B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman. $26.00, 288 pp. Simon & Schuster
There’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: books that, when described, sound like surefire failures, or simply bad ideas, books that any sober acquisitions editor would shake his head authoritatively over. There are also books that should simply not work at the conceptual, blueprint level. Something about their intellectual architecture just can’t be right, simply cannot provide support for the proposed building. But then of course these books do work, and then one spends the rest of the afternoon walking around delighted and confused.
Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, which then of course becomes a very funny explication of and homage to D.H. Lawrence. Now we must add to this trickster pile J.C. Hallman’s B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, which reads like some gene-spliced combination of the two, a description which, I confess, makes the book sound like no fun, but if you can quit raising your left eyebrow long enough and get a few pages in, it’s about the most fun reading you’ve experienced in years.
And thank the good sweet lord for it. Please no more post-apocalyptic allegories about the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of environmental catastrophe, or historical epics depicting moist, psychological tenderness inside the trenches of WWI, or memoirs of conveniently Aristotelean personal transgression, or thousand-page landfills of prose written by and about sexy Nordic men who are never not photographed not smoking. Give us something messy and unfilmable and weird and slightly embarrassing. Give us J.C. Hallman. Instead of some artfully rendered enactment of cultural sensitivity that flatters my own sophistication, Hallman has written a book that’s both enthralling and unnerving. Praise be.
Instead of tracking Baker’s influence upon him as it has accrued throughout his life, which was Baker’s modus in U & I, Hallman tracks his interest in Baker from the moment he begins reading him. “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.”
The result is the lifecycle of readerly affection, from first covert glance, to first date, to first consummation, to the inevitable blown-out elastic of routine. And these romantic/sexual metaphors are not mine. They’re all Hallman’s. In fact, the crisis that precedes Hallman’s interest in Baker is a depletion of his enthusiasm for literature as an endeavor—as something to write, or to teach, or to read. He’s worn out from his teaching job and lost his mojo, and he feels intuitively that Baker might hold some funky tonic that will rejuvenate him once again.
One of Hallman’s complaints with the teaching of literature is how it’s an inherently artificial approximation of the readerly event—sexual discussion as opposed to sex itself, which leads him to a book-long extended metaphor of reading as intellectual arousal, which sounds a lot more outlandish than it is. What he’s doing, on the one hand, is returning “creative writing” back to its original, life-giving, Emersonian grind party, where reading is a randy Whitmanesque erotic throwdown. What he’s also doing, more cleverly, is tying this Emersonian idea to Baker’s writing, specifically his “sex books,” the trilogy of novels consisting of Vox, The Fermata, and House of Holes, which some critics consider essentially porn and a waste of Baker’s talents and which others consider a whale of a time. (I’ll confess that I’m in the talent-waster camp, though Hallman has made me reconsider my position mightily.)
One of the amazing things Hallman does in the book is tie all of Baker’s work together at the microscopic, or Bakerian, level. For instance, he shows how holes have been a pivotal motif throughout all of Baker’s book. (Holes!) He does the same thing for washing machines, or anything with a centrifugal force, as well as sunbeams, and music, and stopping time, and punctuation. If you’ve read Baker, you know that much of his alien charm is connected with his ability to stare at everyday objects with a mad intensity and report that intensity back to you in language that defamiliarizes the mundane. He’s like a roving MoMA exhibit in prose. Escalators simply aren’t the same after you’ve read Baker—same with drinking straws, vinyl records, footnotes, sprinklers, ereaders, peanut butter jars, radio dials, liquid crystal displays, spoons, metrical poetry, etc. What Hallman does by reading Baker chronologically and supremely intensely is annihilate all categories from Baker’s oeuvre and see it as a complementary whole.
The result is a multifarious critical biography of Baker, who comes across as a shy, nervous, fundamentally happy author who is hijacked by two intellectual crises, both born from civilization’s inability to appreciate detail. The first crisis is the duplicity of unnecessary technological innovation at libraries (with its concomitant amnesia toward history and willfully blind bureaucracy), which culminated in the polemic Double Fold, about the conspiracy of libraries around the country to move from technologically secure paper books to dubious and buggy microfilm. The second crisis, both personal and literary—the distinctions here also annihilated—is the Iraq war, and the awakening of Baker’s latent pacifism, which leads both to Checkpoint, the novel-in-dialogue of one Baker-like stand-in convincing another Baker-like stand-in to not assassinate the president. Hallman convincingly argues that the book is an argument on behalf of pacifism, despite the fact that most of the reviewers at the time wildly misread the book in a rose-colored jingoistic rage—“a kind of high-water mark in the history of reviewers getting it wrong.” The other book that comes out of Baker’s aroused pacifism is Human Smoke, which is a collage of quotations taken from primary sources that purports to show that WWII was not inevitable, that the persecution of central Europe’s Jewish population was not a surprise, and that this war, despite the hazy mists of nostalgia, was in no way a “good war” waged by the “greatest generation.”
