The act of reading is always an expression of desire. Whether we read when we are alone or read in order to be alone, we do so in search of contact and communion—with an author, with a story, with something silent in ourselves.
Above all else, we long for recognition, long to be seen and understood, long for the one thing a book can never offer us. Wanting to learn that literature needs us as much as we need it, we can only ever be disappointed. This is the dilemma that J.C. Hallman finds himself in midway through B & Me, his new volume of autobiographical criticism, which details his obsession with Nicholson Baker. Having spent a year or more caught up in this fascination, he thinks he catches an impossible glimpse of himself in Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine:
It was a very short chapter, just a paragraph, a single brick of text on a single page. But before I began reading it, my eyes flitted over something near the very bottom, three capitalized words. I resisted actually looking at them; I read them, but I saw them only peripherally: “Hallman’s! Hallman’s! Hallman’s!” I’d come to appreciate The Mezzanine, come to feel that it was almost talking to me. Now it actually was talking to me.
Only when he tamps down his enthusiasm and takes the time to read more carefully does Hallman realize he’s made a mistake. The word is instead Hellmann’s, “not me, but mayonnaise.” Above all else Hallman craves intimacy, an intimacy that inevitably fails to materialize. “Reading,” he writes, “is the product of exactly two conspiring intellects.” But those two intellects can never meet: One serves up the burger and the other spreads the condiments. The latter always eats alone.
B & Me positions itself as an informal sequel to Nicholson Baker’s 1991 U and I, a similarly idiosyncratic tome that details Baker’s own fascination with John Updike. Unsurprisingly, Baker’s meditation on Updike is ultimately a portrait of Baker himself, an anxious exploration of his anxieties and an unsexy exploration of his sexuality.
The latter category plays a surprisingly central role: Baker suggests that what he and Updike most clearly have in common is that they are both heterosexual men who write novels, a genre that is, Baker proposes, “the triumphant evolved creation” of “women [and] homosexuals.” Bizarrely, he holds that heterosexual men have been marginalized by the novel, condemned to “end up so often on the periphery.” Updike stands out to him, he explains, “as a model of a man who has in his art successfully moved outside the limitations of his carnal circuitry.”
If Baker and Updike share little more than the fact of their sexuality, it becomes all the more important to straighten the parallel tracks along which their desires run. Here and there Baker tarries with a casual early-1990s homophobia, as when he imagines chummily complaining to Updike about the “kind of disgusting level of homosexual sex” in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library.
Elsewhere Baker insists that he has “never successfully masturbated to Updike’s writing,” as if admitting that to have been truly seduced would be to cross an unpardonable threshold. He does however allow that “someone I know says that she achieved several quality orgasms from [Updike’s novel] Couples.” Here, gender is the thing. Above all else it matters that his friend is a woman while he—the failed masturbator—is a man. Pleasure is permissible, but only so long as the borders of sexuality are policed. Just because he’s obsessed with Updike doesn’t mean he’s sexually obsessed, Baker suggests.
Reading the three erotic novels for which Baker is best known, I sometimes suspect that he wrote them in the hopes that someone else would be able to deny ever “successfully” masturbating to them. Hallman has little to say on the topic in B & Me, but his book is far more honest about the desires that underwrite it than that of his predecessor. Where the subtitle of U and I is A True Story, that of B & Me is just a little longer. This, the cover promises, will be A True Story of Literary Arousal. From the start, Hallman’s book sets itself up as a story about getting turned on by—and turned on to—another writer.
Hallman’s initial interest in Baker arises mysteriously. At a reading for another author, he finds himself frustrated, and then: “In response to my inward rage, a name reflexively popped into my head, in the way that solutions to puzzles appear suddenly in the mind, that kind of organic unveiling. I thought, Nicholson Baker.”
But here Hallman’s desire forks. Though he knows it is real, he can’t discern whether it comes from within or without. Having purchased his own copy of U and I, he demurs: “From somewhere came the fleeting thought that I had ordered the book not because I was genuinely attracted to it, but because some clever marketing campaign had succeeded in planting in my brain a desire to read it.” A few pages later, he returns to the theme, wondering, “Do readers choose books, or do marketing departments choose readers?” Much the same might be asked of lovers. This may always be the way with desire: We never know whether we want the things we want because they fill some lack in us or because we’ve been taught that we lack them.
