This is a true story of the relationship between Nicholson Baker and John Updike—or rather of the relationship that exists between them in Baker’s mind; Baker does not actually know Updike. In fact, he has met Updike exactly twice. (The brief encounters are meticulously chronicled here.) What he has read of Updike is by no means complete or conclusive. Yet if we are to believe Baker—and there is no reason not to—Updike’s influence on his life for the past thirteen years has been insistent, powerful, and profound.
Certainly, Baker has claimed Updike as his impersonal mentor. Twenty-five years older than Baker, Updike offers a career and a body of work worthy of Baker’s apprenticeship. This presentation of Updike-as-writer goes far in making U and I a study in the craft of writing. Yet Baker balks at casting his connection with Updike solely in these terms. He is Updike’s student, true, but also his fan, his critic, his challenger, his compatriot.
Baker finally seizes upon the word “friend” as the only term capable of bearing the weight of his feelings for Updike. He declares, “I am friends with Updike—that’s what I really feel—I have, as I never had when I was a child, this imaginary friend I have constructed out of sodden crisscrossing strips of rivalry and gratefulness over an armature of remembered misquotation.”
The first third of U and I is spent explaining its origins and justifying its existence. Although Baker had previously considered writing an essay about his obsession with Updike, it took the death of writer Donald Barthelme on July 23, 1989, to prompt him to action. The meandering train of thought that begins with Barthelme’s passing and ends with Baker’s firm decision to write an essay on Updike is recorded here in careful detail. Baker perfected this type of accounting, this emphasis on the transitions that lead from one thought to the next, with fictional first-person narrators in his two earlier books, The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990). Here, however, Baker speaks unabashedly about the workings of his own mind and motives. That this is fine entertainment is due largely to the fact that Baker treats his own thoughts and feelings as unfamiliar entities, creatures to be objectively studied, carefully noted, and then treated accordingly.
Barthelme’s death sparks several realizations for Baker. He decides writing an appreciation of Barthelme, a project he once considered, is no longer possible. Writers who have died are treated with a new leniency by the living. Posthumous reactions to their work are more polite, more constrained, less honest. (Or so Baker discovers he believes.) To avoid landing in this same predicament in regards to Updike, Baker concludes that he must get started recording his feelings for Updike while the man is living.
It would be logical to assume (as Baker’s mother and father do) that Baker’s next step in writing this essay would be to read, or reread, Updike’s many books, but Baker does not. That might be obligatory for a critical study or an obituary, Baker notes, but the essay he envisions is something very different from either of those two well-defined literary forms. Baker is not interested in analyzing what Updike and his work mean to any community—such as the American reading public or twentieth century novelists—that counts as its members more people than himself. He states that he “was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence.” At one part Updike, three parts Baker, this is a weird way to write an essay. Baker is not unaware of this; he states that his editor at The Atlantic, where a portion of the piece first appeared, thought that the essay could be good or “very creepy.”
Baker launches his self-examination by examining his responses to the various snippets of phrases, remembered scenes, and dust jacket photos that he can summon from memory regarding Updike. Realizing that he has, perhaps, stumbled upon something new, Baker dubs this approach “memory criticism” or “phrase filtration” or even “closed book examination.” He assures his readers it is not the quantity of what is recalled that matters. It is not even the quality. In fact, Baker admits to remembering “almost nothing” of what he has read.
Contemplating Updike yields numerous Updike memory scraps that Baker organizes with three-by-five index cards. From these initial talking points, he free-associates his way through the rest of the book. Some of the brief phrases stand in for larger themes in Updike’s work (his treatment of suburban sexuality, for one), but others are admired, handled, and scrutinized only for themselves and for...
(The entire section is 1984 words.)