But this book is not just an explication of Baker’s work. The literary analysis is embedded within a narrative of Hallman’s own journey as a writer, from one location to another, all in the company of his partner Catherine, who is his lover, his confidant, and his foil. The book chronicles the arc of their love as well, sometimes in visceral detail. His love for Catherine mirrors his love for Baker; the two arousals are intertwined. There is no separating bookish love from romantic love or sexual love—they are all hopelessly mixed—and in showing the reader this hopeless mix, Hallman re-solders literature to the fuse of life. Hallman doesn’t just analyze Baker or explicate how the books work. He dramatizes his reading of them and his discovery of how they work, how they are all connected. Book marketing jacket copy is always claiming some new novel is a “literary thriller,” but what Hallman has written is actually literally a literary thriller: it’s a thrilling depiction of him chasing the rabbit of his interest through Baker’s books. How will he put it together? How will the next book rub against the grain of his lived experience? Hallman has covertly written one of those “this is why we read” books, except you will actually want to read his version, because rather than arguing that literature is good medicine or a token of cultural prestige or even just a whole lot of fun, he convinces you that literature is a fundamental facet of life, as requisite as sex, and he convinces you by showing you. “That’s what we should be when we read,” he says at one point, “a precise point of prolonged and intense sensitivity, caught in time and reading.”
If I have one complaint about the book it’s that even though we get plenty of biographical data about Hallman and Catherine, I still feel oddly uninformed at the end. There are moments where the details of their sexual goings on are amply offered, but their relationship remains opaque. The result is a paradox, which has become a frequent trope in much current creative nonfiction. That is, there is a shameless sharing of information, usually sexual activity, and yet there are wide elisions of character. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets had the same mixture of sexual frankness and utter opacity. Reading these books I feel like I’m watching some premium cable Sunday evening program: plenty of distracting flesh but very little inner life. For instance, Catherine awakens in a rage one night over the prospect that Hallman isn’t staying on his side of the bed. She seems hysterical and the relationship feels as if it’s at a boiling point of aggravation. Just what is going on? Hallman escapes to surreptitiously read Baker. But this nocturnal provocation never bears fruit. It just sits there, narratively inert. Likewise, the couple moves from their urban apartment to a former bed and breakfast located in some unspecified rural location because Hallman has acquired a new teaching job, and the general impression is that Catherine hates it there. But why exactly? (Is she teaching there also? What specifically about the place is so bad? And just where on earth is this place? And why so sketchy about seemingly pertinent details?) And at the end of the book, they decide to move to Brooklyn. (Brooklyn!) It seems as if Hallman has given up teaching, but it’s hard to say because the biographical details taper off rather drastically, and so there’s no narrative explanation to why they are moving, what has happened with their careers, and how their various inchoate psycho-romantic complications have resolved themselves, if at all. Are they now equitably sharing the bed? They seem happy at the end of the book, after visiting Baker in person; in fact they seem happy as a consequence of seeing Baker, an apotheosis of their Baker-fueled love—and an apotheosis for the book we’re reading. But, aside from a convenient metaphorical parallel, one doesn’t really understand the true nutritional density of their happiness.
I’m not trying to be hopelessly literal here, but I feel slightly cheated by all of the biographical build-up throughout the book. Perhaps this is one reason why the parts where Hallman is reading and interpreting Baker are vastly more interesting than the biographical bits, even the sex parts. (Perhaps this says more about me than about the book under consideration, but after the initial impressive Emersonian metaphor, the harping on the sex stuff gets slightly boring.) In short, it feels like a cheat, like a tease, like the personal information from Hallman’s life is used as a decoy, as a hook into the analysis of Baker, and then discarded, which is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that some of the information is deemed worthy of communicating to the reader (e.g., their bowel movements in Paris) but other information is not. It raises the expectation that we should care about these characters as people, and then all of the detail that we feel we are owed narratively is withheld from us. In the end, Catherine is opaque, and Hallman, for all his forthrightness, still seems selectively inclusive, which is fine. I mean, these are people out in the world. They have their own lives. They don’t have to tell me everything! And yet, I was given the false impression that they were telling me everything.
My own narrative greediness aside, this is a wonderful book, a brave book, which would still succeed even if you’ve never read Baker. To read Hallman read another writer, to participate in the arc of his infatuation, is a delight: it’s what dissertations should be, or as Hallman has it, literary criticism should be “a public display of affection.” In losing his manners and displaying his affection, he makes reading thrilling and necessary. Nick should be proud.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.
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