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Coming Attractions

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Fred Field/The New York Times/Redux
Nicholson Baker, South Berwick, Maine, 2008

The wit, the utopian vision, and the pornographic utility of House of Holes all arise from the same fact of its fictional universe: no one is ever really shocked. Obscene declarations of desire are met with unsurprised calm. Sex is never so far out of mind as to be startling or unwelcome. A man, for example, sees a woman browsing in a novelty shop and begins to pant. “When I see someone with a certain kind of beauty,” he tells her, “I can come just looking at her. Would you mind?” Mind? “No, go ahead…. I’ll just be browsing around the store,” she replies.

And this is in the novel’s “real world,” outside the House of Holes, a sort of sex-themed summer camp for heterosexual grown-ups that operates in a different dimension from our universe. On the inside everyone is likewise unflappable, but in the face of more extraordinary activities and revelations. Here’s a House of Holes veteran talking to a relative newcomer:

“You’re a lovely lusty woman and you want to be part of this whole slumber party. You want an ‘experience.’ And you will have that at the House of Holes, believe me….”
“I’ve already gotten shrunk down and squirted out of a man’s urethra.”
“Well then, there you go.”

There’s no such thing as a double take in House of Holes. After reading five or six chapters in a row of people talking this way, you get the dizzying sense that you too might slip into pornographic conversation with the next person you meet.

A world of universal arousal is common enough in pornography, but Baker has fully realized its comic possibilities—specifically, the possibilities that a roomful of horndogs offers for the use of deadpan, comic understatement, and up-tempo romantic repartee. Of course, the novelistic stakes are low—this is not a book invested in psychological realism. Baker can conjure fantastical sexual scenarios and unspool yards of charmingly filthy dialogue without having to worry much about the subtleties of his characters’ inner lives. There are some faint traces of a larger plot (cartoon-style villains to be defeated), but for the most part each chapter is a free-standing pornographic sketch that illuminates some new feature of the House of Holes. Each chapter’s mini-plot hinges on whether and how a character will reach orgasm, and most chapters obligingly end in florid exclamations of pleasure.

Lest this sound like a mere lampoon of a sex colony, be assured that the book is sincerely dirty, the majority of it given over to explicit descriptions of sex acts. Baker’s tightrope walk is to be knowingly funny about his characters’ outlandish escapades—and also about some pornographic conventions—without undercutting the effects of the raunch. His comedy is forgiving: he never derides his sex-hungry characters, nor, by extension, does he ever complicate the specifically erotic interest of the reader with too pointed a joke at his expense.

The only thing that might slow down a reader’s headlong rush to the climax is some of the technical description of procedures offered at HOH, or the occasional mind-bendingly complicated sexual configuration. In this regard Baker’s erotica can be said to be characteristically male: it taxes one’s spatial imagination. There is a scene in Vox, one of his earlier erotic novels, involving three house painters, several roller brushes, gallons of nontoxic paint, and a naked woman bent through a hole in a wall. The sexual choreography is so elaborate that I finally had to give up trying to picture it and skip to the part where the painters ejaculate simultaneously into different parts of the woman’s body.

A small sampling of the attractions at the House of Holes: there’s a hotel where every room has a Sex Now button that will summon an aroused person—male or female—ready to serve at your pleasure; filmmaking facilities where you can make a video of yourself having an orgasm and then secretly watch other people watching your video; a Garden of the Wholesome Delightful Fuckers, where couples copulate “among the palm trees and the bushes” while other people gather to watch; and something called the International Couch, where, in the words of one guest, “a whole lot of women from all countries…[kneel] on this superlong stretch couch with their asses up, waiting, toying with their tender bits, and you get to hump your way right down the line.”

People enter this idyll from the real world by peering into an orifice of some sort—a hole on a putting green, a straw, a circle made by holding together thumb and forefinger, or the urethral opening of one’s own penis. They get sucked down the hole and rematerialize at the House of Holes’s verdant campus, where they promptly have to pay a lot of money in fees or apply for the work-study program. (This is a post-socialist utopia.) There’s a kind of therapeutic element to the place—it’s not just summer camp but also a sex clinic. Many guests arrive with some kind of problem. Dave wants a bigger penis. Henriette has masturbated with a vibrator so often that her clitoris is numb. Wade is too shy to proposition a woman in the real world.

The House can help them all. Their first stop is an intake meeting with the proprietor, Lila. For Dave, she arranges a temporary penis exchange (the technical details are complicated) with an extremely well-endowed HOH guest; for Henriette, a series of erotic—but not orgasm-inducing—treatments to revive the feeling in her clitoris; for Wade—well, Wade is an unusual case: Lila divines that his semen has potential healing qualities that can be tapped if he wears a “sacred healing cloth” around his testicles for twenty-four hours. (“‘If the cloth works as it should,’ said Lila, ‘your new sperm will have the power to reattach human limbs or heads.’ ‘That’s interesting,’ said Wade.”) But in the meantime, Wade “must, absolutely must” immediately get rid of his current crop of sperm by masturbating, which onerous duty is eased by a pretty intern doing a lap dance and by Lila herself, who takes out her enormous breasts for Wade to ejaculate on. One of the book’s amusing recurring scenarios is the moment when Lila tells a client—as gravely as a doctor delivering mixed news—that his problem can be solved only if he submits to some highly erotic procedure. Yes, Jessica, you can have your tattoos removed here, but we warn you—“It involves sex.”

