U and I: A True Story

U and I: A True Story



The Pequod Review:

U and I is one of Nicholson Baker's more underrated books, a highly personal literary biography of John Updike that explores how Baker has been influenced by Updike's fiction throughout his life. Baker takes the unusual approach of writing the biography purely from memory (rather than consulting the specific text of Updike's books) — what he calls "memory criticism, understood as a form of commentary that relies entirely on what has survived in a reader's mind from a particular writer over at least ten years of spotty perusal." The book traces not only Baker's respect for Updike's prose but also his own desire as a writer to transcend Updike's influence — a tension that I'm sure many creative individuals deal with.

And Baker has a lot of good insights on literature and the writing process: 

On the first of November I wrote at length about my ingrown toenail. But it just wasn't enough. Without some sort of anxiousness writing loses its charm... Doubt, anxiousness, the nibbled lower lip, have to constitute the medium for most great works: Nabokov’s emigration to the States and struggle to switch languages and make a living here, to the extent that it temporarily heightened the uncertainty of a constitutionally highly assured man, was what made possible Pnin and Speak, Memory, my two favorites.


The novel is the greatest of all literary forms — the most adaptable and subspecialty-spanning and roomiest and most selfless, in the sense of not imposing artificialities on its practitioners and letting the pursuit of truth pull it forward — and as a result one recognizes the need to posit a certain variety of accompanying intelligence that is itself more adaptable, more multiplanar, sloppier, more impatient of formal designs, roomier, and more truth-drawn than other kinds, a variety that Proust, for instance, has a whole lot of. But what I have only slowly begun to see, over the past five years, is the dreadful degree of inefficiency and outright waste there is in the transmutation of this invisible and evasive, but real, intelligence into a piece of readable prose. You have to be at least twice as smart internally as you hope to be demonstrably in your writing. Therefore, in judging Updike’s aptitudes that afternoon in the cafeteria, my now-wife was undershooting their true magnitude by half. Updike is a better writer than I am and he is smarter than I am — not because intelligence has no meaning outside the written or spoken behavioral form it takes, but because all minds, dumb and smart alike, do such a poor job of impanating their doings in linear sentences.

Baker also has some funny lines on Updike, as when he notes that Updike's sentences were often structured in the form of: "her blank seemed, in its blinkety blankness and blanketed blinkness, almost blonky in the late afternoon blonk."

U and I can often be self-indulgent and ponderous, but its best moments contain more original insights and play of fancy than most literary studies.