Nicholson Baker and Him: A Talk with J. C. Hallman

“Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?” That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer’s unusual career.

This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker’s literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.

LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say “nearly equal terms” because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.

Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker … who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.

I’m happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I’m wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up “B & Me”. Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?

J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.

Which isn’t to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker often appeared to be channelling the literary voice of John Updike in U and I, and I sensed you channelling the voice of Nicholson Baker often in B & Me. For instance, this sentence, which appears towards the end:

Our tactile experience of a book is that each of its “pages” has a front and a back, and these fronts and backs, somewhat confusingly, are also called “pages”.

I’d recognize that as a Bakeresque sentence if I saw it all by itself on a subway at midnight. It delivers an original realization of a commonplace absurdity — the fact that a “page” is at once a single thing and a doubling of the single thing, which certainly ought to be illegal as far as precise language goes — and yet it accepts this absurdity with a sense of wonder and openness rather than complaint. If that’s not Bakeresque, I don’t know what is. Did you find yourself intentionally writing and/or thinking like Nicholson Baker as you wrote this book? Is it something you tried to do intentionally, or something you tried not to do but did anyway?

J. C.: Yes, but not in a strictly imitative sense. Geoff Dyer’s great book Out of Sheer Rage does this same sort of thing with the fretful voice of D.H. Lawrence, as Dyer hears him in his correspondence, and for me that’s a variation on something James Agee says about writers using words to embody subjects. Embodiment is the purest form of understanding or communion, and I’ve always tried to become that which I hoped to be able to describe. I was very conscious of moments in the book when I was indulging in Baker-style thinking, but I was aware too when I was departing from what he would say, or how he would say it.

Of the former, there was once, in the book, a longish passage about what it feels like to finger-pry a book down from a tightly packed bookshelf, the almost hydraulic feel of the book covers sliding against one another. That description wound up getting cut — only the term “finger-pried” remains –- and maybe, in the end, it was a moment that I felt was too Bakerian, or needlessly so.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker has made his wife Margaret Brentano a constant presence in his books, where she often plays a comforting role. (Like you, I was worried about Baker’s own mental stability when Paul Chowder revealed that his beloved Roz had left him in The Anthologist, and was slightly relieved when he and Roz seemed to try to get back together in “Traveling Sprinkler”, even though I don’t think Paul and Roz’s chances for happiness together looked great at the end of that book.)

Similarly, you’ve put your partner Catherine near the core of this book, and even gave her the honor of echoing some of the scenes of scatological awkwardness that were so memorable in Baker’s “Room Temperature”. Since you and I are Facebook friends (though we’ve never met in real life), I hope you aren’t shocked to learn that I peeked at your pages to see if there was a real-life Catherine. There is, and she’s quite charming and fascinating. So I’m curious — how did she react to being featured so prominently in your book?

J. C.: The book is dedicated to Catherine, but never was a dedication so much of an understatement. Catherine was there from the very beginning, buying me Baker books when I had only hinted that I might want to read him. She realized before I did that what I really needed to do was read someone long and deep. That’s what she’d been doing her whole life, actually – and that’s what she does now as a professional editor. So Catherine is present in the book in the form that Proust says is the real reason we read: as an “incitement.” In short, the book is not merely indebted to Catherine: she made it possible, and then she made it better when she read it and edited it.

Lastly, I disagree that Paul and Roz of Traveling Sprinkler are not destined for happiness. It’s love! Love!

LEVI: Let’s talk about Traveling Sprinkler, then. This is Baker’s newest book, and I have to mention that I really hated Traveling Sprinkler. I hate nearly half of Nicholson Baker’s books — the reason I am a big Nicholson Baker fan is that I really, really love the ones I don’t hate. But, yeah, I hated Traveling Sprinkler.

I think I have more trouble with Baker’s really extreme sexual exhibitionism than you do. As I’m reading Traveling Sprinkler I’m thinking: wait a minute, just because I love The Mezzanine and Human Smoke I have to suffer through this? Reading the book did make me feel like I was being sprinkled upon, if you know what I mean … and I don’t believe for a minute the narrator’s suggestion that the title evokes a piece of gardening machinery.

But now this presents a very interesting “rhyme” with B & Me — a section in which you come to the realization that Nicholson Baker’s relationship with his authors is, shall we say, “ejaculative” … and you seem to consider this a positive aspect of his work. So, did you write that section of the book before or after “Traveling Sprinkler” was published, and did you also notice the rhyme?

