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Nicholson Baker's novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, have been highly praised for their sparkling originality, deadpan humor, and eccentric style. Now, with U and I, Baker has written the most idiosyncratic and deftly illuminating essay on literary influence in recent memory, as he reveals his preoccupation with the work of John Updike. Nicholson Baker's novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, have been highly praised for their sparkling originality, deadpan humor, and eccentric style. Now, with U and I, Baker has written the most idiosyncratic and deftly illuminating essay on literary influence in recent memory, as he reveals his preoccupation with the work of John Updike.


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Nicholson Baker's novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, have been highly praised for their sparkling originality, deadpan humor, and eccentric style. Now, with U and I, Baker has written the most idiosyncratic and deftly illuminating essay on literary influence in recent memory, as he reveals his preoccupation with the work of John Updike. Nicholson Baker's novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, have been highly praised for their sparkling originality, deadpan humor, and eccentric style. Now, with U and I, Baker has written the most idiosyncratic and deftly illuminating essay on literary influence in recent memory, as he reveals his preoccupation with the work of John Updike.

30 review for U and I

  1. 4 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    Pleasingly bizarre idea for a book, as Baker uses Barthelme's death as an excuse to spiral into an essay on his obsession with John Updike (a writer, as Baker points out, that I would NEVER have connected with Baker), who was still alive. The gimmick, and one I quite like, is that Baker deals with the influence of his memories of Updike's lines, and only after the fact does he go back through and find out what the actual phrases are. Often, he is wrong. Often, his are better. The leaky nature of Pleasingly bizarre idea for a book, as Baker uses Barthelme's death as an excuse to spiral into an essay on his obsession with John Updike (a writer, as Baker points out, that I would NEVER have connected with Baker), who was still alive. The gimmick, and one I quite like, is that Baker deals with the influence of his memories of Updike's lines, and only after the fact does he go back through and find out what the actual phrases are. Often, he is wrong. Often, his are better. The leaky nature of influence is fascinating - there's a sequence in Rilke's "The Notebooks of M.L.B." that I've always been terrified to look up because it's been so influential on my writing - and Baker is, as ever, hilarious. There's a long sequence about coins that's excellent, and the meeting with the man himself toward the end of the essay/book is wonderful. Take this characteristic paragraph. Updike has just ascended a ladder to change storm windows while on camera for a PBS broadcast when "in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about 'these small yearly duties which blah blah blah,' and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs ON A LADDER!" There is lots of stuff that good. But two issues: (1) I myself am of two minds on Updike (quite liking the Maples stories; enjoying Rabbit 3 but not so much 1,2, or 4) and so care more about Baker than Updike, which led to occasional boredom (2) the book has an odd obsession with Baker's overcoming homophobia that feels really dated and had me on one occasion flinging the book aside. It is very minor to the plot, but it's irritating.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    What a wonderfully eccentric idea for a book: Nicholson Baker riffing about his obsessive admiration for John Updike. Naturally, I had to read this, because a) I love John Updike's writing (when he's good), and b) I rarely get to discuss him with anyone in real life since no one I know has actually read him. Plus, as an astute Goodreads friend once aptly said to me of Mr. Updike: "he's curdling as we speak". I.e., he's gone out of fashion, and will probably continue to go that way. This is an ine What a wonderfully eccentric idea for a book: Nicholson Baker riffing about his obsessive admiration for John Updike. Naturally, I had to read this, because a) I love John Updike's writing (when he's good), and b) I rarely get to discuss him with anyone in real life since no one I know has actually read him. Plus, as an astute Goodreads friend once aptly said to me of Mr. Updike: "he's curdling as we speak". I.e., he's gone out of fashion, and will probably continue to go that way. This is an inevitability for most writers, but it feels like a lot of babies are being flung out with the bathwater these days, and this is one baby I hold dear. Anyway, the idea of Baker's tribute (which was written in 1991 when the big guy was still with us) delights me to no end. I relate particularly when Baker describes his own imagined future devastation on the day he would learn of Updike's death - because it is exactly how I would have felt, had I discovered Updike while he was still alive. The loss brought on by his death would have pierced me as keenly as the death of, say, John Lennon, or later, David Bowie. The artists who simply aren't supposed to die. They're supposed to keep making their art, it's part of what makes the world go around. I suddenly got a glimpse of how disassembled and undirected and simply bereft I would feel if I were to learn suddenly through the Associated Press of Updike's death. All I wanted, all I counted on, was Updike's immortality: his open-ended stream of books, reviews, even poems, and especially responses to pert queries from Mademoiselle and The New York Times Book Review. It amused me to read Baker fantasizing about a friendship with Updike, his dreams of receiving an invitation to play golf with the guy. How they would bond over their shared affliction of psoriasis (though Baker truly overshares about where on his body is affected...). How certain phrases of Updike's have stayed with him through the years (though he often has the wording completely wrong), how they could potentially influence each other's work, for better or worse. Baker also dares to turn the coin and criticizes Updike for using a thesaurus, and for being "mean", both in his fiction and his reviews of other authors. My eyebrows raised, though, when Baker, in full disclosure, admits to having only read a limited number of Updike's novels. I have easily read many more J.U. books than he; what's he doing writing a fan-book about the man? It soon became clear that Updike is a convenient jumping off place for Baker to talk about himself and his own neuroses as a writer. Sometimes it was funny, but more often than not the long sentences and longer paragraphs weren't particularly interesting to me. See, I'm not a superfan of Nicholson Baker's. I don't CARE where he gets his psoriasis, or how he feels about... much at all. I picked this book up because of the "U" in it. So whenever we got too far away from "U", my interest waned. Perhaps if this had been a 1,500 word essay for The Atlantic, as originally intended, I would have enjoyed this thoroughly. But a novel? I give Baker big points for the idea of showing adulation for an influential writer while said writer is still alive - but in the end I needed a little more "U" and a lot less "I". And on that note, I will end on a quote from "U" himself, when being questioned regarding his poetry, some of which was found to be in poor taste, and one of the reasons why I can't help but love him: I'm willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else's living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another's brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lori

