I’m just now getting around to reading Nicholson Baker’s U and I. I very much like it, as an artifact of a particular approach to literary criticism. In his insistence on putting himself and his story first, focusing on his relationship to Updike and Updike’s writing, in his slapdash style and affection for the low comic, and his working in anecdotes about laughing with his mom about Updike’s bons mots, he’s a bit like a supernerd Hunter Thompson, one who’d have written memorably about Nixon, had he ever managed to leave the library.
As a book, though—as something to read—I’m not so keen on
The thing is, Baker is a better writer than Updike. Maybe even a better Updike. Like Updike, he writes about the mundane, in its contemporary U.S. suburban variant, in a way that brings out its poetry, after a fashion, without belaboring that point, and never losing sight of the need to tell a good story, in the standard sense, even when that story can occasionally be a bit hidden. He’s a plain-language writer, too, putting readability first and never letting a purple phrase get in the way of his readers identifying with&liking, often loving—the people he writes about, all of whom come across as people, not characters. He makes a point of notmaking points, political, social, and the like, at least in his fiction. There’s none, that is, of the simplistic politics, overstudied characters, and overwrought language that mar so much of the work of so many other writers we class as literary—yet there’s no doubt that his work, with its thoughtful treatment of big ideas and careful studies of people, places, and situations, is anything but. I’m reading Vox
at the same time, and here too I’m reminded of a parallel with Updike, another man who wrote truthfully, profoundly, yet in an incredibly understated fashion about sex and its place in contemporary American life.
And on all these counts, I think, Baker is a better Updike. The occasional clever turns of phrase you find in an Updike story—Baker recounts some of them in U—mar Updike’s work, I think, by making us see him put himself up on that Writerly pedestal, and making his work, if only for the instant it takes to get through a flowery sentence, mundane in the way of so much fiction that wants to be profound, but isn’t. The sex stuff, in Updike, reads badly in many cases, perhaps because it’s dated, but likely because it’s just crass and in that, dull. Updike’s protagonists never much appealed to me—in the main, they seem like jerks. Perhaps this is generational, or perhaps, again, Updike’s stuff is dated, and the topical nature of so much of his work has made it age particularly fast. (I see a parallel between his fiction and old movie comedies, like The Ladykillers and The Producers, which must have been incredible when they first appeared, all the more for the how they treated the topics, but which are almost unwatchable now, cloying and slow-going throughout.) Baker does all this stuff better. In his fiction. Reminding me that I need to get on with Vox. U and I, I’ll put aside.