Aug 1 2011

House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker

Adam Wilson

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Everyone knows you can't judge a book by its cover, but what about judging one by its author photo? Surely something can be inferred from an author's surly eyebrows, or his affected stare into sunset? I bring this up because the author photo for Nicholson Baker's latest novel, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, so perfectly captures the book's warmly horny voice. Baker—chub-cheeked, twinkle-eyed, sporting a Floridian sun-hat and snow white Santa beard—calls up a gentler Hemingway, less Old Man and the Sea than Old Man and the Giant Bottle of Viagra. He looks like a randy but harmless grandpa, the threat of his implied erection undercut by an overwhelming aura of sweetness. The same could be said for House of Holes: Wildly pornographic, fearlessly comic, incredibly entertaining, the book is ultimately a dulcet affair, a wide-eyed imagining of an Edenic sexual playground.

The House of Holes referred to in the title is a vacation resort—part Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, part Hedonism II, part Jewish summer camp. In this sexed-up dreamland, you'll enjoy leisure activities like "pussy-surfing the lake." After dinner you might wind down on the International Couch, where you "get to hump your way" down a line of women from all imaginable countries. In summer there's a Tit Swarm in which one man is allowed into a dark room filled with topless women. In the Headless Bedroom women can have their way with decapitated men called "bodyboys." Perhaps most intriguing is the Velvet Room, where famous dead Russian composers will "play your leg like the keys of a piano," and rub their erections against the soles of your feet. And don't forget to visit the other attractions: the Hall of the Penises, the Penis Tree, the Groan Room, the Porndechahedron, the Avenue of Men Who Need to Suck Twat Everyday, the Garden of Happy Delightful Fuckers, the Squat Line, and, simply, the Man Line. The only drawback is expense—$9,000 a day for men not on work-study programs (women get in free). Oh, and there's a thief on the loose who's stealing clitorises.

How does one get to House of Holes? Archaeology student Shandee's journey to the resort begins when she finds a disembodied human arm on a dig. It's a sophisticated arm—it has a solar panel, a digestion system, and a "lovely touch"; it also acts as a portal. Portals are found in numerous random places: washing machines, pens, pepper grinders, plastic straws; one man is even sucked in through the tip of his own penis—"a self-referential experience." Upon arrival guests are greeted by Lila, a Wonka-esque "woman of a certain age," who says things like, "All orgasms are marvels." This could be the resort's motto, stitched onto the complimentary bathrobes below the HoH monogram.

There's no plot to speak of. Like Sherwood Anderson's Winesberg, Ohio, the book is comprised of short vignettes featuring crisscrossing characters in a vividly rendered locale. Much unlike Winesburg, Ohio, the vignettes have titles like, "Shandee Learns How to Wash a Penis" and "Luna Fucks a Penis Tree." Some characters are carrying out missions: Shandee must reconnect the arm with its owner, Dave, who traded it for a giant penis via a "cross-crotchal interplasmic transfer"; Henriette must find a cure for her "sleepy clit"; Dennis must gently excavate the accidentally shrunken Mindy who is stuck inside his penis. But for the most part, HoH has no overarching narrative, and is propelled by Baker's uncensored imagination and give for comic wordplay—a significant power source. Here, a penis is a "spunkloaded meatloaf of a ham steak of a dick" or a "Malcolm Gladwell," and the sex act might involve a man's "thundertube of dickmeat" pushing "frilly doilies of labial flesh aside" so it can slam into her "train station…commuting in and out of her pussyhole." He's satirizing the tropes of terrible erotic writing, but in doing so he's created something original, a hilariously over-the-top sexual lexicon.

It's familiar territory for Baker. His dialogue-only second novel, Vox, takes place entirely within the space of a call to a phone-sex operator. The Fermata is about a man who uses his ability to stop time to have sex with whomever he wants. But House of Holes is an entirely different beast with two backs. Whereas Baker's previous forays into skin-fiction used sex as springboard to larger ideas about psychology and humanity, House of Holes is smut for smut's sake: It's goal is to arouse and entertain. In this, it succeeds, at least if you're a heterosexual male. There are no gay men at the resort, and the occasional moments of lesbianic interplay involve "scissoring," an act more common to porn films than to actual lesbian sex (or so I've been told). The women are parodically over-eager constructs of male fantasy; they say things like "fill my mouth with the manly warmth of your nutbag," and "Ice my cake dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry."

The press materials for HoH frame the book as a triumphant riposte to Katie Roiphe's recent plea for the re-sexification of American fiction in the New York Times Book Review. But HoH feels more like an accusatory rejoinder against something else, against a larger creative limpness that has infiltrated not just American fiction, but our collective cultural imagination, as evidenced the massive amounts of uninspired pornography that terrorize our bandwith. House of Holes refuses to settle for predictable erotic fantasies. In this sense it is a "sex positive" book, a celebration and reminder of how far sexual fantasies and the language that describes them can go.

Adam Wilson's novel Flatscreen will be published by HarperPerennial in February 2012.

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