If Baker’s name marks the thunderous arrival of desire, the book that follows describes the arc of the relationship that desire produces. When we catch our first glimpse of someone new and lovely, we rarely know much about the person. The ways they walk seduce us, the sounds of their laughs pull us closer. Only when we approach do we get to know the objects of our desire and then only slowly. Falling in love then is not unlike the act of realizing you should read an author, while loving is the act of exploring his or her works. Hallman sets a project for himself early in B & Me—to write a book about an author whose books he has not yet read (though he will and he does)—that seems ludicrous, but it is no more so than what we all do when we swoon, deeper each day, over someone we’ve just met.
New love is always a little narcissistic. As the French literary critic Roland Barthes—an occasional presence in B & Me—observes, the objects of our desire are just as mysterious as desire itself. “I am often struck by the obvious fact that the other is impenetrable, intractable, not to be found,” he writes in his A Lover’s Discourse. This is why we always seek out our similarities to those we love, carefully mapping our interests and obsessions onto their own.
Hallman does this often once he finally begins to read Baker, most of all when he seeks to locate references to Henry and William James, about whom he has a book of his own, in Baker’s work. Though Baker does make occasional references to the James brothers, Hallman’s search is obsessive, almost desperate. When Baker describes the banality of his family history, arguing that it is hardly worth recording, Hallman exults, pronouncing, “Sounds like the James family.” (This is how we all are in the first flush of love: We find ways to make our others fascinating even when they are at their dullest.) These supposed parallels reveal nothing about Baker, his work, or even the Jameses. Instead they serve simply to demonstrate Hallman’s ineffable attraction, finding him filling in the gaps in his knowledge of the beloved with whatever he does know.
It sometimes seems that Hallman loves Baker because he convinces himself that they have so much in common. There’s nothing wrong with this; we all do it. Reading B & Me, wanting very badly to like it, I too fixated on a name, just one, Catherine. Hallman’s Catherine is the woman he falls in love with not long before he falls for Baker. By the time we meet them, they seem to know each other well. And by the time he’s getting to know Baker, they are tired of each other. The sex—about which Hallman writes in dull detail, describing slow thrusts and the noises he makes during anal play—gets more tentative and the couple fights more often. Almost in passing Hallman observes that their “intimacy had been interrupted by Nicholson Baker,” the curve of one relationship overlapping with and overshadowing that of another.
I found myself caught up in Hallman’s flailing relationship with Catherine for all the wrong reasons. It is not an interesting story. To the contrary, it is just as boring as your last failed romance was to your friends. I was caught up instead because I was reading their story just a year after I had met my own Catherine, my own Catherine who has made that year inestimably richer than the ones before. As Hallman ably, and sometimes intentionally, shows, criticism is the mirror of our own affections. In his fascination Hallman forgives a great deal in Baker’s work—finding reasons to defend even the widely maligned Checkpoint and Human Smoke—much as lovers will initially forgive a great deal in their beloveds. I likewise may have forgiven much in his stories of Catherine if only because I was happy to see her name on the page.
It spoils nothing to say that though Hallman’s Catherine and her Hallman grow increasingly distant, they ultimately reconcile. Near the end of B & Me, having read most of Baker’s books, he finally meets the man himself. Unable to light a real spark in their conversation, he invites Baker back to the bed-and-breakfast where Catherine waits. She, he suggests, might inspire a passion that he cannot, much as Baker’s female friend was able to “successfully” masturbate to Updike where Baker had failed, thereby straightening the course of “literary arousal.”
At the bed-and-breakfast, Hallman offers Catherine up. “We had a lovely chat that lasted until the rain stopped,” he writes. “It wasn’t a threesome, but it was excellent human intercourse, and I do think that for a moment Nicholson Baker forgot that all this might one day end up in a book.” However off-putting this description may be, the scene itself constitutes a kind of exorcism. After Baker leaves, Hallman and Catherine set out on a walk, once again “hand in hand.” They meet a woman tending to her garden who tells them that they look happy. Hallman writes, “And we were happy—and being told we looked happy made us happier still.”
In B& Me’s final paragraphs, Hallman finds himself drawn to one of Baker’s harshest critics, Martin Amis. Having spent much of the book attacking Amis on Baker’s behalf, Hallman suggests that perhaps he’d been too cruel. He claims that this is because he has learned what literature is really “about—cultivating an ability to transcend our ugliest emotions, the ones that turn us against ourselves and those we love …”
Here we disagree. Literature does not teach us to love. Literature is always what leaves us longing. Hallman loves his Catherine and I love mine. And yet we all go on reading.
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman. Simon and Schuster.