House of Holes
Simon & Schuster, $25 hardcover, $15 paperback (released this week), 352 pp.
We are awash in raunch, or at least it sometimes seems like it these days. Even if you're not looking for it, e-mail spam or an unfortunately worded Google search will bring it flooding onto your computer screen. A late-night trawl through the cable channels fetches up a Skinemax softcore fiesta as often as an old Keanu Reeves flick. And if you are looking for it, it seems almost as easy to find as forming the thought, without even leaving your couch. So the idea of Nicholson Baker subtitling his new novel, House of Holes, as A Book of Raunch seems almost hopelessly quaint.
Whether designed as a warning or a selling point or both, Baker's subtitle is nonetheless apt. A slim volume, House of Holes amounts to a series of short chapters featuring recurring characters and their surreal search for sexual fulfillment in the House of Holes, an extradimensional sexual resort/clinic accessed Wonderland-style via sometimes unbidden passage through random real-world portals. In one case, a male character is sucked into the House of Holes through his own urethra. Yes, you read that right. Once there, women (who get in free) and men (who have to pay exorbitantly unless they're particularly good looking) can find usefulness and pleasure (or both) by working in or passing through the Penis Wash. They can enjoy the bucolic beauty of the Garden of the Wholesome Delightful Fuckers, or, for indoor types, the many-screen media overstimulation of the Porndecahedron. Body identity breaks down in unpredictable ways in the House of Holes as patrons undergo "crotchal transfers" or plump up their rumps with the Cheekpump. A young woman named Shandee experiences one of the more sustained physical and emotional relationships in the book with the disembodied arm of a guy named Dave.
These adventures in the House of Holes are told in short bursts that pivot on a mix of mundane reality and the unpredictable uncanny like that found in dreams, or in, well, sexual fantasies. It's tempting, if not necessarily comfortable, to picture Baker riling himself into a state of arousal, letting the crazy pants-down thoughts fly, and taking it out on his keyboard, as ordinary characters have more or less ordinary conversations that blossom into admissions of every sexual thought and want, at which point the malleable reality of the House of Holes/House of Holes accommodates them. (Or doesn't — transgressors can lose, say, an errant finger.)
Chapters usually end after a mini-climax, so to speak, leading into a new chapter, with a new adventure for different (though often somewhat interchangeable) characters involving some other aspect of the House of Holes and the sometimes unlikely things that excite us as sexual beings.
Baker made his name as a writer with his devotion to obsessive detail. He constructed his first novel, The Mezzanine, entirely out of the musings and observations of a man during the span of an escalator ride. Vox, his best-selling breakout, was constructed out of a lengthy bout of phone sex; follow-up The Fermata involved a man who uses his power to stop time to leisurely undress women. Observing and exploring at length the often glossed-over minutiae of the workings of the human mind, and especially the human libido, is a well-established specialty. Even given that fact, however, House of Holes feels at first like an indulgence, like a feisty favorite uncle gone sex-mad in his dotage. Reading a sentence about HoH patrons heading for the Masturboats, or encountering the parade of euphemisms for phalli Baker conjures, from a seedstick to a (drum roll, please) Malcolm Gladwell, doesn't dispel the feeling.
Yet there is something so, well, sweet and earnest about House of Holes, for all its bodily-fluid-spattered looniness. Sexual abandon brings out kindness in Shandee, Dave, Lila, Chilli, Rhumpa, Pendle, and the rest; insincerely louche behavior is all but unknown. Big cocks and big tits pop up here and there, but Baker's characters don't seem to hail from the silicon-injected, spray-tanned realm of contemporary commodified sexuality. Many of them seem more like your slightly baggy neighbors, polite and considerate in their horniness. And the fact that virtually all the sexual energy and activity is heterosexual, even amid the nearly boundless possibilities presented by the HoH, ultimately seems even more quaint than the subtitle. Perhaps as a result, the effect of reading the novel isn't even particularly erotic — Baker's foray into literary smut isn't likely to keep Zane up nights.
Why did he bother, then? And why, if at all, should you? Well, House of Holes, if nothing else, is kind of fun. It was probably fun to write, and it can be a kick to follow Baker's mind as it gropes its way forward into the unconscious: An impromptu date at a hotel bar takes an intimately charged turn when the woman, Jackie, asks her companion Cardell, a stranger just moments before, to help her as she tries to discretely lay an egg under her skirt. And maybe it all comes back to that sea of raunch. During a boring lecture, Baker writes, Cardell's "mind was aswirl with obscene imagery, cocks being stuffed everywhere, women's eyes suddenly going wide in surprise."
We human beings have our own internal cavalcade of raunch that plays out in idle moments (if we allow it), a pre-Internet function of our primate brains unfettered by anything but our imaginations and libidos. The fact that the House of Holes/House of Holes allows Baker's characters to acknowledge that fact, to let it out, and to actually explore it and embrace it, even in the context of good, old-fashioned ink on paper, feels like a little bit of a relief, even a catharsis.
Lee Gardner is the editor of City Paper in Baltimore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.