Psoriasis and All : U AND I: A True Story, <i> By Nicholson Baker (Random House: $18; 179 pp.)</i>
In “The Mezzanine,” Nicholson Baker extracted a whole personal cosmology out of a lunch hour, much of it spent on the escalator returning to his office. In “Room Temperature,” he harvested another crop of autobiography and musings from an hour spent giving his baby a bottle and putting her to sleep.
Miniaturist of time and experience, one of our most original and gifted new writers, Baker is the supreme literary string-saver. His books, all short and, in the case of this new one, bound roughly the size of “Winnie the Pooh,” are friends to trees; ecological microcosms.
The grain of sand he sees the world in is actually a microdot volcano; his angels tussle furiously on their pinhead. Baker writes with appealing charm--sometimes almost too charmingly--but the appeal is clamorous and just short of desperate. See me, he tells the reader; move in with me.
In “U and I,” he turns the table. This account of his long literary attachment to John Updike--true enough but also, in its strut and dazzle, a fiction--gives us a reader all but literally moving in on a writer. Not just on his writing, but on everything he knows or imagines about him: Updike’s career, his habits, his pleasures, his family and his notably self-described psoriasis.
And since Baker is a writer, it is, of course, a reciprocal plea to Updike to see him , to move in with him , to consider his psoriasis. He shares the skin condition, and he inveigles the reader into believing--all three different ways at once--that it is a matter of coincidence, of effrontery and of literary destiny.
Baker clowns and shows off, sometimes with the foolishness of a boy walking atop a picket fence to capture a girl’s attention. He rambles and pounces hard; he says acute things, extravagant things, terribly funny things. The reader is as off-balance as the writer, never sure whether the next paragraph will captivate, irritate or convulse.
Baker casts Updike as mentor, to be emulated and argued with; as father, to be loved and surpassed, and, hesitantly, as literary buddy. Out of it comes his writer’s and reader’s serious message about reading and writing. It appears and whisks off; Baker feints towards his thoughts as a squirrel advances toward a proffered and possibly dangerous nut. It is the notion of human mediation as agent of our engagement with literature and art.
“Friends are the only real means for foreign ideas to enter your brain,” he writes. It was his mother laughing at an Updike phrase, that caught his attention, when he was 17 and wanted to be a musician. The laugh, deeper and more personal than most, embedded Updike in him, along with the notion of being a writer.
His impressionistic ramble around Updike the writer and Updike the personage, his decision to reread nothing and to cite only what floated up into his memory, “to represent as accurately as I can what I think of him when he comes to mind, not when I summon him to mind”; this idiosyncratic method, which he names “memory criticism"--remembering and forgetting being supremely spontaneous critical acts--has its weakness, he tells us.
It is not just inaccuracy. (He quotes Updike just as he remembers him, avoiding the temptation to check; and appends in brackets the accurate version, researched only after he finished writing. The effect is like a library in argument with a writer.) The real weakness of the method, he says, is that “it depends to an unusual extent on whether you like me.”
“U and I” evolves in an apparently artless sequence of thoughts and associations. It is, in fact, astonishingly patterned, with only an occasional digression to a dead end or through more mud than we may want. Baker’s digressions have an uncanny way of doubling back and landing us exhilaratingly right in the heart of things.
For example, he reads in the local paper just after Halloween that the police had made available a metal detector to screen candy. Updike, he broods, would have known about it beforehand, would have gone to watch, would have written a beguiling Talk of the Town piece about it in The New Yorker. And he would have done it at 25, when he was just starting out. And here Baker is in his 30s, and too late, anyway; and furthermore, just thinking about it and not actually doing it.
It is a sample of the comically brooding rivalry that he gives us throughout the book, but it is more. Because at the end, he describes the entire passage as “a little trick-or-treating of my own on Updike’s big white front porch.”
Here we have the essence of his book. It is a reaching out to Updike--"see me, see me”; admiration for the grace with which the older man writes even his minor pieces--"the haberdashery of genius”; and his own semi-despair and occasional hatred. Finally, it puts aside all these things, and his fear of being an imitator--comically alluded to over and over. And, with that “trick-or-treating,” using a phrase as expansive and deadly as one of Updike’s own; and that, for all its kinship, is Baker’s alone. And he accepts the kinship, finally, and moves on.
Baker’s ingenious and teeming mind makes a reviewer want to forget about scenes and simply quote him. There is, for example, his account of deciding to start this book about what Updike has meant to him. Donald Barthelme had died; Baker’s first thought was to write a letter to The New Yorker, which had published one or two of his pieces, and say something so graceful that it would be used in the magazine’s invariably graceful tributes to its dead contributors.
He recalls his envy and admiration over Updike’s New Yorker tribute to Nabokov. And then he thought that Updike was getting older, and that he seemed to be writing about it more and more. There was a feeling of closure. He thought of losing someone who, more than a writer of fiction, was in every sense a man of letters, his own generation’s “personal connection to literature.” Without that literary mentorship, he would be “confronted at last with the terrifying unmediated immensity of the cast-concrete university library whose anti-theft gates go click, click, click, click as we leave; dry laughter at how few books we . . . have with us.”
There are some wonderfully, ruefully comic passages, involving his hopes of meeting Updike, whom he only met, in fact, twice and briefly. Updike visits Rochester to talk about Melville. Baker, with his mother, goes up afterwards to get “Rabbit Is Rich” signed. (He dithers, of course, about whether he should present some less obvious choice.)
When he reaches the table, he tells the writer that, visiting The New Yorker office, he’d noticed that an Updike story was about to appear. Politely, Updike asks what he’d been doing there, thus allowing Baker to say that the magazine was about to publish one of his own stories.
“So we’re fellow contributors,” he adds with ghastly blitheness. “And I’m his mother,” his mother calls out from behind, waving. Updike is kind; we are shattered with embarrassment; Baker, having survived his own shattering, gives us a moment of hilarious, terrible truth.
There are languors in “U and I” and a few side trips we may just as soon not take. There is Baker’s picket-fence-dancing absurdity in claiming that most great novelists have been women or gay (most?), and in remarking that Shakespeare is great but not when performed on the stage. Perhaps, so splendidly cultivating his own garden, he has not traveled to see English, Italian, French, Polish, German, Swedish . . . oh, never mind . . . Shakespeare. What does a temperate-zone homebody gardener know of bananas?
But he has written a funny, passionate and moving book about the complex tremors of the young creator before the older one; of his sense of anguish, jealousy, admiration and shining company in a solitary universe.