    To quote Gwen Stefani, something I've never done before and never will again I'm sure: "this shit is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S." I read U and I when it was published in 1991. Nicholson Baker had already written the remarkable "The Mezzanine," one of my favorite books, and his arrival on the bestseller and award lists blew up a piece of the stodgier depths of the literary pool in which he was swimming. "Room Temperature," also a success, followed. This is his first nonfiction book though he'd written To quote Gwen Stefani, something I've never done before and never will again I'm sure: "this shit is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S." I read U and I when it was published in 1991. Nicholson Baker had already written the remarkable "The Mezzanine," one of my favorite books, and his arrival on the bestseller and award lists blew up a piece of the stodgier depths of the literary pool in which he was swimming. "Room Temperature," also a success, followed. This is his first nonfiction book though he'd written many essays and this started out as one. The novels are stream-of-consciousness and this reads like it though like much he's done in this book, that's deceptive. On the surface it's about his admiration of Updike. He confesses to having read bits and pieces of Updike's novels, stories, poetry, reviews, essays and criticism; in fact he provides a specific list of how much of each work. This is his favorite writer and I can't remember if he finished a single book, nor will I look it up because that's part of the serious game that's afoot. He gets some of the quotes wrong and others he won't look up. That's part of it too; he's written a book of literary criticism, adulation and anecdotes about Updike using a new technique he calls "memory criticism." Reading it in 1991 I was as delighted as the literati with his approach in this book. It's remarkably meta, full of rabbit holes and literary land mines and humor. Sometimes he's honest and open, other times it takes a while to get where he's getting to, and that's deliberate. Proust comes up regularly, as does Beckett's criticism of Proust. Nabokov makes appearances throughout, as does Updike's and Edmund Wilson's reviews and criticism of him. Without me giving away context there are many great writers and thinkers who have important cameos so to speak, including Donald Barthelme, whose death sends sparks that cause Baker to contemplate writing an essay about him which leads to Updike which leads to Flaubert, William James, Julian Barnes, Harold Bloom -- so many. All in clever prose dipped in Proust, with laugh-out-loud bits. It's even better with age because it's even more meta. In 1991 I didn't think it could be more meta but history has proven it so because the downward trajectory of Updike's fiction, which occupies a fair amount of space in Baker's brain, would be mirrored by the downward trajectory of Baker's. Baker obviously admires Updike, at times to the point of ridiculousness, which is why it's hard to separate stream-of-consciousness from intentionality and it's up to you how hard you want to try. He's jealous that Updike golfs with a different writer. He's proud he and U both share psoriasis. And his respect for and adoration of Updike very seriously stems from certain turns of phrase in the fiction, a lot of Updike's cogent criticism and parts of his book reviews for the New Yorker. It amazes me how many people miss this: If he was as admired as Baker will have the reader believe, why hasn't Baker read more of him? My answer, and yours may be different because there's so much to ponder here and every reader may -- and apparently, based on my reading of Goodreads reviews, has -- come away with different ideas and impressions. This is not for those who read literature passively. Interacting with Baker's ideas and all the rest is what make this book special. Part of why I love this is it's bursting with exuberance and intelligence -- thus all of my highlights and notes. I know I'll read it again and this way I can do my own abridged version -- Because poke a small hole and it becomes apparent that this is not blind adoration. I left Updike's fiction after The Witches of Eastwick. Of course I encountered stories in magazines, particularly the New Yorker and these, especially the Maples stories, reinforced that I'd done the right thing. My reading time was limited and my patience with Updike was exhausted. As Baker brings out, Updike, though brilliant with turns of phrase, became an increasingly dull writer of fiction whose words flowed more from his penis and ego than from any new creativity. He also takes on Updike insisting his fiction was not autobiographical when it tracked so closely with his life, down to one protagonist vacuuming his psoriasis-ridden skin off the bed after sex. And the airs he put on. It only multiplied after 1991. The Rabbits, not all equally, are my favorite and though Updike was born into a family with more money, education and prestige than Rabbit and never held a job outside writing, there's a great deal of Updike in Rabbit. Then he moved to Massachusetts where the seemingly never sated self-proclaimed stud reinvented himself as a patrician in the Boston suburbs. The sexual revolution of the '60s made him and then made him a bore. This is in legitimate literary criticism, some of which can now be turned on Baker himself by certain readers; I'm one. Not for no reason did the British, via the Literary Review, in 2008 give Updike the Lifetime Achievement Award for Bad Sex in Fiction.* *If you're bored sometime and stuck in, read the nominees, there are years of them. Also, and I love the wit and kindness shown here, the Literary Review folks decided that 2020 has been such an all-around bad year they'd skip the Bad Sex in Fiction nominees and award ;) Updike was so braggy and open about his exploits that I who knew no one who knew him directly heard about them in the late '80s and '90s. People he wrote about were easily identifiable and Baker imagines one wife's hurt; not for nothing did Updike move several times, start over, move again I'm not making a moral judgment; it's that the serial adultery, the multiple marriages, the three-ways, the swapping, his exes and new lovers and neighbors, the long line of jilteds and cuckolds he left behind never made him happy. It shows in his fiction, the fiction of an unhappy man focused on sex, and so the sex is pathetic. Bad Sex in Fiction. Baker's favorite Updike fiction is the early novel Of the Farm. There is a great deal of praise for Updike in here and a wonderful respect for and attempt to contribute to the grand tradition of literary criticism. Baker is Baker so he can't stop himself from the wisecracks but some of them and the anecdotes are funny. This is before he published Vox and...the rest. Some, and I'm one, would argue he ought to have been given at least one, probably several, Bad Sex in Writing Awards. I left Baker after Vox because it was so badly done and just from reviews I know that, as with Updike, I made the right decision. This is so much more than a book lionizing Updike, criticizing Updike, critiquing Updike with examples and anecdotes. It's a book about great writing, criticism, adulation, the anxieties this young writer faced in the face of his favorite, the fear of inadvertently plagiarizing a favorite phrase or metaphor without remembering Updike wrote it first. It's about love of literature and the talent, egos, jealousies and feuds going back to Beckett's criticism of Proust and up through this meta book. It's a workout for the mind: clever, insightful and sometimes foolish, it's utterly unique despite someone else having done something similar first (in the spirit of the Nicholson Baker of U and I, I say that having not read the other book). It's a playhouse for anyone who is serious and knowledgeable about literature, writers and writing or wants to be more so. It's philosophical, thus William James. It's bursting with exuberance and literary intelligence, humor and hope from a man whose career at that time was a bit like Updike's. I haven't read Baker's nonfiction, since Vox I couldn't bear to read him again, I thought it was that bad. But he's written some. It's the Big Ideas in U and I along with the funny side trips and spot-on details that made me fall in love with it in 1991 and love it even more now than I did then.

