J.C. Hallman had only a passing awareness of writer Nicholson Baker when he quite impulsively became obsessed with the man and his work. He not only had erroneously thought that Baker was British, but considered him a “nonessential” writer. That indifference changed into fixation nearly overnight. Hallman plunged into all of Baker’s fiction and nonfiction, a project that morphed into the deeper contemplation of literature and life that he chronicles with candor, humor and insight in B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.
Baker, of course, wrote his own such book: U and I, published early in his career, which grew out of a similar reader-for-writer mania, in this case Baker’s for John Updike. Logically, that volume provides a jumping off point for Hallman, but he quickly moves to Baker’s other early work, which, both fiction and nonfiction, is notable for its scrutiny of the minutia of daily life. In this unapologetically personal account, Hallman introduces us to his girlfriend, Catherine, a photographer who becomes a secondary pilgrim and often seemingly indifferent sounding board for his Baker enthusiasms. Their alternately passionate and thorny relationship plays out in the Midwest, Paris and Maine (where Baker lives), providing particular fodder as Hallman delves into Baker’s “sex trilogy.” The arms-length discourse that Hallman carries on with Baker through his books does eventually bring the two writers together when Hallman musters the nerve to arrange a meeting. Their two encounters are intriguing, if less than illuminating (full disclosure: I went to college with Baker, and these two clumsy scenes were sharply reminiscent of the single time, equally awkward, I was introduced by a mutual friend to the then-aspiring writer in the dining hall).
B & Me, fundamentally, is book about reading and the relationships we develop (usually from afar) with our favorite writers through their work. These relationships, Hallman suggests (and suggests that Baker is suggesting, too), are almost sexual in nature. “Nicholson Baker is not, and has never been, the true subject of this book,” Hallman writes near the end. “If I’ve been correct in suggesting that there’s something wrong with the state of modern literature, that the state of modern literature is like an aberrant state of mind, a state on the brink of breakdown and despair, then the problem is not that Nicholson Baker’s work has gone overlooked, however celebrated it may be. It’s that the whole world is slowly going mad and forgetting writers like Nicholson Baker, writers whose books truly need to be books.” [Hallman’s italics]
Hallman is an intelligent, passionate critic, and his fecund mind leads readers in many directions worth following. If his writing occasionally becomes slightly (but only slightly) insufferable as its struts across the page overly impressed with its own cleverness, and his decidedly clinical and off-putting (and not very erotic) descriptions of his own sex life do little more than distract from the larger issues at hand, those are minor quibbles. B & Me is an original, at once quirky and thought-provoking—a book in love with books and the power they can and should hold.