I'll Have What He's Having
Breaking bread with Nicholson Baker, America's foremost writer of literary sex novels.
Also in Slate: Nathan Heller assessed Nicholson Baker's literary career, and Katie Roiphe reviewed his new novel, House of Holes.
If one is expecting Nicholson Baker to be wild or outrageous, 30 seconds in his presence will reveal him to be none of those things. He is tall, gentlemanly, soft-spoken.
Since he lives in a farmhouse in Maine, and I live in New York, we meet in the soothing, grey-and-beige interior of L'Espalier in Boston. He arrives in a straw hat, plaid jacket, sneakers.
Both of us are a little out of place in this restaurant amid the ladies who shop on Newbury Street: him because you can almost smell the salty air and wide open Maine sky on him, and me because I am wearing a black silk romper and a red plastic bangle that, let's just say, blended in a little better in New York City.
Baker is probably best known for his highbrow dirty books, for books like Vox and The Fermata, as well as his innovative first novel, The Mezzanine, with its artfully and obsessively spun analysis of daily life. The book was based on the years he spent temping, specifically one year as an oil analyst on Wall Street, riding the escalator to go out to lunch and the sublime daydreams that ensued.
All of his novels interest themselves with reproducing the minutiae of inner life, with what Baker calls "the white noise" in our heads, and many of them involve showy technical feats and fireworks. Altogether, he occupies a strange place in the American literary scene: respected but offbeat, a great stylist with controversial or eccentric obsessions.
His new book, House of Holes , is an outrageous, surrealist sex fantasy. It's "out there" as he puts it, even for someone who once wrote an entire literary novel about phone sex. The premise of the novel is that people disappear through portals – a straw, a dryer, a tunnel – into a sexual spa where even the weirdest fantasies are fulfilled, and you can have sex with trees and lakes and headless men, among other things.
The whole time Baker was writing House of Holes he was thinking he would publish it under a pseudonym. Writing under a different name liberated him to explore wilder and stranger fantasies. "The Fermata was about as far as I could go under my own name," he explains. "It was exciting to feel I was writing in a style that wasn't Nick Baker's style." But when he delivered the manuscript his publisher convinced him that he should publish it under his own name because people would know it was him anyway, and by then he figured the usefulness of the pseudonym had played itself out.
He wrote the novel in the car, at Starbucks, in Friendly's restaurants, often in the middle of the night, getting up at 3.30am and going to the kitchen table, or outside if it was warm and there was a moon. In the end he had a massive stack of pages of little pornographic vignettes, which he whittled down.
I ask him if he is at all worried about the book going out into the world, and he says, "I don't worry too much. I always have the illusion that it will be fine."
In a funny way he is more exposed in this book than his others because he is laying bare his fantasies. For some reason, it's almost more intimate and confessional to write about crazy scenarios you find arousing than a more realistic or straightforward autobiographical novel might be. As he put it, "Things are in this book because I found them arousing. I was excited by writing this book. There is no point in doing it if you are not. You know the worry is, is it too tame? Is it too nice? Is it too weird? Is it too Dr Seuss-y? There is a review that says that. I kind of like that."
Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, and the forthcoming In Praise of Messy Lives.
Photograph of Nicholson Baker/Wageless via Wikipedia.