  4. 4 out of 5

    MJ Nicholls

    Oh this is absolutely sublime! Baker, Baker, candlestick maker! But. I have a little problem dishing out a terse, considered and witty review, howevs. Reason? I read so much there is SIMPLY NO TIME to write all these reviews. Look, I have a life! Don’t believe me? Well . . . you’re right, I’m clearly not a high-flying fashionista (tweed is cool, right?), but I have OTHER THINGS TO WRITE! I’m supposed to get cracking on a synopsis for a new novel this weekend, and it is currently 21.43 GMT. This Oh this is absolutely sublime! Baker, Baker, candlestick maker! But. I have a little problem dishing out a terse, considered and witty review, howevs. Reason? I read so much there is SIMPLY NO TIME to write all these reviews. Look, I have a life! Don’t believe me? Well . . . you’re right, I’m clearly not a high-flying fashionista (tweed is cool, right?), but I have OTHER THINGS TO WRITE! I’m supposed to get cracking on a synopsis for a new novel this weekend, and it is currently 21.43 GMT. This is UNACCEPTABLE! Goodreads, you are sapping me! OK, here’s a box of adverbs for you: this is the best Baker I have read. Ineffably, windingly, smugly, warmly witty, fabulously sneaky, cheeky and heartfelt. I still think Updike represents an old-school Harvard upper middle-class WASP gloatingness (and perhaps Baker does too?), but this man (Baker) writes pedantically pleasurable sentences of cuddly hilarity, erudition and wonder. If you’ve read Updike, please tell me which novels to CONSIDER reading. I must go and procrastinate further.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    Nicholson Baker : "I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers; the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked-for seepage-points of passage." P Bryant : I just belted and I think killed with my copy of "U and I" the only housefly which has had the temerity or resourcefulness or lack of satnav to find its way into this my sanctum sanctorum. It was a moment imbued with dizzying per Nicholson Baker : "I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers; the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked-for seepage-points of passage." P Bryant : I just belted and I think killed with my copy of "U and I" the only housefly which has had the temerity or resourcefulness or lack of satnav to find its way into this my sanctum sanctorum. It was a moment imbued with dizzying perspectives. Ah, Nicholson Baker, would you were here to witness it - you'd be off and running for 50 whole pages I should think before your brain had ceased to parse the metaphor, irony and sheer unlikely circumstance with which this little murder (I haven't seen the fly since) was imbued. Conclusion : This is an extremely likeable book which has an English equivalent "Out of Sheer Rage" by Geoff Dyer, which both is and isn't about D H Lawrence as U and I is and isn't about John Updike. In both books two obsessive fanboys try and majestically fail to encompass the greatness of their all-time favourite writer. You don't have to like either of the objects of adoration to love these little books. I've had Christmasses which weren't as much fun as these 2 books, but then I'm a bit of a geeky fanboy myself.

  6. 4 out of 5

    notgettingenough

    ‘It has done me a favour, that review, because it’s a review like few others. It’s an act of homage, isn’t it? Nicholson Baker If ever there was a book that begged to be discussed prematurely, a book that pleads to be mocked in what I believe is the goodreads catchphrase 'a parody homage', this is it. And yet, maybe it has already been done? Could one live down the embarrassment? Firstly to have done what's been done before, secondly to have one's friends know that you don't even read their work ‘It has done me a favour, that review, because it’s a review like few others. It’s an act of homage, isn’t it? Nicholson Baker If ever there was a book that begged to be discussed prematurely, a book that pleads to be mocked in what I believe is the goodreads catchphrase 'a parody homage', this is it. And yet, maybe it has already been done? Could one live down the embarrassment? Firstly to have done what's been done before, secondly to have one's friends know that you don't even read their work - or worse, do read it and can't remember a thing about it. Checks friends' lists. Why no. Neither MJ or Paul has done this. (Thinks to self, this paragraph is Baker.) ((Thinks to self, I only wrote that last thought because it is what Baker would do.)) But if I do this, read part of the book and then write, and Nicholson Baker himself reads it, what will he think? That I'm being rude? Obsequious? Arrogant? Lazy?! (Thinks to self, and this paragraph.) ((Ditto.)) (((Thinks to self, fuck, how do I get out of this loop?))) I could go on, but you get the point. This is only my second Baker book, but being Baker is easier than being John Malkovich is....for John Malkovich. That makes me somewhat suspicious of him. Despite his wanking sentences, his smart-arsed cleverness, his careful self-mocking – careful to make sure that his audience is sympathetic rather than repelled – I still like it. Right now I am particularly taken by his distinction between considered and spontaneous memories. I could not help, as I read this over breakfast this morning, considering the very prospect of what my spontaneous memory of this book will be in the future, the one that comes to me from nothing. It will be this. Reading You and I over breakfast, considering the very prospect of what my spontaneous memory of this book will be. The rest will be as flotsam and jetsam, some vague idea he is the Updike guy. The reason, in fact, that I probably will never now read Updike. How can I? I know he will be utterly spoilt by the fantasy of Baker’s reverie. And now I’m being fucking Baker again, aren’t I? Written 9am at p. 55. Added after reading to the end. On the neuroses of writers this is great, but he lost me towards the end when he decides that homosexuals and women make the best novelists. One would assume that means homosexual women rule, but actually, in a rather sexist act if ever there was one, he seems to be referring to male homosexuals, whereas the sexuality of women is evidently not relevant. They got dem words sorta like black people have dat rhythm seems to be the gist of it. NOT happy with this, Mr Baker.

