more Updike than him...which I found strange and unexpected, considering).
Still...Baker's writing, about Updike's writing, is often dead-on. When he focuses on that topic, he more or less succeeds; he is insightful and intelligent, and there is something entertaining in the way he struggles, strains, and sweats to dissect an author whose own writing is so often effortless.
on October 20, 2014
One of the funniest books I've read, seriously. You have to love that Baker has the brashness to write this book even though he'd only read a few of Updike's books! I'm a fan of just about everything else he has done, but this book is really something else, unlike anything you've read. Keep a dictionary handy --- Baker has a vocabulary that's out of control.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2010
One of the most original - and honest - pieces of literature in the history of the planet, to date, at least. And by circumscribing the topice to something very specific - his obsession with what John Updike would be thinking of his thinking or doing in any and almost every regard - he may have been more successful than Verlaine in pulling of a truly honest, unmasked account of his thoughts.
You'll love it.
Now: I have a sort of selfish reason for writing this review, but I stand altogether by the rather strong praise above: as one condition of writing the book, Baker eschewed any reference to Updike's writing during his undertaking. And that leaves him throughout trying to remember, without reference to a touchstone (say Updike's workds) what Updike had written about this or that. And at one point he tries to recount a poem that Updike wrote, admits that he doesn't know if he's got it right, just as I'll cop to the fact that I'm not sure I remember his recreation of Updike's poetry. I rather like my memory of Baker's verse, which makes me think that it does differ from the Updike original. Some years ago, I made the mistake of posting a request on "Yahoo Answers" for the actual line, and some banal nonanswer like "read all of Updike's poetry and you'd know" "won" the best answer.
Here's how I remember it, and a web search of the first line in quotes yields nothing.
The line is the horizon line,
the blue above, it is divine,
the blue below the line is green,
sometimes the blue is aquamarine.
Now, if a google search for the first line get's me nowhere, I'm guessing a reference to the first line's of Updike's poetry is a lost cause. And it seems that Baker has become a cause celebre'worthy of a book called something like "Understanding Nicholson Baker" (which I think he has a pretty good handle on himself) that he hasn't arranged to allow me to "Read Inside"! the book on Amazon to even pin down the Baker version.
Anyone? It's not life critical, but it is worse than a fourteen year itch. I must know if there even is a poem like this, especially given one review (Baker's by pseudomnymn? And why backpeddle from a masterpiece by calling it "semi-demented"? But maybe that Amazon review is from Updike, prior to his untimely death.
Regardles, give an old man some peace and answer this riddle, that sits sphynx-like, about two thirds back in my brain at all times, saying, WHEN WILL I KNOW?
thank you very very much!
on April 18, 2012
This book caused me to laugh aloud. It's a new kind of "criticism," doing a piece a about a writer, Updike, without reading very much of his work. Nicholson Baler makes the smallest thing funny.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2011
I enjoyed Baker's MEZZANINE book more but I do appreciate his sharing in U and I typical problems author that authors face like "Have I used this idea before in print?"