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'B & Me' Is Intelligent, Immoderate, And A Bit Belabored

J.C. Hallman's audacious B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, is a textbook example of "creative criticism" — a highly personal form of literary response that involves "writers depicting their minds, their consciousnesses, as they think about literature." Hallman, who has championed creative criticism in two anthologies, has written a wildly intelligent, deeply personal, immoderate — and somewhat belabored — exploration of Nicholson Baker's entire oeuvre, reading in general, and the state of modern literature. His title is a clever play on Baker's 1991 tour de force, U & I, a brilliant meditation on John Updike as well as an oddly charming portrait of literary ambition and its attendant insecurities.

Hallman ranges deep and wide in this passionate and often over-the-top polemic on why literature matters. Drawing parallels between falling in love with a person and with a writer's work, he is deliberately outrageous. "Literature must do whatever it's not supposed to do, and literature about literature must do the same," he writes defensively after acknowledging that readers might find his description of grooming his girlfriend's nether parts with an electric razor "irrelevant to some, maybe even immature and indulgent." He adds later, "that's exactly what criticism should be, a public display of affection."

Hallman embarked on his Baker project after realizing that between teaching undergraduate literature and publishing his own books (which include studies of chess, religious fringes, and the voluminous correspondence between William and Henry James), he'd lost some of the simple joy of reading. He and his girlfriend Catherine had also lost some of the joy of sex, so he was looking for literary arousal in every sense.

At Catherine's suggestion, he lit on Baker, "a nonessential writer" (meaning not yet part of the literary canon) whose trio of sex novels — Vox, The Fermata and House of Holes — are a lure. But as he soon explains with a typically — ahem — overcooked metaphor, "Having used, at least once, House of Holes to relight the dual stovetop burners of our reading and intimate lives did not succeed in completely reheating the leftovers of our passion. It wasn't going to be that easy. Metaphorical flames, like actual flames, do not always catch."

It takes Hallman a while to warm up to Baker — "To B or not to B," he debates — and as a result, his book is a watched pot that takes a long time to boil. But once he gets cooking, slicing and dicing enthusiastically through Baker's books, he has plenty to say about the writer who, from his very first novel, The Mezzanine, has been pigeonholed as "a guru of minutiae" (or, as Baker memorably quipped in U & I, "up-to-the-minutiae").

Among other things, B & Me explores the effects of digitalization on modern literature and the role of plots. Hallman rues the fact that "storytelling has plummeted to the status of entertaining diversion," yet he touts frivolity and raunch. He makes a strong case that "Baker's sex writing has always been an elaborate double entendre as much about literature as about our intimate lives."

In fact, B & Me — with its parallel explorations of the vicissitudes of both Hallman's engagement with Baker's work and his sexual relationship with his girlfriend — attempts to pull off a similar double-play. Although not entirely successful, Hallman does succeed in making us root for his relationship with Catherine. (He also assures us that Catherine, to whom his book is dedicated, vetted his manuscript for "passages that were too explicit or revealing," making me wonder what she cut.)

But Hallman's book, while filled with clever observations that compare reading to sex (both, he claims, even better outdoors or the second time around), curiously glosses over some of Baker's most striking characteristics as a writer — his extraordinary vocabulary, verbal felicity, and wit.

As much as I wanted to love B & Me, several times during Hallman's splashy "whitewater descent through the rapids of Baker's career" I felt stuck in the shoals of over-analysis or self-indulgence. I recalled that when I first read U & I — admittedly half the length of Hallman's book -- I was delighted that Baker was at the helm and I had no desire to jump ship to Updike. Reading B & Me, on the other hand, I often found myself wishing I were riding in Baker's boat.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.