  7. 4 out of 5

    M. Sarki

    Nicholson Baker has an almost neurotic obsession with not wanting to sound like another writer and not to enter into manuscript words or phrases another writer has previously used. He is frightful of himself slipping into his work a metaphor or turn of phrase that he unconsciously may have lifted from another writer's output he may have read many years ago but still resting latent in his memory just waiting to reveal itself, and himself, a writer lesser than he is or wants to be in the eyes of l Nicholson Baker has an almost neurotic obsession with not wanting to sound like another writer and not to enter into manuscript words or phrases another writer has previously used. He is frightful of himself slipping into his work a metaphor or turn of phrase that he unconsciously may have lifted from another writer's output he may have read many years ago but still resting latent in his memory just waiting to reveal itself, and himself, a writer lesser than he is or wants to be in the eyes of literary others. Nicholson Baker really cares too much what his readers think of him. In contrast, I do not. But the reason for this is I am not trying to be anybody but me. I have no pretensions that anybody but you and a few others are even interested in what I have to say. I am not concerned whether or not I keep you in my fold as a constant and reliable reader. That does not mean I don't want you in my corner, it means simply that I will not be mediated by what I might possibly lose in readership or reputation. It is highly likely that every word I have used in this paragraph has already been used by a better writer, but that won't prevent me from saying what I need to say. Even if my unconscious at work is sending me information that has been retranslated or rearranged from what I have previously read, I am busily typing away and getting these so-called original thoughts of mine down on the page you are scanning now perhaps for errors, omissions, or a nifty plagiarism or two. I have read very little of John Updike and this book U and I does nothing to make me want to read him either. It is possible I should never have read this book at all as I have no interest in anything Updike has written no matter the size of his fame and popularity. I read this book by Nicholson Baker for his audacity, or because of his presumed premise for audacity. There is nothing in my mental capacities to compare with Baker's personal recall or his memory for what he has read. There have rarely been incidents or affairs that connect for me with something I have read. For example, there is nothing in my memory for any of my already-read literature to remotely resemble my granite-like memory for where I was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I can barely remember anything verbatim a week after I have finished reading it. I have never been able to memorize more than a couple of poems. Songs I have loved still lack the lyrics they had when the tune made me dance in the first place. Yet, I am still an accomplished poet who has a pretty unique way with words. The most notable observation in my reading of Nicholson Baker is that he definitely has a wide range of authors from which to quote some memory of, or at least some history of who the artist was or was purported to be. Unlike myself, Baker is quite educated and has lived in New York City for some time, enough to have learned what is important and perhaps what is not. I am tempted to claim Baker is a little high brow, but I have no proof of this. He just looks like he came from good stock. In comparison I have been operating from my bootstraps and basically been working on the fly for most of my life, primarily living in the woods or wishing I were still there even though I was calling Louisville my home and from it getting a decent living. I am not at all insulted or aghast by Baker's quest for fame or for wishing it in his attempts to be a literary cream rising. My only frame of reference for recognizable essay-writers is my experience reading David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolano, Geoff Dyer, Lee Klein, Jonathan Lethem, Ander Monson, John Berger, Hunter Thompson, and John Jeremiah Sullivan. I am sure there are others I have forgotten to list. But I have never been interested in John Updike. Personality is everything for me, and Nicholson Baker alludes to its importance as well when he himself is picking his authors and yours. In other words, Baker thinks you ought to like him if you read him, and is worried to some degree that what he has to say, and the way he might say it, could turn some readers off, so he is very careful. But not careful enough because I don't like him as much as I did when I first started reading this book. While listing the four vocabulary words his father gave him when Baker initially began compiling a journal of them, or when he first began to want to compile a list of vocabulary words, the last word of the first four his father gave him was acerbic which was recalled to his mind while in the midst of relating a story regarding Marcel Proust, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, John Updike, and his alimonied ex-wife. The story made me remember a morning last week as I was composing a poem and struggling over which word best fit what I was trying to say. The two words fighting for this loftiest of positions were willfully and willingly. I felt the correct word was willfully but there was some discussion with my wife over whether it was actually a word or not. I wanted it to be a word. It felt like a word to me. What I was attempting to say in my poem needed a willful act instead of a willing act. There was a huge difference to me and I decided to go with the word willfully. Turns out it is a word and I was not only right I was accurate in what I wanted to say. I found his story about his word discovery with his father rather interesting and in ways helpful in keeping my own spirits intact for pressing on always for the next right word, which may be wrong, in fact, for others. I do not like the way Baker refers supposedly to the woman he loves as his "now-wife". I find the term rather disabusing to the ideal of love and respect for another person. The term sounds almost bitter in some respects, and certainly a little whiny if you were to ask me for the truth and my opinion. The Baker term "now-wife" leaves me wondering if this is perhaps his first or third, if he is thinking about trading her in for another, or if he knows it will not last, this love and devotion so obviously fleeting and so out of control. Baker's claim of heterosexuality in concurrence with his hero Updike and near-hero Nabokov in light of his once-homophobic tendencies leaves me with some sickening in my taste for reading more from this fucking idiot. But idiot he is not, genius perhaps, wannabe for sure, and supremely smarter than yours truly. But there are times this Baker poseur grates on me. He is at moments seemingly out of the blue and extremely irritating and unnecessary. But I intend always to read on and complete my assignment until I have nothing left to say. And I suppose the same goes for Nicholson Baker.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tao

