‘Sometimes,’ a woman says during phone sex in Vox, Nicholson Baker’s first foray into smut, ‘I think with the telephone that if I concentrate enough I could pour myself into it and I’d be turned into a mist and I would rematerialise in the room of the person I’m talking to.’ That’s more or less how people get to the House of Holes – a sexual spa resort, offering expensive bespoke treatments, located in a parallel dimension. Almost any kind of opening can serve as a portal through which visitors are sucked in an atomised state before recondensing at the HoH, often wearing fewer clothes. One character gets there through the end of a drinking straw; another makes the journey via his own urethra, an experience that’s described as ‘odd’ and ‘self-referential’. Many things are possible at the HoH: reversible ‘crotchal transfers’, for instance, or sex, of a sort, with Rimsky-Korsakov. In exchange for a larger penis, a man called Dave has an arm lopped off. Another man, Dune, threatened with the loss of a finger for a breach of the house rules, volunteers to swap genitals with Marcela, an art critic.
It sounds like a less po-faced version of the Chapman brothers’ work – figures with penises for noses and that sort of thing. But unlike many blenders of porn and art, or of sex and strange comedy, Baker doesn’t add a slug of grimness, an ingredient he’s never cared for. ‘Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life’, Howie, the narrator of his first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), reads in Marcus Aurelius. ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong!’ he writes. ‘Destructive and unhelpful and misguided and completely untrue!’ – though ‘harmless, even agreeably sobering’, to a man having a pleasant lunch break. Baker’s narrators are unswerving about this. ‘Spending your life concentrating on death is like watching a whole movie and thinking only about the credits that are going to roll at the end,’ we’re told in The Anthologist (2009). ‘It’s a mistake of emphasis.’
When Baker was starting out, his good cheer was a clue that he wasn’t a programmatic avant-gardist, though it took a while for everyone to notice. In U&I (1991), his witty exploration of his feelings towards John Updike (‘this imaginary friend I have constructed out of sodden crisscrossing strips of rivalry and gratefulness over an armature of remembered misquotation’), he mentions his surprise at being compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet and Francis Ponge by reviewers of his first two books. It’s easy to see how they got there: The Mezzanine – Howie’s footnote-strewn account of a morning at his anonymous corporate workplace, defamiliarised by intricate descriptions of vending machines and shoelaces – looks a bit like an Americanised nouveau roman and puts Baker somewhere on a line of descent between Donald Barthelme, with whom he briefly studied, and David Foster Wallace. Yet Howie isn’t void-struck or an object of satire. Like Mike, the narrator of Baker’s second novel, Room Temperature (1990), he just wants to get things ‘correctly situated in the felt periphery of life’. ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er etc’ is listed, between ‘Paper towel dispensers’ and ‘People are very dissimilar,’ on a chart in which Howie ranks his subjects of thought by frequency.
Since then, it’s been clearer that Baker’s mad technical feats are a matter of disposition rather than a willed rejection of more conventional kinds of writing. More likely to admire a well-turned ‘Talk of the Town’ piece than anything published by Les Editions de Minuit, he comes across as an old-fashioned East Coast man of letters, with a polished prose style and somewhat Anglophile interests, whose talents happen to come to life when applied to odd thoughts, close descriptions of minutiae and masturbation scenarios. His narrators read Maurice Baring, A.C. Benson, Hopkins, Swinburne and Iris Murdoch. In Room Temperature, Mike takes a copy of Mark Pattison’s Isaac Casaubon to read on a plane; in the novel’s closing sentence he picks up a copy of the TLS. And on top of being a great observer and metaphor-maker – a poem on a magazine page ‘swimming in a little gel pack of white space’; a freshly laundered shirt emitting, when shaken, ‘the sound of a flag at the consulate of a small, rich country’ – Baker can be entertainingly fussy about vocabulary. ‘“Panties” is a word to be avoided, I feel,’ we’re told in The Fermata. ‘Yes, grey with an e,’ the narrator writes in A Box of Matches (2003). ‘That’s one of those English spellings that I accept.’
Baker’s real and mock pedantry, bookishness, humour, tender feeling for domestic life, occasional need to coin phrases like ‘massive rude cockitude’ and lack of interest in plot: all these have played out variously in the disparate clumps of writing he’s published over the last 20 years. Since U&I, a clever book that features a memorable parody of an Updike construction (‘her blank seemed, in its blinkety blankness and blanketed blinkness, almost blonky in the late afternoon blonk’), his non-fiction has become more outward-looking and shown more of his antiquarian and information-junkie tendencies. Human Smoke (2008), a collage of documentary snippets that looks at the Second World War from a pacifist point of view, also seems to have grown in part from disgust at the rhetoric surrounding the War on Terror. A similar impulse informs Checkpoint (2004), a dialogue novel in which a man claims he plans to kill George W. Bush, though ‘this scummy little book’, as Leon Wieseltier was moved to call it, lacked bite. Too gentle a writer to stage a truly angry rant, Baker is at his best as a straight-ish novelist in lower-temperature books such as A Box of Matches, an otherworldly report on middle age in which, for once, he lets mortality hover at the edge of the picture.
