Nicholson Baker, House of Holes

It pains me to say so, but the ninth novel from Maine’s Nicholson Baker is exactly the kind of hollow fuck-fest his other sex books were once decried as back in the ’90s. The thing is, 1994’s The Fermata also brilliantly explored the ever-permeable boundary between dreams and reality. Vox, from ’92 (a copy of which Monica Lewinsky later gave to President Clinton), was equally concerned with the logistics of phone-sex hot lines. In House of Holes, however, Baker is concerned solely with the act itself. And there are only so many money shots a reader can take.

What passes for a plot is dozens of one-note escapades involving the titular house, a magic all-sex-all-the-time resort that’s accessible only by staring into a circular opening: clothes dryers, drinking straws, and even the tip of a male urethra can get the job done. Once in the House of Holes every sexual fantasy imaginable is within reach, and standard nightclub rules apply. Men have to pay an arm and a leg (sometimes literally). Women get in free.

It’s immediately apparent that Baker has abandoned the intricate, musical prose of his earlier novels. The sentences here are simple and utilitarian. Among the few elements left over from Vox and The Fermata are the euphemisms for various sex acts and parts. For instance? Well… Don’t say you weren’t warned. A penis is a “thundertube of dickmeat”, a “ham steak of a Dr. Dick”, and a “Malcolm Gladwell”. A vagina is “a simmering chickenshack” with “frilly doilies of labial flesh.” One woman instructs the circle of men masturbating above her, “Jerk it out! Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry!”

It should be said that Baker’s general sense of openness and merriment with sex is still intact, and still just as preferable to the icy, fear-based alternative. But, man, House of Holes is a disaster. One of the reasons those other novels work so well is because they keenly understand the function of foreplay—narrative, as well as the other kind. Here, every three-page chapter ends with at least one explosive orgasm. The momentum never even gets started; feel free to insert your own premature-ejaculation joke.

Hopefully, this is just a lark on Baker’s part, and his intellectual rigour will return next time intact. Until then, he really needs to stop all this fucking around.

Simon & Schuster, 272 pp, $28.99, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, September 8, 2011)

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