Nicholson Baker's House of Holes: How entranced is American culture by pornography?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 8 2011 6:45 AM

The Strangest Sexual Spa

Nicholson Baker's House of Holes takes on a culture entranced by pornography.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Nicholson Baker's new novel, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, will no doubt attract attention and a certain amount of stylish ridicule for its manic preoccupation with sex, its boundless, resourceful, outrageous, cartoonish pornography, but it is altogether a darker, stranger, funnier, and more complicated book than that attention will imply.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

Baker is writing in the tradition of his clever highbrow dirty books like Vox and The Fermata, only this book is like Vox and Fermata on some combination of speed and hallucinogens. Its premise is that regular, discontented people disappear through portals—a dryer, a tunnel, a golf hole—into a sort of sexual spa or resort called the House of Holes.

"What just happened?" Cardell said.
"Your lady friend seems to have been sucked into her straw," the bartender said.
"That's what I think, too," Cardell said.
The bartender shrugged. "It happens, man."

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One enters this alternate universe at enormous expense, but once there, one can fulfill one's wildest and weirdest desires. (These desires will be very wild, and very weird: A woman, for instance, has sex with a tree. It's interesting to note that the women in House of Holes are as perverse and sexually game as the men, as frustrated, adventurous, and sexually enthralled.) Through its series of surreal vignettes, House of Holes takes on a culture entranced by pornography, a culture that sees and feels in fragments; it dwells on the twist and fetish, and investigates generalized emptiness and banal sexual searching and exhilarating trysts in a comic, alarming, celebratory, orgiastic portrait of Internet-inflected sexual desire.

Like his critically adored first novel, Mezzanine, which devotes pages and lengthy footnotes to subjects like escalators and plastic bags observed in obsessive-compulsive detail, part of the perverse and showy achievement of House of Holes is the sheer difficulty of the narrative task it sets out. And here, of course, the challenge lies in structuring a story with literally climax after climax. How can one read a book with some variety of consummation on every page? If this book were a night, in other words, it would be a very, very long night.

House of Holes.

One of the ways Baker surmounts this particular technical difficulty is by describing the innumerable, odd sexual encounters in a new language. He invents an ebullient, evolving slang that itself becomes the subject of the book: It is the play on words, the creation of a crazy, babbling new idiom that staves off any feeling of repetition or monotony. He is, at points, writing exclusively in made-up terms, an energetic, playful jargon that bears no resemblance to the words people actually use for sex: "I was bouncing up and down like a horse thief." "Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry." "She twizzled her riddler." "She DJ'd herself," he "angled his Malcolm Gladwell." In a way, Nicholson Baker has more in common with the Lewis Carroll of " 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves" than conventional dirty book writers like Henry Miller or Philip Roth. The obscene subject matter is somehow subjugated to the sheer energy of expression: One suspects he could just as easily be riffing on plastic straws or shoelaces as blow jobs.

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