U and i, p.1
U and I,
Acclaim for Nicholson Baker’s
U and I
“Nicholson Baker is a first-class writer.… He has succeeded in finding a fruitful and idiosyncratic way of describing the quotidian processes of experience.”
“Hilarious … the informal literary criticism of U and I is as effervescent as the prose.”
“A brilliant stroke: in his quirkily rambling way Baker has given us an utterly sui generis chronicle of a reader’s interior life.… Its distinctive appeal derives from its celebration of language and the life-giving currents that pass from writer to reader.”
“Nicholson Baker is one of the most remarkable and one of the oddest talents to have appeared in the past decade.”
“A loopy love letter, a fan’s notes by the most eccentric and garrulous of fans.”
“The form this book takes is such a sublime invention that its first use must also be its last.”
U and I
Nicholson Baker was born in 1957 and attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College. He has published seven novels—The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990), Vox (1992), The Fermata (1994), The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998), A Box of Matches (2003), and Checkpoint (2004)—and three works of non-fiction, U and I (1991), The Size of Thoughts (1996), and Double Fold (2001), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999 he founded the American Newspaper Repository, a collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspapers.
Books by Nicholson Baker
U AND I
THE SIZE OF THOUGHTS
THE EVERLASTING STORY OF NORY
A BOX OF MATCHES
VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, FEBRUARY 1992
Copyright © 1991 by Nicholson Baker
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1991. A small part of this book was first published in The Atlantic.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., for permission to reprint three lines from “Midpoint” from Midpoint and Other Poems, by John Updike. Copyright © 1969 by John Updike; and four lines from “Shipbored” from The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, by John Updike. Copyright © 1982 by John Updike. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Excerpts from the works of John Updike reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
U and I : a true story / Nicholson Baker.—1st Vintage Books ed.
“Originally published in hardcover by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1991”—T.p. verso.
1. Baker, Nicholson—Authorship. 2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography. 3. Authorship. I. Title. II. Title: You and I.
FOR MY MOTHER
About the Author
Other Books by This Author
It may be us they wish to meet but it’s themselves
they want to talk about.
On August 6, 1989, a Sunday, I lay back as usual with my feet up in a reclining aluminum deck chair padded with blood-dotted pillows in my father-in-law’s study in Berkeley (we were house-sitting) and arranged my keyboard, resting on an abridged dictionary, on my lap. I began to type the date and the time, 9:46 A.M. I had no idea what subject I was going to cover that morning. A week or so earlier I had finished and sent off a novel, my second, and I was still full of the misleading momentum that, while it makes the completion of novels possible, also generally imparts a disappointingly thin and rushed feeling to their second halves or final thirds, as the writer’s growing certainty that he is finally a pro, finally getting the hang of it, coincides exactly with that unpleasant fidgety sensation on the reader’s part that he is locked into a set of characters and surroundings he knows a bit too well by now to enjoy. I wanted very much to keep slapping esemplastically away at the keys, and the imminence of this very pleasure made the words “the act of beginning to write in the morning never loses its pleasure” appear in the to-be-typed lounge in my awareness; but before I could move my fingers, I recalled that Updike had said something similar in Self-Consciousness: “In the morning light one can write breezily, without the slightest acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning in panic to God.” A memorable sentence for me (though I only remembered the first half) not only because it seemed simple and true, but because I had read it twice, first quoted in a book review and then in the book itself. And with this memory of Updike I hesitated; I didn’t type what I was going to type; I shifted course.
Donald Barthelme had just died, on July 23. My wife had seen the Associated Press obituary in the newspaper. My sense of being detached from the literary and academic communities, if there are such things, was reinforced by having learned of his death not through some grief-stricken phone call from a close associate or a devoted student of Barthelme’s, but merely from the local paper, whose information is available to all. I stared distractedly for half an hour, unsure of what to do, while my wife stood in the middle of the rug with round eyes, saying, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I decided I should write a letter of condolence to his editor at The New Yorker, but I didn’t begin it. Then my daughter got an ear infection. On the first of August she said, “I’m going to choke, Daddy, I don’t want to choke,” and I held her awkwardly over the kitchen sink, cupping her forehead in my palm (suddenly remembering, from when my mother had held my own forehead, how this brain-embrace transferred some of the misery of your sickness to a higher power), and I felt her stomach muscles powerfully tighten. I took her to the doctor that day and got her some antibiotics and when we returned I remembered that I owed my great-uncle Dick, who was very ill, a letter. Instead of writing it I made several attempts at the letter to The New Yorker about Barthelme. I rejected “I’m torn up by,” “heartbroken,” and “He was a master.” But as I struggled to formulate something that sounded unmannered, I noticed that there was a morally bothersome taint to the effort I was making. Those black bars, those black bars, I kept thinking, that The New Yorker tastefully puts over its obituaries: the eulogies always come at the very end of an issue, and lately there had been ones for Saxon and Addams. But the one uppermost in my mind was the one that Updike wrote after Nabokov died, reprinted in Hugging the Shore: I remembered no particular phrase from it, except one smoothly saying that the consensus would probably be that Lolita was his best novel in English, and The Gift his best in Russian (this judgment stayed with me because these two weren’t my own favorites), but I did remember its tone: gentle, serious, unmaudlin, fluent without af
Disgusted with my mixed motives, I wrote in reaction a terse, four-sentence, utterly unexcerptable note that essentially said: miss him, wonderful titles, effortless originality, thank you publishing him, greats of this century. “It’s kind of choppy,” my wife decided. I sent it anyway; the choppiness was evidence of my virtue. (The obituary came out in due time; not, as it turned out, with a black bar above it at the back of the magazine, but as a “Notes and Comment” in the front, and there were indeed several quotations in it—none from me.) But I was still sad. My reaction, attractively self-denying though it was, didn’t meet the gravity of the case. I thought very briefly of writing a neo-Jamesian story about a guy who hears of the death of a big-name writer he has long admired and who agonizes over the letter of condolence to the big name’s editor, reproaches himself for having to agonize rather than simply and spontaneously to grieve, worries about whether he should destroy his early drafts of the letter, which betray how hard he worked to hit the proper spontaneous note, or whether such a compounding of deceptions, by robbing biographers of this material, furnished brave proof of how lightly he took his literary prospects. But a fictionalization was, so I thought, a far more crudely opportunist use of my bewilderment at Barthelme’s death than a lushly quotable letter would have been.
