Post Road Magazine #27

U and I and I

Ryan McIlvain

U and I and I

Ryan McIlvain

U and I is Nicholson Baker's third book and his first work of nonfiction, though to call it non-anything is surely a misnomer. The whole world is there—in the prose, so elaborate and lovely, in the copious ideas, the lush digressions. It's part memoir, part literary treatise, and all throughout a hilarious confession of Baker's pseudo-Oedipal love for John Updike, him of the silky sentence and the arched bushy brow. I stress pseudo-Oedipal, as I think Baker would want me to. In the book he argues against Harold Bloom's Freudian reading of literary influence, though he, Baker, hasn't actually read The Anxiety of Influence, only the book review of it—"book reviews, not books, being the principal engines of change in the history of thought," Baker writes.

When I first read that line I smiled with pleasure, sinking deeper into my faux leather couch. I'd meant merely to dip my toe into the book, but soon I was downing whole chapters at the expense of the Babel-like tower of assigned reading on my living room desk. And why? What was it exactly that made me read on with such impatience?

In one passage Baker confesses how jealous he felt when he found out that Updike used to golf with Tim O'Brien. In another he tells us that he has never "successfully masturbated to Updike's writing." In another he lists all the Updikean phrases he can remember by heart, not as many as he'd like, and then remarks how most books dwindle in his memory to a key image or phrase, like driftwood from a shipwreck. Sometimes whole authors and oeuvres suffer this fate: William James is now entirely synonymous with "blooming buzzing confusion," and so on. It's a rather melancholy line of thought, but in Baker's telling it's also so sweet and funny and well observed that the fact of fading memory and mortality in general seem a small price to pay.

I once stood center stage in my in-laws' kitchen and waved the book in the air like a missionary tract. "You've all got to read this," I said. "Here, one sentence, one sentence." I unspooled a line chosen more or less at random, and several seconds later I was still unspooling it, my voice dropping and dropping through the descending levels of clauses. I started to worry that my father-in-law in particular was getting bored. He reads like most educated people of his sex: fact-based nonfiction, mostly, with very little of the acrobatics I was reading aloud now—still reading aloud. For a moment I considered eliding some of the sentence and skipping to the end, but I couldn't find a wire to cut that wouldn't short out the whole interdependent structure. When I finally reached the safe harbor of the period, I looked up from the page with an expression of guarded apology. I was prepared to explain at least why I took such pleasure in Baker's mix of pedantic attention, anxiousness, brute honesty, and almost Miltonian sentence-making. But my father-in-law was smiling. He asked what was the author's name again? What was the title? Reaching for his breast pocket, he plucked out one of the notecards he writes inspirations and reminders on. "Nicholson Baker," I said, smiling too. "And the book is U and I."

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