    I read U and I (1992) by Nicholson Baker in college in 2002 or 2003, not for class, alone in a cubicle, because I didn't know what else, that night, to do, which was common for me at the time. I remember reading it in the cubicle. It is about John Updike's role in Nicholson Baker's life. In the book Nicholson Baker says John Updike is his favorite writer and that he admires Updike's writing a lot. Then at one point he makes a list of what Updike he has actually read and it's something like less I read U and I (1992) by Nicholson Baker in college in 2002 or 2003, not for class, alone in a cubicle, because I didn't know what else, that night, to do, which was common for me at the time. I remember reading it in the cubicle. It is about John Updike's role in Nicholson Baker's life. In the book Nicholson Baker says John Updike is his favorite writer and that he admires Updike's writing a lot. Then at one point he makes a list of what Updike he has actually read and it's something like less than 10% of Updike (like 10 pages of 5 different books, 50 pages of 2 books, 1 or 2 entire books). Sometimes Nicholson Baker feels like he and John Updike are friends or something though they have never met. Nicholson Baker talks about how he has fantasized about playing golf with John Updike. In one scene Nicholson Baker gets jealous at a party when Tim O'Brien (who just won the National Book Award, at the time, for Going After Cacciato) mentions that he golfs with John Updike. Nicholson Baker thinks that he, not Tim O'Brien, should be golfing with Updike (Baker had published something like two short stories in the Atlantic at that point in his career). There is a scene where Nicholson Baker goes to McDonald's because there is a penny shortage and McDonald's is offering a free Bic Mac or something to anyone who brings in 500 pennies. Nicholson Baker is excited and feels clever and productive and gets 500 pennies and goes to McDonald's. But then feels really nervous when he gets there and feels stupid while the manager counts every penny even though there is a very long line and talks shit in his head about the manager for being stupid and counting the pennies instead of realizing there is a penny shortage and that it is more important to just get the pennies instead of making the line wait. I remember that scene well. I have a strong image of Nicholson Baker eating the Big Mac. He must have described the Big Mac well or something. I think he still felt clever while eating the Big Mac, the free Big Mac. I forget how that scene related to John Updike. Everything in the book is related to John Updike, I think. The book starts with Donald Barthelme's death and shows Nicholson Baker trying to write a tribute to Donald Barthelme to send to the New Yorker. Nicholson Baker experiences debilitating anxiety about whether or not his tribute will seem like he is just trying to sound better than other people or like he is just trying to get published in the New Yorker. He sort of wants to get his tribute published but he also wants to write a tribute that reads like it doesn't care about getting published. Later the New Yorker comes out and he reads the tributes that have been published and sees Updike's tribute and feels, I think, that Updike has defeated everyone else in terms of everything. I remember at one point Nicholson Baker describes how his mother fell down laughing or something after reading a golf simile by Updike that compared the size of something to a shirt, like "a ___ the size of a shirt." I remember at one point Nicholson Baker says he doesn't understand the point of non-homosexual males hanging out with each other. He also misquotes Updike extremely inaccurately many times, from memory, then later looks up the quotations and includes the correct quotations in parenthesis or as footnotes, and I think I thought it was very funny every time that happened. I think for a few Updike quotes he could not find the quote at all in Updike's oeuvre.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dani Dányi

    Well, that was awkward. Much as I like Nicholson Baker, or all the more so. And much as he likes John Updike, but not so much to that point. There's this GIF meme that this long, rambling, self-consciously and self-reflectively awkward, digressive piece of fan-lit brings to mind, the short and looped video of a cat stretching its hindquarters and torso in a sort of Moebius-strip cat asana, to lick its own asshole. You feel an impulse, after some time at least, to stop watching and just let it get Well, that was awkward. Much as I like Nicholson Baker, or all the more so. And much as he likes John Updike, but not so much to that point. There's this GIF meme that this long, rambling, self-consciously and self-reflectively awkward, digressive piece of fan-lit brings to mind, the short and looped video of a cat stretching its hindquarters and torso in a sort of Moebius-strip cat asana, to lick its own asshole. You feel an impulse, after some time at least, to stop watching and just let it get on with its thing. In any case, U and I is a point I will overlook in my own circumspect fandom of Baker, and hope it might be easier to forget than the cat GIF.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Numidica

    Review to follow.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    This is the kind of book that practically vibrates out of your hands from its playful explosive sentences, its wordplay, its genius. Ostensibly this is a book about John Updike, a "closed book examination," in which the author, Nick Baker, decides to dissect and critique the vast and sprawling career of one of his idols. The only problem? Baker can't remember much, and a lot of what he does remember is quoted or remembered wrong. But that is part of the fun as you'll see. Baker's wisdom is as mu This is the kind of book that practically vibrates out of your hands from its playful explosive sentences, its wordplay, its genius. Ostensibly this is a book about John Updike, a "closed book examination," in which the author, Nick Baker, decides to dissect and critique the vast and sprawling career of one of his idols. The only problem? Baker can't remember much, and a lot of what he does remember is quoted or remembered wrong. But that is part of the fun as you'll see. Baker's wisdom is as much about what he doesn't remember, and how he interprets those losses, and what those feelings evoke, and where those thoughts lead, and what those other thoughts remind him of, and where those second-generation thoughts lead, and how they remind him of that one time he and his mom saw Updike speak in Rochester in 1981. It all circles back around to Updike. And Baker's anxiety, a writer's anxiety (something that should be familiar to anyone stupid enough to call himself a writer) is practically jumping off the page too. Or perhaps shivering off the page. Either way, much of what this book really is (as opposed to a critical study of Updike) is a mediation on the process of writing, on what good writing is (and isn't), on the cannon itself, on feeling like you are wasting your time, or, paradoxically, that you need a little more recognition for what you've done. That is, if you're someone like Baker, who is himself an amazing writer. The anxiety Baker feels alongside Updike is the anxiety almost any of us would feel alongside Baker. A big part of this 45,000 word essay is beating a dead horse and taking criticism/memoir too far. You think, How in the world does this guy keep going? How does he find that much to say about that sliver of a quote he sorta remembers from that one Updike review that he thinks appeared in The New Yorker in the late seventies? Trust him, the quote (or misquote) isn't the point. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Be that as it may, the anxiety the writer feels seeps into the readers brain and we feel it too, as a reader. We are nervous to turn the pages. Even as Baker admits, "I want desperately to be done with this study!" we don't want him to stop (we think). But he does stop, after 200 pages. And the only thing we can do is read all the rest of Baker. And maybe Updike.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rose Gowen

