The first bit of sex in Nicholson Baker's House of Holes: A Book of Raunch appears on Page 5, where a minor character achieves a robust climax by the fingers of an amputated, still-sentient arm. Readers inclined to blush might wish to pause there and seek private shelter before pushing on to Page 6. As a document of erotic invention, House of Holes is daring, freakish, almost unrelenting in its kinky appetite and imaginative stamina. (In one memorable scene, a woman has her feet stroked by the "very hard and very famous" glandes of Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.) As a work of fiction, though, it's dexterous and bizarrely charming. Baker's projects have for years run awkwardly between two poles, between lurid provocation and high-literary grace, yet unlike several other naughty upper-middle-brow books, his efforts are nearly untouched by social pretense or priapic bluster. Baker may be the most lascivious mainstream author writing these days, but his work is more a clear spring than a fetid swamp.
In photographs and interviews, the white-bearded Baker puts forth a mien that's gentle, self-effacing, cowed, beneficent—a kind of jolly elf chastened by self-doubt and the frustrations of modern life. On paper, though, his career has been wanton and bafflingly promiscuous. Recent decades have found Baker turning to rhymed poetry, time-freezing, World War II, and Updike's literary ascendancy as subjects. His imagination does not so much "range" or "soar" as travel between continents by midnight airlift. In the middle 1990s, when Monica Lewinsky reportedly gave Bill Clinton Vox, Baker's novel of phone sex, as a kind of handsel, the author was busy writing a warmhearted, delightful book narrated through the mindset of a 9-year-old girl. In 2004, just before George W. Bush was re-elected, Baker's characters imagined several elaborate ways to murder him. These swerves of intent, joined with Baker's protean style (ranging from stream of consciousness to jaunty comedy to flash-cut deadpan), have earned him a standing as, at best, an eccentric and, at worst, an overdriven dilettante. A few years ago, half a decade after Baker turned part of his retirement savings toward founding a repository of old newspapers in a New Hampshire mill, he won the American Academy of Arts and Letters' career-achievement award in prose. It was and remains possible to find the honor well-deserved without being able to say what Baker's actual achievement is.
That may be because readers are seeking patterns in the wrong places. Peel back the superficial husks of Baker's prose, and he is not the swerving, freakish provocateur or leery cultural critic he appears to be. He is a high-Romantic writer in disguise, heir to the tradition of Coleridge and Keats. Through his career and varied projects, Baker's goal has been to re-create the way fleeting, ecstatic moments act on our emotions. He's an artist of the firsthand, trying to capture what's normally lost in the course of secondhand narration. He has labored to resensualize the life of the mind. In doing so, Baker has drawn uncannily close to the holy grail of the American literary marketplace: a style of fiction joining sophisticated conception with middlebrow allure. His zigzagging path appears eccentric, but it's launched him toward a place where many writers only dream of going.
This course is not entirely surprising. Baker's critics tend to cast him as a crank and literary outsider, an upmarket version of the guy who sells self-published chapbooks in small San Francisco bookstores, but in truth few working writers can claim a more eminent career path. Baker came to the fore as a precocious New Yorker contributor, submitting fiction to the Shawn magazine while still in his 20s. By the time he published his first novel, The Mezzanine, a few years later, he'd perfected a style of hyper-attentive prose that was both of a piece with the old New Yorker's editorial tenor and an exception to it—a style that pushed creative renderings of everyday detail so far that the familiar took on strange, ecstatic hues.
The Mezzanine is a slim book of Proust-like protensity, describing its narrator's return to his office one afternoon through the kaleidoscope of his wandering thoughts. ("A small, perhaps not very interesting question has troubled me occasionally: Is a lunch hour defined as beginning just as you enter the men's room on the way to lunch, or just as you exit it?" one chapter begins.) The critic James Wood once described Baker's obsessive, riffy style as "micro-realism." But the realist's mission is to identify and celebrate the landscape and habits of everyday life; Baker's goal in The Mezzanine and in his next novel, Room Temperature, was closer to impressionism—using words to conjure the sensual and intellectual experience of passing through the world in time. Approaching the moving staircase to his office, the narrator of The Mezzanine ruminates on "all of these powerful, preexisting connections in my past life between escalators and shoelaces"—his mother's injunction never to ride escalators with loose laces, his habit of trying to tie his shoes on the way up. Baker's goal here wasn't to set escalators and shoelaces in a landscape of polished banality. He was trying, instead, to help readers experience flickers of mind too idiosyncratic and fleeting for realist storytelling. To him, these passing motions were the story; the private revelations quickly dismissed and forgotten were most worth capturing on the page.