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.

The publicity materials say that House of Holes is, to use one of the terrible phrases of all time, a "sex-positive" escapade, but that is a bit too simple. The House of Holes is both terrifying and permissive. The sexual resort (one might argue like post-sexual revolution America itself) is full of arbitrary rules, punishments, and judgments that dovetail with unimaginable freedoms and enacted fantasies. On the one hand, you can press the "sex now" button on the remote control in your hotel room and order a beautiful girl, and on the other hand, a man caught touching the wrong part of a woman's body at the wrong time can have his finger chopped off (and the chopped-off fingers are displayed on the wall). The America Baker is portraying here is one part Scarlet Letter, one part Internet porn, one part Harry Potter, and one part Picasso. There is the extreme, polymorphous sexual experiment, and then there is a hint of punishment, of dismemberment, of risk. The fun, the resort's owners and workers continually remind us, comes at a cost.

House of Holes is constantly treading the very fine, maddening line between joke and pornography, satire and sex, inspiration and nonsense. The stories are childish, absurdist, silly, over the top: There is room full of penises whose owners are hidden behind curtains, a "groan room" where you listen to people have sex, a "man line," which is what it sounds like. There is even a grotesque monster who is composed of all the bad pornography in the world. "I am lurid and loveless and lost," he says. And a girl says to the monster, "Take a moment to organize your thoughts." Yet taken together, these stories create a lingering and interesting mood; there is a darkness, a building comment on loneliness and desire and occasional transport, that is much more firmly rooted in the tradition of classic New Yorker stories than you would expect from a feverish work of surrealist pornography. In his heightened sexual idiom, Baker is, after all, taking up the familiar themes of missed connection, questing, loneliness.

He does take his experiment with average discontent a bit farther than most writers:

"I want something where the man's not always judging me and criticizing me and disapproving of how I dress and all that," said the ethereal flaxen-haired girl, Reese, to Lila in Lila's office. "I guess I want a good-looking man for a fun brainless time in the sack."
"Well," said Lila, "we do offer headless bedrooms."
"What are they?"
"You choose a good-looking body whose head has been temporarily removed."
"That's horrible!" said Reese.
"Surprisingly it's not, really. What you get is a nice friendly extremely handsome male body that is very responsive to any stimulation because it can't hear or see or speak or think …"

As this passage shows, Baker has written both a dirty book and a scary book. There is a scene in which Reese goes through with a sexual encounter with one of these headless men, and a scene in which a woman has a whole relationship with a dismembered arm; these scenes are graphic, not only in their description of sex, but also in their description of the ordinary distance between people.

In his charismatic, exquisitely competitive tribute to Updike, U and I, Baker writes that Updike brings "a serious Prousto-Nabokovian, morally sensitive, National-Book-Award-winning prose style to bear on the micromechanics of physical lovemaking." He also salutes Updike as "the first to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose." And Baker, of course, steps up both the metaphor and the micromechanics in the orgiastic, endless, anxiety-inducing invention on display here. Whether one loves or hates the book, it is the extravagant, bravura performance of a writer as truly manically interested in craft as he is obsessed with sex. The House of Holes is a sexy, disturbing, funny book: It may also challenge the usual reader of literary novels with its sheer dazzling excess of imagination.

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