- 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: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #874,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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U and I: A True Story Paperback – February 4, 1992
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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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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.
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.
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."