Maybe the best way to approach House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s new smorgasbord of ribaldry, is to sample its delectable language. So here’s a glossary of Baker-isms for the various human body parts, fluids, and functions that play starring roles in a novel that is aptly subtitled “A Book of Raunch”:
PENIS: bulldog, thundertube, ham steak, wanger, truncheon, mandingo, spunkspewer, purple cameroon, tuber, charley horse, fleshbone, pack mule, hellhound, manjig, stonker, putz, seedstick, babymaker, and, a bit more personally, Pollock, Malcolm Gladwell, and Lincoln Stiffins.
VAGINA: stash, train station, slobbering kitty, chickenshack, snatch patch, slutslot, cameltoe, tooter, stovepipe, and lettuce patch.
SEMEN: manstarch, silly string, cockslurp, sweet salty hotness, sackshot, blookie, doddle-goo, and ham juice.
BREASTS: hangers, jerries, britneys, cookies, and jaybirds.
Buttocks are “wonderloaves,” testicles are “hot young stones” or “jacksons,” a clitoris is a “lemondrop” or “Monsieur Twinklestump.” To ejaculate is to “pop the oyster.” And here are a few of the verbal volcanoes that erupt when various characters reach climax: “He seems to want to make me come, oh god, oh shit. Ham, ham, oo, oo, oo, oo, oo,oo, ham, ham, HAW!”; “Mgonna come, mgonna, come. Nnnnnnggggggggaaaaaaaw!”; and “I’m almost there, I’m almost there! I’m there, ah, ah, AAAAAH, hoof hoof hoof.” There are also some non-sexual grace notes, as when an English accent is “wuffly,” a sigh is “murfling,” and a character “had a great contentment bubbling inside her like the little bubbles that you see when you shake up a bottle of salad dressing.”
By now you’re probably guessing that House of Holes is both very frank and very funny, and you would not be guessing wrong. For better and for worse this novel will inevitably be linked to Baker’s two previous sex romps, Vox, which consists of a long phone-sex conversation, and The Fermata, the story of an office temp and libertine named Arno Strine who has the power to create something called “the Fold,” when time and motion freeze and he’s free to do anything he wants to do – which usually amounts to undressing his female co-workers and masturbating to their immobile bodies.
These earlier novels divided readers into two warring camps, and House of Holes is not likely to bring about detente. People tended to love these novels or loathe them. (Monica Lewinsky loved Vox so much she gave her personal copy to Bill Clinton.) The books strike me as a couple of one-trick ponies, attempts to tease a pair of thin premises into full-blown novels that are only partially successful.
House of Holes is a pony with a much bigger bag of tricks, but it’s still a pony, a carefully constructed contrivance, a vehicle for exploring a fantasy that could exist only in a country that’s both obsessed with sex and deeply conflicted about it. The fantasy is simple: imagine an alternate reality where everyone is attractive, having sex is as natural as breathing, nothing is forbidden, everyone’s doing everything with everyone and enjoying it, and for good measure there are no unwanted pregnancies, no sexually transmitted diseases, no guilt, and only an occasional flare-up of jealousy. People enter the House of Holes through any number of round apertures: a cocktail straw, a clothes dryer door, a golf hole, an earlobe piercing, a woman’s purse (blackest of black holes!). Once there, they can get an “ass-grabber’s license” or swap genitals with someone of either gender, there’s a “clothes-dissolving wind,” a man can temporarily sacrifice an arm in order to get a bigger penis. In short, it’s every pubescent boy’s wet dream. But is it good fiction?
The only way to arrive at an answer is to try to divine Baker’s motives for writing so obsessively and fluorescently about sex. Right off he should be absolved of the charge that he’s exploiting that tired credo of the retail crowd: sex sells. He’s after something much bigger than cheap thrills or quick cash. Baker’s appeal, in his eclectic fiction and non-fiction, is the way his imagination zeroes in on minutiae that most people, including most novelists, don’t bother to consider. His books are not painted or drawn; they’re etched. His preferred tools are the magnifying glass, the zoom lens, the X-acto knife, and acid. Trivial and mundane things are hugely important to him, including staplers, shoelaces, matches, nail clippers, bathroom towel dispensers, the perforations that make paper towels easy to tear. Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, consists of a 133-page ride on an escalator. He followed it with Room Temperature, which takes place in the 20 minutes a man needs to feed his baby daughter her bottle. It includes the speculation that “with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.” In keeping with Henry James’s dictum, Baker is one of the people on whom nothing is lost. For him, everything is worth noticing. Including, obviously, sex.
To rephrase the earlier question: Is it enough for a novelist to be a great noticer? The answer, unfortunately, is no. For all its many virtues – its attention to detail, its imaginative brio, its lavish language and sense of humor – House of Holes turns out to be a surprisingly flat performance. Though there is some sort of scorching, rococo sex act on virtually every page, Baker’s style is intentionally neutral, lukewarm, almost clinical. A key to this fantasy, and to much of the humor, is that the people living the fantasy find it utterly ordinary. Here’s a typical exchange between a willing young man named Cardell and a reluctant married woman named Betsy:
“You seem rich.”
“I’m not poor. My husband’s father was rich. He was supposedly a
ruthless businessman, but he was always nice to me.” She smiled.
“I’d love to see you come,” Cardell said thickly.
She laughed. “Ah, but I’m married, as you know. I don’t cheat. Much.”
“Does your husband have a friendly sex organ that treats you well?”
“He does,” she said, in a distant voice. “It’s got a knobby end that fits me just right. But I suppose that’s private information.”
Cardell looked out at the ocean. “I wish I had a cold iced tea right now.”
Much of the novel is like that, careening between the sexually charged and the grindingly mundane like a drunk on a four-day bender. The novel has no plot, unless you consider careening a plot. After a while this careening becomes routine, which I believe is Baker’s intention, because he has set out to create a very un-American world where sex is treated without hang-ups or fanfare. But eventually the routine becomes monotonous, which may or may not have been Baker’s intention. Either way, he winds up getting sabotaged by the success of his invention.
While Baker has endured some blistering reviews in the past, he has also been given the serious critical treatment. In Understanding Nicholson Baker, Arthur Saltzman wrote that Baker’s achievement has been “to depict the private and the perverse so ingeniously, to bring out the universal fascination within unheralded or even vulgar habits so convincingly, as to purge them of indecency.” Jack Murnighan’s The Naughty Bits: The Steamiest and the Most Scandalous Sex Scenes from the World’s Great Books lumps Baker with the usual bad boys, including Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Rabelais, among others. But perhaps it was Jane Smiley who got closest to what Baker is up to. Vox is one of the 100 novels Smiley includes in her dissection of the writing process, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. “Baker’s style is always plain and clear,” she writes. “It is also sometimes even tedious and dreary – intentionally so, since fidelity to the conversation of average people sometimes requires that they seem tedious and dreary in order to seem average.” Later she adds:
Baker’s strong suit as a novelist is that he is intriguing…. When we read his books, we are in part reading them for themselves – that is, as individual narratives. What we are also reading for is just to find out what Nicholson Baker has been thinking about lately.
Here’s the current answer: Nicholson Baker has been thinking about rigid stonkers and prime Angus cockbriskets spewing hot loads of silly string into various slutslots and lettuce patches. That, plus cold iced tea, and the little bubbles that you see when you shake up a bottle of salad dressing. Baker’s many fans are sure to lap it up. The rest of us will be slightly amused but ultimately bored. The war continues.