J. C.: The quick answer to the last part of your question is that Traveling Sprinkler wasn’t released until I was mostly done with B & Me, but yes, I did notice the rhyme.

Traveling Sprinkler offered support to many things I’d gone out on a limb to suggest in B & Me, so for me it was a very validating book, almost like a list of all the things I’d gotten right about Baker’s career and thought. And I think that maybe returns to the first part of your question, because even when I read The Fermata and found it to be a lesser book than some of his others, I recognized that it contained ideas that were essential to understanding those “better” books. I suppose what I came around to was the idea that you can read the books of certain authors (and maybe Baker is a perfect example of this) like individual chapters of the vast novel of their career. You don’t hate Infinite Jest or The Grapes of Wrath because they’ve got a clunker chapter or two. And perhaps what I was trying to suggest in B & Me is that we should be thinking of reacting to writers’ careers as a whole, rather than judging individual books inside of it.

That said, who hasn’t had the exact experience of a writer that you describe? We love some books, hate others. It’s probably safe to say that most human intimate relationships, with lovers, with our families, exhibit a similarly wide ranges of emotions, from love to hate. Why should a relationship with a writer be any different?

LEVI: I have one pet theory involving Traveling Sprinkler — yes, even when I hate a Nicholson Baker book, I will take the time to analyze it — which is that the character of Roz is named after Rocinante in Don Quixote, and that Paul Chowder sees himself as Don Quixote. (The fact that he names his erstwhile love interest after Rocinante instead of Dulcinea is certainly some type of wry irony.)

I’ll probably never find out if this theory is true or not … and actually I’m much more impressed by your theory that Nicholson Baker titled U and I after Martin Buber’s I and Thou. That’s a very intriguing theory — but then Nicholson Baker himself shoots it down. Or does he? When he told you that U and I was not in fact titled after I and Thou, did you feel certain that he was telling the truth?

I’d also like to hear more about the Martin Buber connection — whether it’s true or not that this was intended by Baker, what do you think it signifies?

J. C.: Rocinante to Roz is a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? He could have gone with Rocky, sometimes a woman’s name. I feel compelled to point out, too, that Arno’s girlfriend in The Fermata is Rhody. I think it speaks very highly of Baker’s work that he inspires – or arouses – this kind of frantic digging for whatever lies beneath the surface.

Baker told me he hadn’t read Buber –- not that he hadn’t heard of him, or thought of him, when titling U and I. I didn’t mention looking into this in B & Me, but it’s been suggested (in the John Updike Encyclopedia) that Updike revealed sympathy for Buber’s I/Thou formulation, and even thought of it as a version of the writer-reader relationship, in A Month of Sundays. And A Month of Sundays is one of the Updike books that Baker cites directly in U and I

What does this signify? Maybe simply that the way literature shapes us isn’t always direct. I finally read U and I when I realized that it had found a way to influence and shape me, via a kind of remote influence, without my yet having read it. So when I read it, finally, it wasn’t just a gathering of information –- it was an act of recognizing how I’d become who I’ve become. Seems like a pretty good reason to read books.

LEVI: I loved the section near the end of your book when you finally met Nicholson Baker, when you frankly evaluated the real-life apparition of Nicholson Baker as you experienced him yourself. You watched him awkwardly interact with a townie friend, a lady whose name he couldn’t remember, and you wrote:

That’s when my heart just about melted for Nicholson Baker.

This poignant scene really anchored the book for me, and made me realize how sad Nicholson Baker often seems. It reminds me of the moment during his rather subdued recent appearance on TV when Stephen Colbert asked him “are you okay?”. Do you ever wonder if Nicholson Baker is okay?

And while we’re on the topic, are you okay?

J. C.: Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay? Like monks or mystics, we ask them to suffer a bit, and by suffering extract something –- some wisdom – from their experience and offer it up. This makes our own lives not more comfortable, really, but perhaps more understood. My heart broke for Baker because I was witnessing his suffering first hand –- the suffering that had resulted in the books I’d grown to love.

I felt an immense gratitude, and it was a weird gratitude because it would have been totally inappropriate for me to express it to him at that moment, in a live human context. Literature is, perhaps, human empathy outside the context of being able to, or even wanting to, ameliorate another person’s condition. Writers suffer and offer us wisdom and understanding, and we offer them careful attention, but nothing more, in return. It’s a gift.