    I was happy to find this book yesterday at a church rummage sale. For a long time-- in spite of my affection for The Mezzanine, and the fact that certain ideas from The Size of Thoughts visit me pretty regularly-- I did not want to read U and I because of my antipathy toward Updike. I should have realized that it is as much about Updike as The Mezzanine is about buying shoelaces. It is really about writerly striving and anxiety, and as such, I found it hilariously funny. O, the vanity! O, the ri I was happy to find this book yesterday at a church rummage sale. For a long time-- in spite of my affection for The Mezzanine, and the fact that certain ideas from The Size of Thoughts visit me pretty regularly-- I did not want to read U and I because of my antipathy toward Updike. I should have realized that it is as much about Updike as The Mezzanine is about buying shoelaces. It is really about writerly striving and anxiety, and as such, I found it hilariously funny. O, the vanity! O, the ridiculousness!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nathan "N.R." Gaddis

    A portrait of a young writer as a reader of Updike. I can't say he's convinced me that Updike is a genius, but certainly lovely reading about anther reader reading. Many lessons in here too for those of us with bad memories of what we once read but who won't let such a bad recall prevent us from continuing to talk about these books insofar as a shady memory of a reading experience is better than having never had that experience in the first place. A portrait of a young writer as a reader of Updike. I can't say he's convinced me that Updike is a genius, but certainly lovely reading about anther reader reading. Many lessons in here too for those of us with bad memories of what we once read but who won't let such a bad recall prevent us from continuing to talk about these books insofar as a shady memory of a reading experience is better than having never had that experience in the first place.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lee Klein

    This made me really want to read all of Updike. Wonderfully written. Flowing prose. Like Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage," in that it approaches its subject (Updike) without bothering to reread his stuff, prefering to exacvate lingering impressions. This made me really want to read all of Updike. Wonderfully written. Flowing prose. Like Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage," in that it approaches its subject (Updike) without bothering to reread his stuff, prefering to exacvate lingering impressions.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jim Elkins

    I'm only reviewing this book a little late (it was published in 1991): but I'd like to make the case that it should be required reading for writers and readers who care about the sort of thing David Foster Wallace was also trying to do, beginning in the early 1990s. For me, the book splits into two "model authors" (that's Eco's formulation, in "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). First is the self-absorbed, insecure, hyperbolically self-interrogating ingenue author, the one who fawns and obsesses a I'm only reviewing this book a little late (it was published in 1991): but I'd like to make the case that it should be required reading for writers and readers who care about the sort of thing David Foster Wallace was also trying to do, beginning in the early 1990s. For me, the book splits into two "model authors" (that's Eco's formulation, in "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). First is the self-absorbed, insecure, hyperbolically self-interrogating ingenue author, the one who fawns and obsesses and preens over his hero Updike, and then chastises himself for preening, and then finds a reason to credit Updike for his capacity to chastise himself, and then bemoans the fact that his awareness of the fact that Updike gets the credit for a quality he'd thought was his means that his estimation of Updike unexpectedly decreases rather than increases, sending him into a spiral of nested second- and third thoughts, expressed four or five asides and illustrated by non sequiturs, arranged in parentheses, square brackets, and em-dashes, and ending several pages later on some unrelated topic. The second is the model author who would really love to capture as much of his articulateness as he possibly can, even if it means sentences several pages long, or strings of subordinate clauses, or multiple interruptions. This author is concerned with putting what Baker calls his "intelligence" on the page. The topic--a young author's obsession with a famous author--doesn't really matter for this second model author. The book could have been about anything. In "U and I," the first of these is nicely captured in Baker's meditations on the elusiveness of genius, on the anxiety of influence, and the intemperate behaviors elicited by proximity to fame. The second is well captured by Baker's thoughts on "intelligence," which he contrasts, late in the book, with "genius." I have a different way of thinking about these two model authors. For me, the first is fun, but trivial and trivializing. If I want depthless insecurity coupled (inevitably) with hyperbolic self-aggrandizement, I would rather read Salvador Dali. Or if I'm after a tortured imagination that bores into itself, guts itself, feeds off the guts, heals itself, and starts all over, I'd read "Notes from the Underground." By contrast with texts like those this is playful, and of course it's meant to be: but it's also meant to do a decent job of capturing most of what a youthful ambition and literary devotion is about. The second model author is much more interesting. There is an uncanny parallel, at times, between this book and the almost contemporaneous "Infinite Jest." Both are partly about pushing language so it is at once impeccable vernacular (faithful to what counts as spoken, or thought, language) and outlandishly technical (faithful to the microscopic discriminations that the authors see as their plague and their talent). Wallace was seven or eight years younger than Baker, but the authors who occupied his imagination (initially DeLillo, and then Markson and many others) were a good generation younger than the ones that concern Baker (aside from Updike, that's mainly Nabokov and James). Nevertheless the strain both Baker and Wallace put on vernacular language is amazing. If Baker is less impressive -- and even now, 25 years after Baker's book, and in this very obscure venue tucked away among the thousands of anonymous internet reviews, I still hesitate to write this, because the narrator of "U and I" is so tensile with fear of criticism -- it's because his prosody has more to do with older writers, from Updike and Gass (who goes unmentioned) to White and Trilling and Wilson and Nabokov back to James. He behaves himself better on the page; his periods are long and well-tempered, and so a little less of his "intelligence" gets out there on the page. It is a problem that is very much still current. There is still no limit to this sort of search, and Baker is still one of the best practitioners.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    It's very difficult to put into words the beauty of this book, or figure out precisely what kind of book it is. It's ostensibly a book about John Updike, but in reality it has to do with Nicholson Baker's bizarre obsession with John Updike, or with Nicholson Baker's psyche in general. And what an amazing psyche it is! Wretched, grasping, obsessed with fame, completely and totally incapable of seeing only one side of any given sentence or word or syllable. On paper, this seems like a terrible cas It's very difficult to put into words the beauty of this book, or figure out precisely what kind of book it is. It's ostensibly a book about John Updike, but in reality it has to do with Nicholson Baker's bizarre obsession with John Updike, or with Nicholson Baker's psyche in general. And what an amazing psyche it is! Wretched, grasping, obsessed with fame, completely and totally incapable of seeing only one side of any given sentence or word or syllable. On paper, this seems like a terrible case of literary narcissism, and it is, sort of; it's also terribly funny, and sort of insane. Baker attempts to write a great literary summing-up of Updike without re-reading any of his books. The book is full of misquotes - Baker later corrects them - that expose Baker himself as something of a navel-gazing weirdo who remembers passages in books only as they relate to moments in his own life, like getting a free hamburger at McDonalds. You might hate this book, but I sure didn't.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Justin

