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· The Long and Short of Nicholson Baker's U & I ·

Over the holiday weekend I read Nickolson Baker's U & I: A True Story (1991). A book of one-hundred-and-seventy-nine pages, it marks in impressive, if exasperatingly obsessive, often meandering detail, Baker's imaginary "friendship" with John Updike. It slyly wraps Updike's lifework, as Baker writes there, in "crisscrossing strips of rivalry and gratefulness over an armature of remembered misquotation," detailing in long and very stylishly-crafted sentences Baker's desire for (and dread of) Updike's well-earned literary "mastery." For example, he well describes Updike's peculiar knack for finding right words in short occasional forms:

 · Nicholson Baker ·

I wanted so much to have the assured touch, the adjectival resourcefulness, that Updike had in all his occasional writings; for though early on he eloquently disparaged the "undercooked quality of prose written to order," the truth was that some of his finest moments were to be found in the aforementioned introductions, award-acceptance speeches, answers to magazine surveys, the last sentences of reviews (like the one that leaps blurb-driven, to memory concerning Nabokov's Glory: "in its residue of bliss experienced, and in its charge of bliss conveyed, Glory measures up as, though the last to arrive, far from the least of this happy man's Russian novels" — terrifying mastery!), prefaces to his own writings, dedications (like the one that I think about all the time, in Problems and Other Stories, to his children, which includes the phrase "with the curve of sad time it subtends" — imagine him applying high school geometry to the mess of his own divorce in such a perfect figure!): those incidental forms that induce his verbal tact to close around some uncomfortable chip of reality even as it reaches to reawaken our dulled sense of why certain conventions (like book dedications) or stock phrases (like "last but not least") exist and what limber life can be found in them; those forms whose mastery seems to me to be more convincing proof of the spontaneity of true talent, its irrepressive oversupply, than any single masterpiece is; and forms which for emulous younger writers can be more important as objects of study than the triple-deckers they besprinkle, because they are clues to the haberdashery of genius, its etiquette, its points of specific contact with recognizable obligations of life, independent of some single lucky choice of subject that bigger forms such as the novel demand. Nickolson Baker, U & I: A True Story, New York: Random House, 1991, 25-26; above 59, below 30-31.

Baker possessed the gift, I recognized, to assess Updike's career whole, not only in his narrative work, but in the little jobs of his everyday life. But then I noticed (more disturbingly) Baker's confessed negligence as a reader — his precise, but curiously careless admission that among Updike's thrity-plus books, he had read then "most or all" of just eight, "more than half" of six, "less than half" of four, "fewer than twenty pages" of five, and "fewer than five" of five — and, presumably, none of the rest.

That set me to thinking: might not Updike himself — in one of those occasional forms Baker's says he's mastered — might not this same U have himself replied in kind to this I's self-confessed literary negligence? At first, of course, I checked the net, quickly finding a short interview (scroll down half way) expressing Updike's admitted "liking" there for Baker — as "a younger writer with a real gift and vocation," perhaps a little "pedantic" but with a curious, "Bakeresque precision." But Updike's (parenthesized) laughter reminded me of Baker's own advocacy of library-, not just net-sleuthing — so I immediately went off to my own local library (a Carnegie public library) to find, indeed, a handy, hardback copy of Updike's Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991). Checking to see if Baker's obsessive "Hobby Horse" as well as his stylistic meandering was Shandean — after Laurence Sterne's great novel — I directly found there Sterne's name in the index and, after three dry runs — on page 848 — also this undated but intriguing quotation from The New York Times Book Review"as to 'important' books one has never been able to finish reading" (my emphasis):

 · John Updike ·

Like many an autodidact I have taken simple-minded pride in finishing a book once I began to read it. With considerable pleasure I devoted a youthful summer to reading through Don Quixote; in my early twenties I made my blissful way, over several years, through all of Remembrance of Things Past. War and Peace, Portrait of a Lady, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Iliad, and The Odyssey all in their season fell to the buzzsaw of my reading. I had every expectation of relishing Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. My taste ran to prankish books, British books, and books of pivotal importance in the history of Western thought. Tristram Shandy, modernism's first masterpiece, triply qualified. Had I not, furthermore, read through Ada and Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, thus somewhat straddling the case? I remember well more than one summery occasion when my increasingly tired-looking Modern Library edition of Sterne's facetious, mind-addling classic was hauled down from its shelf into the sun and shade; once I took it with me to a week alone on Martha's Vineyard, thinking to force the issue. Alas, even the boredom of utter solitude was no match for the boredom that poured in waves off the chirping pages of this particular great book. I made it as far as page 428, a half-faded bookmark tells me; but, like Scott on his return from the South Pole, I did not quite have the stuff to complete the job. I should have eaten the sledge dogs, like Amundsen. John Updike, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, New York: Knopf, 1991, 848-49.

I can't help but see in the "blissful" way his "buzzsaw" reads through "the case" — in fact "straddling" Nabokov's "Ada" on the one hand and Boswell's "Life of Johnson" on the other — the long and short of Updike's "terrifying mastery!" (all the way to page 428). Subtract 179 from 428, and you'll see who still thinks he plays Amundsen's #1 to Scott's #0 in this short, "odd job" of polar trekking here.

Naturally, should someone doubt my take, just call U or I for the definitively right "factual" answer, though I may still be right stylistically.

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Marvelous!

Posted by
debt-consolidation on November 1, 2003 04:02 PM



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