A Book of Raunch
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster. 262 pp. $25
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By David L. Ulin
Nicholson Baker wasn't kidding when he subtitled
House of Holes
, his new novel,
A Book of Raunch
. Indeed, it's a bona fide filthfest, so unrelentingly graphic that there's not much I can quote from it in this review. At the same time, there's an innocence to
House of Holes
, which is (if such a thing is possible) a dirty book without prurience, intended less to titillate than to amuse.
In that sense, it's a throwback, not only to Vox and The Fermata, Baker's sex books of the 1990s, but also to an era - Kenneth Patchen's Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer (1945) and Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's Candy (1958) can be read as antecedents - in which erotic literature was often written to subvert the bounds of the conventional, using humor. In an age of sexting and Internet porn, when one's most perverse predilections are instantly accessible, that idea seems quaint, outmoded in its assurance that there is any such thing as moral propriety left to tweak. For all its lighthearted smuttiness, then, House of Holes comes with an inadvertent subtext: Has erotica become a nostalgic art?
Baker gives that question resonance by setting House of Holes out of time, in a landscape at once recognizable and wholly alien. Constructed as a series of loose vignettes, it revolves around the eponymous House of Holes, a sexual retreat of sorts that will "open up time and spice for you. We're out here in spicetime."
The idea of "spicetime" is important, both for its punning wordplay, indicative of Baker's prose throughout the novel, and also for how it strips any sense of real-world tension from his text. We learn something about his characters, but for the most part, they are names with physical conditions - Dave, who trades his arm for more substantial prowess; Henriette, who has gone numb.
At times, this leads to an unexpected depth, a tenderness, as when Jessica, a woman partial to tattoos and excessive grooming, is coaxed to reveal herself. "[It] was like building a collection of something," she says of the tattoos, while a man named Hax removes them, using sex as an act of transference. "Yes," he tells her. "But it is collecting something that hides you. It is a way of not being naked while being naked. My job is to return you to your nakedness. ... You are finding a way to be clothed when you aren't clothed."
It is in such moments that we glimpse what may be Baker's larger mission, to attach (or reattach) intimacy to sex. In one of the book's most moving passages, a man named Cardell pursues a woman down a beach, walking in her footprints in the sand. "With each step he took," Baker writes, "he learned more about the arch of her foot, the ball of her foot, and her small, strong toes"; when he finally caught up with her, he says, "it was the most intimate experience. Did you feel my feet pressing against your feet?" Something similar happens with Dave, who manages to cross the House of Holes property line and return to "the real world," where he meets a woman on a neighboring farm.
In each scenario, Baker seeks a personal connection, and yet that intention ultimately feels out of place. Partly it's a matter of circumstance - both women are married - but even more, it has to do with the broader framework of the novel, which exists in a realm of sensuality so over the top as to render desire nearly ridiculous, a circus act of body parts and dirty words and flat-out friction, until the universe becomes "a giant collaborative moan."
Take Rhumpa, who seduces a sex monster, the manifestation of all the bad pornography in the world. "The more porn we've sucked out of the world, the larger the monster has grown," a House of Holes official tells her. The conceit is that even this "personification of polymorphousness" deserves to be loved, but it's hard to keep sight of that amid the vivid images - "a tumorousness of overstimulated desire," as Baker puts it - of its need.
None of this makes House of Holes a failure, although it does keep the book from full success. More to the point, it returns us to the question of its relevance, the purpose of the exercise.
For Patchen or Southern - or, for that matter, Eastern European authors such as Milan Kundera and Peter Esterhazy, who, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, used sex to address broader questions in the culture - eroticism was a code, a posture, a strategy to engage with the world. It was a way to write about repression, whether physical or political; it was a way to take a rebellious, even a revolutionary, stance.
Baker hints at that in places: "Be careful what you wish for," he cautions here. Still, with no payoff, narrative or otherwise, to his warning, the issue is what's at stake in the novel, and what, if anything, it means. That's the problem with nostalgia, which, by its nature, means not to challenge but to reassure. And it's the problem, too, with House of Holes, which, in the manner of superficial sex, leaves us feeling oddly unfulfilled.