    Good book to read if you have two hours to kill waiting for the fucking night owl bus and its mid-April and 40F and raining. For anyone who has had a distant hero-worship/kill the father literary complex and finds they are constantly comparing the most minute biographical data of the object of said obsession with themselves, this is probably a cathartic read. Baker's anxiety over Updike seems to give credence to Bloom's thesis, but fuck that guy, like Shakespeare wasn't ripping off his predeces Good book to read if you have two hours to kill waiting for the fucking night owl bus and its mid-April and 40F and raining. For anyone who has had a distant hero-worship/kill the father literary complex and finds they are constantly comparing the most minute biographical data of the object of said obsession with themselves, this is probably a cathartic read. Baker's anxiety over Updike seems to give credence to Bloom's thesis, but fuck that guy, like Shakespeare wasn't ripping off his predecessors. Best parts are when Baker is at his most absurd, ecstatic over the common bond of their psoriatic afflictions and anguished that of all the hot young literati in Boston, Updike would choose Tim O'Brien over himself as his golfing partner. Shows the petty sniping and vain narcissism of contemporary literary culture and the strange cognitive dissonance between the egomaniac and the coward that is specific to the writerly species.

  18. 4 out of 5

    G

    I remain extremely skeptical of Baker having read three of his books and not having been thrilled by any of them. I'm hoping The Size of Thoughts will please me more. Given that I'm not a fan of Updike perhaps I was predisposed to dislike the book, but there was definitely a moment herein where Baker claims not to be showing off when, in fact, that's exactly what he's doing. And that's probably where my patience ran out. Also, Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage is a funnier and more interesting explo I remain extremely skeptical of Baker having read three of his books and not having been thrilled by any of them. I'm hoping The Size of Thoughts will please me more. Given that I'm not a fan of Updike perhaps I was predisposed to dislike the book, but there was definitely a moment herein where Baker claims not to be showing off when, in fact, that's exactly what he's doing. And that's probably where my patience ran out. Also, Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage is a funnier and more interesting exploration of this same theme of literary influence.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Bursey

    Amusing, smart-assed, quotable, and focused: if you like any of these qualities in a book that's about a writer and another writer, U and I will be enjoyable. It can also be tiresome, too clever, and smug, but that's also written into the book, perhaps both deliberately and accidentally. Those things are not separable from its more interesting qualities. Definitely worth reading. Amusing, smart-assed, quotable, and focused: if you like any of these qualities in a book that's about a writer and another writer, U and I will be enjoyable. It can also be tiresome, too clever, and smug, but that's also written into the book, perhaps both deliberately and accidentally. Those things are not separable from its more interesting qualities. Definitely worth reading.

  20. 5 out of 5

    David

    I should have heeded the jacket blurb: "Baker's latest book reaches glorious new depths of shallowness". This 'book' confirms the suspicion induced by the vapid emptiness of 'Mezzanine' - Baker is a smirking ass. I should have heeded the jacket blurb: "Baker's latest book reaches glorious new depths of shallowness". This 'book' confirms the suspicion induced by the vapid emptiness of 'Mezzanine' - Baker is a smirking ass.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Dawson Escott

    Tricky book to star. It's a VERY GOOD two star book, if that makes any sense at all. I like Nicholson Baker bc he is an experimentalist trying all kinds of things to capture reality accurately. When the experiments don't work out, you still have to commend the writer. This is one of those times. I don't think there's any other book that tries to do a "closed-book exam" memoir of a writer who is still alive. Its quality varies from chapter to chapter, but I think it provides an accurate picture o Tricky book to star. It's a VERY GOOD two star book, if that makes any sense at all. I like Nicholson Baker bc he is an experimentalist trying all kinds of things to capture reality accurately. When the experiments don't work out, you still have to commend the writer. This is one of those times. I don't think there's any other book that tries to do a "closed-book exam" memoir of a writer who is still alive. Its quality varies from chapter to chapter, but I think it provides an accurate picture of what it's like to be obsessed with the idea of an idol, even if you don't really know all of their work. Would still recommend mezzanine or room temperature over this comfortably.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Robert Stewart

    If a book makes you want to read more John Updike, it must be great. Easily one of the funniest books I've ever read. My kids would ask what was so funny, I would explain that in the book, the author was having an awkward interaction with another author at a gala event, or the author was buying a Big Mac with pennies, and they would stare at me blankly, that was even funnier. I also now want to read more Nicholson Baker. If a book makes you want to read more John Updike, it must be great. Easily one of the funniest books I've ever read. My kids would ask what was so funny, I would explain that in the book, the author was having an awkward interaction with another author at a gala event, or the author was buying a Big Mac with pennies, and they would stare at me blankly, that was even funnier. I also now want to read more Nicholson Baker.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lucy