All along, though, there have been his sex books, which made him famous in the 1990s and earned him a walk-on part in the Clinton impeachment circus. (In an effort to prove that Clinton’s copy of Vox was a gift from Monica Lewinsky, which she said it was, Kenneth Starr subpoenaed records from two Washington bookshops.) Erotic material for readers who won’t trip up on words like ‘relevé’ and jokes about J.M. Barrie, Vox (1992) recounts a long conversation between a man and a woman on a $1.90-a-minute chatline. Though Jim and Abby, the speakers, share their predecessors’ enthusiasm for describing the man-made world (she mentions jet engines with ‘blades that look like the underside of mushrooms’) and find masturbation more satisfying than sex, we aren’t encouraged to view them as alienated, socially atomised types or brood about their contact being mediated by technology and commerce. On the contrary, Baker sees them as sweet-natured masturbators who’ve been brought together by extreme good luck. Dramatising the growing confidence and friendliness with which they sound out one another’s fantasy lives, he makes their interaction seem believable and touching.
The Fermata (1994), his longest novel, deals with less wholesome goings on, and occasionally makes Baker’s sunniness seem disturbingly non-disturbable. It’s the autobiography of Arno Strine, an office temp, aged 35, who’s able to put the universe on freeze-frame, a power he uses sometimes to catch up on work or sleep but chiefly to undress, gawk at, masturbate over, write personalised erotic stories for, investigate the flat of etc, every woman who catches his eye. Arno understands that this might raise moral questions: he’s recently been dumped by his girlfriend, Rhody, who spoke of lovelessness and ‘dug up words like “necrophilia”’ when he mentioned his habits in the guise of a sexual fantasy. ‘I would condemn in the strongest terms anyone else who did what I have done,’ he writes. ‘But the thing is, I did it, I did it, I know myself, and I know that I mean no harm, I mean well.’ A short chat with an uncouth security guard establishes Arno’s horror of rape: he doesn’t mess cruelly with people, so what’s the problem? And though he eventually decides that honesty and consent are important, unburdening himself to an understanding woman, he isn’t presented as anything more sinister than a kindly if naughty nerd.
There’s a fair amount of reviewer-baiting in all this (‘Women who read Virago Modern Classics almost always have fascinating breasts’), and reviewers responded with words like ‘repulsive’ and ‘repellent’ and phrases like ‘Goodbye Nicholson Baker, goodbye for ever.’ But the novel is mostly an elaborate joke that offers the spectacle of Baker ignoring his inner censor and being amused by the out-there quality of the results. ‘I am a writer of fucking erotica!’ Arno yells while hammering out a piece featuring a UPS truck and a double-ended dildo called a Royal Welsh Fusilier, a name seemingly inspired by his recent reading of Goodbye to All That. He lavishes quantities of Updikean fine writing on his ‘bloated factotum’ and ‘the bounteous plied gyno-confusion of the vadge’, though as a touchstone for elegant prose he mentions Penelope Fitzgerald. He’s also keen for us to know that he often stops ‘to shake my yokel’ while typing out his memoirs – a practice that, as the pages pile up, gives him a nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome, leading to a wholly gratuitous and very funny chapter in which an attractive medical researcher gets him to sit in an MRI machine and demonstrate what he’s been doing, with running commentary, for the benefit of science.
Even more elaborate scenes of that sort, with many extra kinks and configurations, are what House of Holes is largely concerned with. Yet Baker has adjusted the formula. The sentences are less ornate and there are more pauses for breath, an effect this compulsive phrase-maker tells interviewers he learned to achieve by typing in the dark with his laptop screen dimmed, dictating to himself. There’s no narrator character, little overarching plot and not much of The Fermata’s meta-creepiness, though there’s a line aimed at potential scolds: ‘“Just plain disgusting,” said Woo, bending to get a better look.’ And Baker never lets you forget that you’re reading about a wipe-clean fantasy world rather than a quasi-solid one like Arno’s. There are no unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections or destructive infidelities at the House of Holes. (No homosexuals, outside porn films, either.)
The HoH is run by Lila, a tough-talking earth mother who screens new arrivals and prescribes activities with the help of a man called Daggett and a woman called Crackers. (‘“Crackers, flash Wade your marvellous smile,” said Lila. Crackers smiled a marvellous smile. “See, you’re a prisoner now. You can’t escape. You’re going to have to come in this jade cup.”’) Once these figures and the HoH’s main attractions have been sketched in, the book becomes a series of freestanding pornographic vignettes. Some contain reminders of Baker’s interest in machinery: male inductees have to lie on a conveyor belt to be soaped by naked interns, for example, and the service provided by Rimsky-Korsakov – plus Borodin – isn’t all that different from Abby’s fantasy in Vox about sliding down an oiled tube lined with hands. But most scenarios are more specialised. In a typical chapter a man arrives via a handbag, and finds its owner, now miniaturised, lodged in the end of his penis. Looks like you’ll have to masturbate to get me out, she tells him; I’ll do it too if that helps. Afterwards she says: ‘I think if you rub me gently on my stomach I’ll grow back to the right size.’ Then they go to the restaurant and the gift shop together.