That said, I’m fine!

LEVI: I’m actually not that familiar with Martin Buber’s work either, though I’ve always known and loved the title I and Thou. (I can now console myself that I’m in good company with Nicholson Baker on the Martin Buber front, though apparently I need to catch up with you and John Updike).

But I am more familiar with the philosophy of William James, clearly also a favorite of yours, and I’m extremely intrigued by the Jamesian thread — William, and also Henry — that carries throughout B & Me. I’m particularly intrigued because William James, like Nicholson Baker, was an outspoken pacifist. What do you think William James means as a philosopher to Nicholson Baker, and what do you think the two have in common as philosophers?

J. C.: Baker’s James influence goes all the way back to the earliest days of career. When James pops up in U and I, from 1991, it’s in the form of a memory from 1981. Almost all the James references in Baker’s career come from a few pages of James’s The Principles of Psychology, the chapter, unsurprisingly, about the stream of consciousness. So, early on, Baker’s interest in James seems related to his thinking on thought, and Baker’s own interest in cognitive analogies.

But James is a strange literary influence. Some writers, like David Foster Wallace and Robert Pirsig, seem more indebted to the James of The Varieties of Religious Experience, whereas writers like William Gass and Baker seem more indebted to The Principles of Psychology. That said, Baker inserted into his Paris Review interview a sly reference to one of James’s most famous essays, “Is Life Worth Living?” So, to return to your last question a bit, it would seem that Baker recognizes himself to be one of James’s “sick souls” — those who cannot simply blink away the darker sides of life.

LEVI: Can you tell us about the other books you’ve written? In particular, what novelistic themes or approaches do you believe you have in common with Nicholson Baker?

J. C.: Well, I’ve not yet published a novel, though I do have a collection of short stories, The Hospital for Bad Poets. But even there, I felt anticipated by Baker. I have a couple of sexually explicit stories that feel informed by Baker even though I hadn’t read his sex books when I wrote them. I have a story, too, that features a man and his young nephew playing a violent video game together –- written long before Baker wrote a New Yorker essay about playing violent video games with his son.

When Baker and I met, he told me that as a young man he had tried his hand at correspondence chess – and my first book was about the chess subculture (I interviewed a famous murderer, Claude Bloodgood, who was a correspondence chess champion.) When I say, in B & Me, that it started to seem as though I didn’t really have an imagination of my own, I really meant it!

LEVI: Here’s a quote I like from B & Me:

Incidentally, [the New Yorker short story] “Snorkeling” has an enticing typo: an open parenthesis that never closes. Given the New Yorker’s attention to detail and the fact that “Snorkeling” has never been reprinted, it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s actually not a typo, whether Baker is suggesting that we think of the rest of the story, the rest of his career, as contained within a parenthetical statement that will never end.”

I think that explains why I like Nicholson Baker so much — because I believe he really did plan that typo, and as you suggest he probably had to do a hell of a hustling job to get it past the New Yorker copy editors. Nicholson Baker might be the only writer who would work that hard to create a typo in the New Yorker. Did you place any similar devices or easter eggs or time-bombs in B & Me? You can at least toss your readers a hint.

J.C.: I don’t know that I’m willing to suggest that the typo in “Snorkeling” was intentional –- it was Baker’s second or third published story, and wouldn’t it have been hard for him to argue for something that experimental? Too much pride at The New Yorker for that –- though that pride is much deserved.

That said, the rest of your question intrigues me. In B & Me, I liken myself to the unnamed critic in Henry James’s famous story, “The Figure in the Carpet”, who fancies himself a sleuth on the trail of some heretofore unseen idea in the work of a famous writer. True, the writer tells him that there’s something there to be found –- a figure in the carpet of his career that no one else has ever seen. And I have to admit that there are a couple things in B & Me that stand out very loudly for me, systemic things that were very much part of why I wrote the book the way I did, but which early readers of the book haven’t really remarked upon. A hint? A hint would ruin the hunt!

But it is worth noting that readers tend to be more willing to plumb the depths of fiction than nonfiction. That’s too bad, because even within the constraint of nonfiction, it’s possible to be enticingly subtle, and to offer rewards to the careful, persistent reader.

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