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Psoriasis and All : U AND I: A True Story, By Nicholson Baker (Random House: $18; 179 pp.)

May 12, 1991|RICHARD EDER

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."

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