A Perfectly Unique Moment
Why is Nicholson Baker so obsessed with sex?
There's huge charm in the immediacy of this approach: To read Baker on Updike is to encounter an unrehearsed, come-as-you-are enthusiast swarming in your direction like some winsome stranger at a cocktail party. (Or an egghead going off-script: The Anthologist, Baker's popular 2009 novel about a procrastinating poet who waxes eloquent on the mysteries of the craft, was written largely out loud; Baker recorded himself explaining things and transcribed the result, trying to capture the lucidity and spontaneity of passing speech.) But this approach also gives his work a glancing, transient, and unambitious-seeming quality that can undercut its creative innovations. In Human Smoke,Baker's wartime history, he questioned the conflict's causality narrative, and the good faith of Churchill and Roosevelt, through a series of short and spare dispatches: Here was narration in secondhand shards, as if to conjure the experience of coming onto the war in messy real time, rather than as smooth, argued historical narrative. (Historians "cook everything up and soften the edges," he said.) The book got daggers from some critics—not just for its compromised motives (Baker ended up a pacifist, which is an awkward thing for a historian of wartime leadership to be) but for its method of cobbling together information without vetting it. Wordsworth once wrote that the imagination visits "when the light of sense/ Goes out." It turned out that the glimmer of little epiphanies wasn't enough to guide readers through the dark tunnels of World War II.
Misfires like these have only burnished Baker's reputation as a vaguely unserious writer, a guy who dribbles his attention like a flavoring sauce on light topics and undercooked endeavors. It's an unfair characterization. Baker's goal of trapping flights of ecstasy and revelation in a changing landscape is deeply ambitious in its way, and the forms he's used to capture these flickerings of consciousness are totally his own. They're powerful forms, too. House of Holes looks like an over-the-top sex romp—it is an over-the-top sex romp—but there's also something startlingly new about the canvas this project takes up, a thrilling sense that Baker is perhaps only now truly coming into his own. It's a sexy book, and a blazingly funny book, and in this sense it has two points of mainline access to the entertainment-hungry center of the culture. Yet it's also a continuation of his career-long project, a way of using ecstatic fantasy to capture the life of the mind lost in the cracks of everyday convention. One of House of Holes'themes is the thrill of stumbling on the secret passageway, the point of entry. But it may be Baker himself who has finally discovered a way in.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Nicholson Baker in 2007 is in the public domain. Via Wikipedia.