Reading Nicholson Baker with J.C. Hallman

March 8, 2015   •   By Bill Capossere

I HAVE TWO personal connections to Nicholson Baker: we both grew up in Rochester, New York, and his sister was for a time married to one of my wife’s cousins. Which is how I learned, in a bit of gossip, that Baker’s mother steadfastly refused to read any of his sex novels.

I mention this as preface to discussing J.C. Hallman’s B & Me, which recounts from start to finish his readerly relationship with Baker, because images of Mother Baker kept popping into my head as I read. I’d turn a page to find Hallman taking critics to task for misreading a gang-bang fantasy in Vox, pondering the copious “come faces” in The Fermata, or describing his girlfriend Catherine’s “eruptive, volcanic” orgasms, and there Mother Baker would be, a caricature of Victorian fluster — exclaiming “Oh my!” all wide-eyed and fretful, fanning herself until she fainted.

Which, of course, is wholly unfair to poor Mother Baker. Not to mention Hallman. But I’ll never “un-hear” that conversation about Baker’s mother and thus it, and she, are as much part of my reading of B & Me as Hallman. And Baker. And I’m thinking Hallman would understand, since, as he says, “We never read outside the context of ourselves.”

In fact, as Hallman explains, it’s a crisis of self that precipitates B and Me: “I forgot how to love books. […] The exact nature of my dilemma had remained opaque, but it was clear that an essential innocence had been lost.” For some reason, Baker’s name kept materializing in his head and eventually he decided that Baker would be both savior and subject:

I wanted to write about Nicholson Baker, and what needed to be done, I’d been saying, what no one had ever done, was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception, from that moment when you realize that there are writers out there in the world you need to read, so you read them.

Although this crisis arose abruptly, one could say Hallman had been training for this book for years. One sees the seeds, for example, in his earlier books The Devil Is a Gentleman and In Utopia. In the former, Hallman navigates fringe religious experiences in America, from Druidism to Scientology to Unariums; while in the latter he visits a half-dozen modern-day attempts at “a better paradise,” including a Virginia commune originally based on B.F. Skinner’s ideas and a Nevada town centered on the Second Amendment.

Both books explore themes of faith, obsession, and community, a triumvirate that runs throughout B & Me, where Hallman struggles with his “crisis of faith,” frets over the shrinking community of readers, and reads Baker’s work obsessively (not to mention tracking Baker to Maine then driving by his house stalker-fashion). And in both books Hallman himself is ever-present, allowing the reader to follow the writer’s mind — his thinking — in the process of experiencing, filtering, and making connections.

Which leads to a more explicit precursor to B & Me — the two anthologies of “creative criticism” Hallman recently edited, both titled The Story About the Story. And both volumes I and II emerged from Hallman’s frustration that “the two things that are absolutely core to the idea of criticism for writers [the author and the self] are absolutely verboten to literary critics.” Upon reading U and I, Baker’s account of his own reader-writer relationship with John Updike, Hallman belatedly realizes that he’s been following in Baker’s critical footsteps all along: “Not only should I have read U and I, I should have anthologized it.” Instead, he makes up for that lost opportunity by riffing off of the book in his own attempt to thrust the author and the reader back into the literary conversation.

“Thrust” being the operative word, in accord with the sexual imagery running rampant throughout: close readings of Baker’s sex scenes interspersed with Hallman’s musings on masturbation, ejaculation, and analingus, along with a tidal charting of his and Catherine’s waxing and waning sex life. These moments will probably become easy fodder for critics, but Hallman is going all in here — to acknowledge the self as a vital component of reading means to also not pretend it includes only those aspects discussed “in good company.”

Beyond accepting the self in its messy entirety, Hallman employs sexuality as the driving metaphor for reading: “What I really wanted to do with Nicholson Baker was have Emersonian sex with him” (he’ll gleefully co-opt Baker’s more graphic imagery into this metaphor later). Hallman takes the language of “falling in love” with a book and removes its platonic/puritanical constraints. A relationship with a book/author he argues is more akin to lust: intimate, passionate, and sweaty, and grounded as much in bodily reality as airy imagination. As well, he maintains, it “cannot limit itself to the erotic first flush […] it must include too that which it might be uncomfortable to consider.”