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I had to read this because the mezzanine is my fave book so I wanted to know what else Nicholson Baker has written. And I found this book in a lil bookshop in Liverpool. A hard book to get into, and I never felt compelled to read it - BUT when I was reading it I really enjoyed it - found it funny, weird, insightful... The ending pleased me a lot. After obsessing for a whole book about Updike, Nicholson Baker is proud to have influenced Updike by writing about calluses!!!!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    Baker's high-calorie sentences are an acquired taste but this book, a quixotic love-letter to the work of John Updike, is well worth acquiring. It's unusually honest about how much of Updike's oeuvre Baker has actually read (barely any of Rabbit is Rich). He never checks quotes for accuracy and trusts his own memory instead. Baker's high-calorie sentences are an acquired taste but this book, a quixotic love-letter to the work of John Updike, is well worth acquiring. It's unusually honest about how much of Updike's oeuvre Baker has actually read (barely any of Rabbit is Rich). He never checks quotes for accuracy and trusts his own memory instead.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    "I simply could not formulate a first sentence that felt interesting and properly heterogenous and yet acceptably free from Updike's influence" (174). Well, try any sentence. Okay, okay, I get that that's the point. I understand Baker's desire for honesty, and I think he is certainly honest (if simultaneously selfish, childish, and indulgent). Admittedly, I haven't read any Updike, but Baker's thoughts on mediocrity, measuring up to an idol, and leaving a mark are interesting enough without that c "I simply could not formulate a first sentence that felt interesting and properly heterogenous and yet acceptably free from Updike's influence" (174). Well, try any sentence. Okay, okay, I get that that's the point. I understand Baker's desire for honesty, and I think he is certainly honest (if simultaneously selfish, childish, and indulgent). Admittedly, I haven't read any Updike, but Baker's thoughts on mediocrity, measuring up to an idol, and leaving a mark are interesting enough without that context. The last two pages were even sort of cool. Thing is, it's just not all that good. It reads like proto-Jonathon Franzen whining about being a hipster -- yeah, we get that you're trying really really hard to be relevant and original, and we get that you lack the confidence/skill/talent to actually, lastingly, be either of those things. That doesn't make your product worthwhile. U and I, while food for thought -- and I will probably skim it again after reading some Updike -- was good for reading in a waiting room, but not much more. (And while Baker admits to not knowing of what reader response theory consists ----- most of his theoretical ideas fit neatly into it, as far as I can see, anyway. And his personal observations -- well, as he says: "Friends, both the imaginary ones you build for yourself out of phrases taken from a living writer, or real ones...are the only real means for foreign ideas to enter your brain" (59). I don't agree, but he's right in this instance. I didn't relate, and he's not a friend.)

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    An enjoyable read. More autobiographical antics from Baker who is becoming my favorite author. He starts with talking about Don Barthelme and wantign to write about him in the living, the difference between a contemporary writers work while living and the tone it has in death, and then concludes with a hundred pages of moving through an obsession with John Updike. Whom I have never read, but whom Baker has barely read. He creates as a reviewer from memory and acknowledges the merit of his memory An enjoyable read. More autobiographical antics from Baker who is becoming my favorite author. He starts with talking about Don Barthelme and wantign to write about him in the living, the difference between a contemporary writers work while living and the tone it has in death, and then concludes with a hundred pages of moving through an obsession with John Updike. Whom I have never read, but whom Baker has barely read. He creates as a reviewer from memory and acknowledges the merit of his memory as opposed to fact. SWEET! My favorite quote referring to older and younger writers and influences: "I wish there weren't such things as older and younger generations and the inevitable deaths that make you think you have some special connection with a writer just because some pumpkin of yours rotted on his book." (On the windowsill)

  27. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    Recently, I read an article encouraging writers to *confide* rather than *confess* (https://theamericanscholar.org/confes...) - gnomic advice now lodged in my memory to which I returned and returned again while reading this short book/long essay. If there is a difference between the two modes, Nicholson Baker does both incessantly. This is not a book for everyone - his obsessive candor will either pull you in or grate at your patience. Fortunately, it worked for me. I relate to his neurotic tics Recently, I read an article encouraging writers to *confide* rather than *confess* (https://theamericanscholar.org/confes...) - gnomic advice now lodged in my memory to which I returned and returned again while reading this short book/long essay. If there is a difference between the two modes, Nicholson Baker does both incessantly. This is not a book for everyone - his obsessive candor will either pull you in or grate at your patience. Fortunately, it worked for me. I relate to his neurotic tics. His reflections on the relationship between writing and reading were both interesting and helpful. If I haven't felt *all* the same anxieties, I'm sure I will in good time. It's comforting to know I'm not alone. I laughed aloud at several points, which is all too rare in reading.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jacob

    Like most people I hadn't heard the name of Nicholson Baker before I read this book. (If I'm being honest, I didn't know it until I was half way through and thought to myself: "Who is this I?"). I came to this as a fan of Updike, not Baker. Somewhere along the way the feelings were blurred. Just as he compares himself to Updike, using their similarities as badges of honor (especially the rather unpleasant ones), I found myself looking at him. The main concern I had—after getting over my instinctu Like most people I hadn't heard the name of Nicholson Baker before I read this book. (If I'm being honest, I didn't know it until I was half way through and thought to myself: "Who is this I?"). I came to this as a fan of Updike, not Baker. Somewhere along the way the feelings were blurred. Just as he compares himself to Updike, using their similarities as badges of honor (especially the rather unpleasant ones), I found myself looking at him. The main concern I had—after getting over my instinctual revulsion at someone talking about one of my favorite writers that wasn't me— was that it would be too 'dry'. It would read like a textbook. Something inhumane. But it wasn't that at all. It was 'readable'. And really, that's all I wanted.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Little did I know before reading this gem that Baker had already treated fiction and literary criticism in as original and hilarious way as he did poetry in "The Anthologist". Not only that, but now I have to go back and read as much John Updike as I can--Updike lost me after "The Coup", although I did briefly attempt to read "Brazil". Thanks, Nicholson Baker, because now I also have to read those of your books I have not yet read, and I owe it to you to review those I already have read... Little did I know before reading this gem that Baker had already treated fiction and literary criticism in as original and hilarious way as he did poetry in "The Anthologist". Not only that, but now I have to go back and read as much John Updike as I can--Updike lost me after "The Coup", although I did briefly attempt to read "Brazil". Thanks, Nicholson Baker, because now I also have to read those of your books I have not yet read, and I owe it to you to review those I already have read...

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    basically a very informal/meandering disquisition about updike and his influence on baker. very funny, great writing.

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