We all have writers who we feel, at certain moments, are writing to us, for us, and at us. For me, one of these writers has always been Nicholson Baker.
The Mezzanine. The Size of Thoughts. U & I (even though Updike has always left me cold). Human Smoke. VOX, Checkpoint.
And, of course, that finely wrought adolescent fantasy writ large, The Fermata, one of the only books I can think of that I wish I’d written.
VOX is a sexy book—famously gifted from Monica to Bill Clinton back in the day—but it’s not particularly graphic or gratuitous. The Fermata, on the other hand, has fairly chunky portions of straight-up well-written porn, which the main character has written and carefully placed for women to discover (he can stop time).
For a long time, I liked to say that The Fermata was the most pornographic book I’ve ever read. Now, though, I’ll never say it again, because Baker’s latest, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, blows it (and sucks it and fucks it) out of the water.
As Tom Bissell puts it: “[Vox and Fermata] would have to share a well-lubed double-dong dildo to equal the sheer amount of sex in House of Holes.”
Essentially the book is about a sex-tourism alternate universe that people enter by being sucked into any number of circular shapes, from a laundromat’s dryer to the period at the end of this sentence.
Hey…You know what you can do in a blog post that you can’t do in a “real” book review? Quote cut-and-pasted publisher’s copy:
“Shandee finds a friendly arm at a granite quarry. Ned drops down a hole in a golf course. Luna meets a man made of light bulbs at a tanning parlor…Visitors, pulled in via their drinking straws or the dryers in laundromats, can undergo crotchal transfers . . . make love to trees . . . visit the Groanrooms and the twelve-screen Porndecahedron . . . or pussy-surf the White Lake. It’s very expensive, of course, but there are work-study programs.”
It’s Boschian in its variety, and (Bissell points this out) sorta Seussian, too. (cf. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” from Checkpoint.)
At times, it seems to operate by dream-logic, penetrating the unconscious quickly, like some of Haruki Murakami’s later novels. Only once it’s gotten to the bottom of the well, rather than contemplating the mysteries of man’s place in the universe, it jerks off, leaving behind pearls not of wisdom but of a different sort.
The language whiplashes between the plainspoken and bursts of neologistic whimsy. Ejaculate is a “lasso of manstarch,” and a man’s penis is called, at one point, “his Malcolm Gladwell.” The character names are great, too, like something out of Ween’s Twelve Country Greats: Shandee, Ruzty, Cardell.
Which brings me to the main thing I have to say about this book.
It is bracingly weird to experience the Nabokovian neck-tingle at the same time one is experiencing, erm, a flow of blood in the other direction. Not only weird, but somewhat uncomfortable, like these two pleasures aren’t supposed to be happening at the same time.
Or like, for some people maybe, laughing during sex?
But what this book does, in addition to what it does, is enact a sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment.
Against a chorus of people yelling “Hey!” in protest of certain boundaries being crossed, House of Holes demonstrates, successfully, and for the benefit of all parties, that you can mix the chocolate of aesthetic pleasure with the peanut butter of hardcore porn.
The result, I’m pleased to report, is delicious.