Non-sexual narrative coherence is provided by recurring characters – names, really, in most cases. Dave’s arm is reunited with Dave after it writes him a moving letter (‘Signed, Your Arm’); Dune and Marcela win a competition. There’s a complicated network of motifs: in addition to body-part removal and replacement, recurring images include mountain zebras, women laying wooden or silver eggs and people drinking sherry cobblers (iced cocktails mentioned in Martin Chuzzlewit, as a character explains). Here and there, we’re filled in on the HoH’s humanitarian aspects. They have ‘an airplane that flies around sucking up bad porn from cities’; the porn is piped into holding tanks where it unexpectedly gives rise to a sentient ‘tumorousness of overstimulated desire’. And sometimes there are glimpses of the outside world. Online porn – a non-issue when Baker was writing Vox – has a counterpart at the HoH’s Porndecahedron, a multi-screened experience that solo visitors find exhausting and dispiriting after a while. A man uses mystic powers to combat the fashion for pubic hair removal and tattooing – ‘a way of not being naked while being naked’, he says dismissively. A woman with ‘big patriotic tits’, who causes havoc by confiscating people’s clitorises, derives her authority from the 9/11 attacks, being an employee of the federal Transportation Security Administration.
No one in the book is surprised by any of this, or by the way people’s talk dips suddenly from such topics as the European Union to the HoH’s Garden of the Wholesome Delightful Fuckers. Ned, a golfer who runs up large debts, discusses his problem with Lila:
‘So what on earth do I do?’
‘I would say that for you, with that body, the fastest way for you to pay off your debts is with the voluntary head detachment.’
‘What’s that? I’d like to try it.’
‘Think about it carefully. Your head will be removed and put on a wheeled pedestal. Kathy will roll you around and change your plasma bags and be sure that your electricals are all shipshape.’
‘And my body?’
‘Your body will go into one of the six headless rooms.’
‘OK, and what happens in there?’
‘Your body and a woman will get to know each other.’
‘How? My body won’t have a head.’
‘No, it won’t. These are women who don’t want you to have a head.’
‘Oh, I see, OK … Well, let’s do it.’
Other characters are similarly open-minded about non-participation, which adds emotional colour:
‘I thought I’d see you onstage today at the festival.’
Dave shrugged. ‘I kind of decided that being jacked off in front of hundreds of people wasn’t my style.’
‘I understand,’ said Shandee.
They were quiet for a moment.
Later, Shandee smiles at Dave, ‘loving his rueful intelligent eyes. Her vagina – or maybe it was her heart? – felt as if it weighed about eight pounds.’ Stylistic restraint marks these touches of romance. Elsewhere, though, Baker aims for greater lexical variousness. Like Jim in Vox, who doesn’t like ‘the word “breasts” and all those slangish synonyms’, he spends a lot of time inventing his own euphemisms, as in: ‘Dave angled out his Malcolm Gladwell.’ When slangish terms are used, they’re usually piled up: in pairs (‘titboobs’, ‘dickknob’) to begin with, but later in such determinedly pleonastic assemblages as ‘knocker-jug-bosom-boobs’ or ‘a hugely gigantic phallocentric dick-shaped monster cock’. We’re also treated to sound effects (‘Then, blip. Snerp’) and onomatopoeic dialogue (‘Dave said: “Gluddle-luddle-luddle-luddle-luddle-luddle-luddle, mmmm”’). Combined with the otherwise careful balance of Baker’s sentences, this makes for an unusual reading experience, especially when he throws in lyrical descriptions (‘a long whipflick of silly string curved through the sparkling air’) or compares a penis subsiding and drawing in on itself to ‘an aged parliamentarian’.
What kind of critical stance does Baker’s paradise imply towards neoliberal individualism, American gender relations, consumerist self-absorption or the sexual imagination in the age of the internet? None, really, nor does the focus on sex lead him – as he writes in U&I of Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst – towards ‘subtler revelations in the novel’s traditional arena of social behaviour’. ‘People masturbate a lot in paradise’ is the main revelation on offer, though perhaps the wisest words in the book are addressed to the amorphous pornmonster in the tank by a woman who tries to get it to speak. ‘You need a head,’ she tells it. House of Holes isn’t a work of great ambition, and it’s possible to see Baker as an end-of-historyish, 1990s sort of figure, dandyishly bringing his compositional resources to bear on belly-button lint, as he does in A Box of Matches, or, as here, on seriocomic wank fantasies. At the same time, there’s something admirable about his civilised comic intelligence, his pleasure in overlooked particulars and his refusal to use darkness as a cheap solution to the problem of artistic weight. As a response to a challenge he’s set himself – writing a work of genuine pornography that’s also hilarious, broadly feminist in intent, entirely cheerful and strangely innocent – his performance is a madder technical feat than it looks.