Reading, he insists, is an exuberant, orgasmic relationship, though these are getting harder to achieve, he fears. The culprits are manifold. Traditional criticism. The literature classroom, whose “books are selected for their ‘teachabilty,’” meaning they “do not say anything that might discomfit a typical eighteen-year-old’s sensibility.” The omni-presence of marketing, meanwhile, creates a world where “we’ve been blurbed, book-packaged, key-worded, and target-advertised” to the extent that he wonders, “Do readers choose books, or do marketing departments choose readers?”

He worries as well about film’s growing propensity for apocalyptic-level conflicts, what he labels “plot-anxiety inflation.” The result, Hallman states, is that “ordinary life seem[s] tedious and difficult” and books that try to depict it get locked into the “avant-garde” ward.

In other words, despite the narrow focus implied by the book’s playful title, it is clear Hallman has grander aims for B & Me. Hallman is concerned as much about all books and all reading as he is about Baker’s books and Hallman’s reading of them, and some of his most passionate, insightful writing arises in these sections where he considers the bigger picture.

That’s not to say Baker’s books are stinted. Hallman offers sharp considerations of each individual work and the themes that bind them, such as Baker’s career-long focus on negative space. More often than not, Hallman’s stance is a countervailing one, taking issue for instance, with how The Mezzanine’s publication pigeonholed Baker as “a guru of minutiae,” a judgment, Hallman implies, based in lazy reading: “Baker’s interest in the impossibly small and insignificant does not mean he’s obsessed with minutiae. The small is of interest only to the extent that it hints at the large; an active reader infers the epic journey from the epigram [italics mine].”

As for the oft-levied objection that Baker is “vulgar,” Hallman shrugs, pointing to the age-old tradition whereby writers “shoulder up against the wall of the permissible and shove,” inevitably offending those who came before them doing the same. And so, “Miller offends Lawrence, Updike offends Miller, Baker offends Updike.”

His more damning complaint is that critics simply didn’t understand the books on a basic level; didn’t “get” that Vox is a story about storytelling or The Fermata is “even more a book about how literature works.” This charge arises again when Hallman reaches Checkpoint, Baker’s most vilified work due to a plot centering on a plan to assassinate George Bush. Here, Hallman takes on not just the critics but Baker himself, who labeled Checkpoint a “failure,” saying “it was an argument for nonviolence that people took to be an assassination fantasy.” Hallman contends that that is a “false distinction,” arguing in an impassioned reading:

It is a fantasy [… and] about the role and purpose of fantasy in the world […] The solution to Jay’s assassination fantasy has been another fantasy, a story […] it’s a fervent defense of art for a post-9/11 world. And for my money, it is not only a book that ought to have been published and celebrated, it’s perhaps the only book of that time that needs to have been published at all.

By this time in the narrative, Hallman has given up on his original vow to never meet Baker. He and Catherine travel to Maine, where Hallman arranges a pair of informal interviews in another parallel to U and I. But if Baker’s two encounters with Updike, detailed at the end of U and I, are fleeting and embarrassing, Hallman’s meetings with Baker go better, and, at the close of the day, after bringing Baker back to the hotel to meet Catherine, Hallman decides, “it wasn’t a threesome, but it was excellent human intercourse.” Hallman’s “crisis of faith” has begun to ebb.

It isn’t much later that he concludes his reading of Baker’s oeuvre with The Anthologist, finishing it on the subway ride home from the New York Public Library and relishing a sense of community and of completion:

There are still a few quiet spots left in the world, and a crowded train may be one of the last places left, outside of books, where it is possible to feel the warmth of a stranger, to literally have their thigh rub provocatively against your own, without anyone’s feeling groped. Ours are accursedly interesting times, but we can still touch each other. Baker taught me that. And perhaps it’s that kind of moment, when you’ve finally realized what it was you were looking for in an author, that signals when you’ve had enough of them […] I realized I’d had enough of Nicholson Baker. I’d moved on.

It’s a good place to end, as by now, despite Hallman’s voice, incisive and chummily inviting, the reader has probably had enough both of Baker and Hallman. Perhaps even slightly more than enough of Hallman, if truth be told. Honestly, I could have done with a little less of the self myself: with fewer sentences about the anus and less waxing prolix from Hallman about Catherine’s plumbing, and his own, both literal and metaphorical.

But then, as Hallman says, “appreciation of a book does not mean you go the whole nine yards with it.” Most readers will probably be relieved he gives them that out, and happily go maybe seven or eight. Though perhaps not Mother Baker.


Bill Capossere’s work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Colorado Review, and other journals, as well as in the anthologies In Short, Short Takes, and Man in the Moon.