I also considered the prospect of writing the critical appreciation of Barthelme that I’d had in mind for several years. It was, after all, the standard way to fill the hole a writer leaves behind. Henry James, for instance, wrote big lovely commemorative things on Emerson and Hawthorne after they were gone; he panned Trollope harshly while Trollope was alive to read the review, but the minute Trollope dozed to his final rest, James wrote of him full of immense tolerant affection. And Updike, too, wrote big lovely things on Hawthorne and Melville, and major reviews of Wilson’s posthumous diaries, as well as the Nabokov obituary. So, inspired by these advanced practitioners, I might reread Barthelme slowly and carefully, working myself up (as I knew from college I tended to do with any intrinsically good writer to whom I devoted lots of time) into an awestruck, fanatical receptivity to his proprietary strengths, and excusing his weaknesses in a way that made me seem wise and clear-sighted, rather than merely blind. But why bother? Barthelme would never know. And in any case, I wanted my choice of what to read at a given moment to be the outcome of more multiply confluent causes than the simple requirement of an obituarizing overview. That is, I wanted to reread Barthelme only when I really wanted to reread Barthelme, and not when his death suddenly obliged me to do so. He had died somewhat out of fashion, too, and I was curious to watch firsthand the microbiologies of upward revaluation or of progressive obscurity, as I had failed to observe them in the earlier cases of, say, John O’Hara or John Gardner. I felt no particular eagerness yet to try to make my personal opinion, to the extent that I could really be said to have something as fixed as an opinion about him, prevail.
That phrase which reviewers take such pains to include when delivering their judgments—when they say that among living writers so-and-so is or isn’t of the first rank—had once seemed to me unnecessary: the writing, I had thought, was good or bad, no matter whether the writer was here or not. But now, after the news of Barthelme’s death, this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer: more important than his age when he wrote a particular work, or his nationality, his sex (forgive the pronoun), political leanings, even whether he did or did not have, in someone’s opinion, any talent. Is he alive or dead?—just tell me that. The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now. Indeed, for me, as a beginning novelist, all other living writers form a control group for whom the world is a placebo. The dead can be helpful, needless to say, but we can only guess sloppily about how they would react to this emergent particle of time, which is all the time we have. And when we do guess, we are unfair to them. Even when, as with Barthelme, the dead have died unexpectedly and relatively young, we give them their moment of solemnity and then quickly begin patronizing them biographically, talking about how they “delighted in” x or “poked fun at” y—phrases that by their very singsong cuteness betray how alien and childlike the shades now are to us. Posthumously their motives become ludicrously simple, their delights primitive and unvarying: all their emotions wear stage makeup, and we almost never flip their books across the room out of impatience with something they’ve said. We can’t really understand them anymore. Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seeing the work through the living writer’s own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can’t suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense this imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly.
Yet in other ways the dead gain by death. The level of autobiographical fidelity in their work is somehow less important, or, rather, extreme fidelity does not seem to harm, as it does with the living, our appreciation for the work. The living are “just” writing about their own lives; the dead are writing about their irretrievable lives, wow wow wow. Egotism, monomania, the delusional traits of Blake or Smart or that guy who painted the electrically schizophrenic cats are all engaging qualities in the dead. To show our sophistication across time, we laugh politely whenever we sense, say in Sheridan, that a dead person is trying to be funny, although seldom with the real honking abandonment that the living can inspire. At one point in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the subject of Garrick’s recent funeral comes up. They talk about how grand and extravagant it was. A woman says that she heard that there were six horses drawing each coach in the procession. Here Johnson finally loses his patience and says, “Madam, there were no more six horses than six phoenixes.” When I first read this, Johnson’s lovable huffiness seemed funny enough to merit a shout and a thigh slap; but right on the tail of this response I was confused, because at the moment I laughed I had been sure in the genuineness of my amusement that Johnson had to be alive somewhere, right then, in seclusion, forgotten by reporters, in order for his words to have made so direct a connection with me. And then the certainty faded, and I heard the hollow droning dirge sound that you can make by humming or lowing through a mailing tube as I realized that no, Johnson was truly dead, and any comic life he had was of a mystical, phoenix-like impermanence—and now I know, looking at his sentence again, that one part of what made it seem funny to me was that such indignation is more comic in dead men than in living men. You had not to be there.
So I abandoned Barthelme completely. But the various morbidities his death occasioned—as well as the sense of fragility and preciousness of al