Some of the best moments are the exchanges between ordinary civilians who catch each other’s eye while staying at HOH. Vox and Baker’s other previous erotic novel, The Fermata, also showed a rich, inventive sexual imagination mixed with romantic sweetness, but whether you find the earlier novels truly erotic depends on how you feel about the geeky, plainspoken niceness of their characters. Even the narrator of The Fermata, who had the power to stop time and take off women’s clothing without their knowing it, was nice; one of the jokes of the novel was that when he wasn’t undressing women, he would use his powers for thoughtful things like last-minute Christmas shopping. Here the characters are also very nice to each other, but they are unburdened by individual personalities as they carry out their exquisitely light little games of seduction:

Pendle said, “…I wish I was a man who had a store where he made custom sequin pasties for exotic dancers and you were an exotic dancer and came into the store and ordered a set of spiral pasties and so I had to measure your aureoles for fit.”
“How would you measure them, with a ruler?”
“Probably with my mouth,” said Pendle, “and then I’d measure my mouth with the ruler.”

Were more romantic words ever spoken? Here is a little episode of bedroom farce: a man and a woman meet on the beach at the House of Holes. They can’t resist each other, but she’s married (“I don’t cheat. Much”), so she feels she must call her husband on the phone to let him know what’s going on:

“Honey,” she said, “I’ve met a nice-looking young man on the beach who says he wants to watch me come.” She paused. “I know. I know. Okay. I know. Okay.”

Permission denied, Cardell and Betty (as they’re called) keep talking, and then pretty soon Betty has to make another call to her husband:

“Hon, I’m out on the back deck with Cardell, that’s his name, and I’ve been explaining to him how you and I make love. I know. I know, hon. I know. But he’s gotten a little aroused, the poor boy, as I have, and I wondered if it would be all right if he took out his dick and played with it, just for a moment or two, in a tasteful way, while I continued to tell him about us and what we do, so I thought I should ask you—“
She listened for a moment.
“Okay, no. I understand. Okay.” She clicked the phone off. “He says no. But!” She got a shrewd expression. “He didn’t say you couldn’t do what you need to do in your bathing suit.”

Thus follow several pages of frenetic sexual activity in which Betty and Cardell observe her husband’s prohibition to the letter while running roughshod over its spirit.

Betty and her husband represent about as much resistance as you’ll ever find among the characters at the House of Holes. It hardly needs saying that all the groping and fornication is consensual. Because everyone is always willing, seduction is quick and, in a way, frictionless. The book’s sex is never colored by real-world social relations. There are no chambermaids, whores, virgins, handymen, babysitters, bosses, nurses, teachers, teenagers, uncles, or incestuous couples at the House of Holes—none of the picturesque stock characters, in other words, whose corrupt authority or bashful submission or gleeful abjection lends such haunting piquancy to whatever pornographic stories they star in.

This will feel, to many masturbators, like a loss. But having banished these troubling reprobates from his paradise, Baker can draw a magic circle of wholesomeness around sexual situations that we normally interpret as scenes of defilement. I’m thinking, for example, of the woman in the House of Holes who makes “an emergency top-level request for dick” and welcomes into her hotel room eighteen tumescent men who masturbate over her while the woman exhorts them to “Jerk it out! Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry!” In the cheerful, egalitarian atmosphere of House of Holes, a woman’s desire to be covered in the semen of many men seems as unexceptional as her desire for intercourse or cunnilingus.

We don’t really believe in the fallen woman as a social category (at least not beyond high school), but she continues to be very important to the erotic imagination and she is of course an extremely important character in most pornography. The idea of the slut and of sluttiness are so deeply and pleasurably implicated with our sex fantasies and sex lives that we wouldn’t wish them away. But the specter of the slut is inhibiting even in a relatively permissive culture: it casts a shadow over the quotidian ways in which men and women court and proposition each other. It also makes some acts and scenarios seem beyond the pale—so frequently are they associated with humiliation in pornography that their enactment in life can seem psychologically and physically threatening for many women.

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Drawing by Aubrey Beardsley

House of Holes feels this acutely as a problem. A woman in the novel’s real world asks Pendle why he needs to go to a special place to see a woman naked:

“Can’t you just walk up to a woman and say, ‘I’d like to see you naked?’”
Pendle was scandalized. “No, that would be rude. Plus it wouldn’t work. And anyway I wouldn’t do that unless I wanted to become boyfriend and girlfriend with her, and that sometimes leads down a long and winding road, if you know what I mean.”

The wish behind Baker’s idyll is to be rid of the notion of female sexual abjection. Not only does this allow women greater sexual abandon, the book implies, but it also liberates men: the male characters don’t have to worry about offending or abusing women, nor do they have to worry about calling them for a second date.

For you and me this utopia probably comes too late to improve us. But it has profound possibilities for the education of our offspring. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Baker, his seventeen-year-old son says that he has not read House of Holes and has no plans to read it, at least not while living with his parents. That seems sensible given his circumstances, but for the rest of us, the good news is that there is nothing in House of Holes that we wouldn’t want our youth to read. Indeed it is exactly the sort of filth that you would want them to read first (if you don’t mind exposing them to something so decidedly heterosexual).

In the traditional sex talk, parents don’t say much about pleasure—presumably neither party wants to get into details. But wouldn’t it be nice for parents to have a way to convey our highest ideals on the subject? House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur. You can be sure that no matter what scene your children are masturbating to, they are not objectifying women. But you will have to make sure that they accidentally stumble on it soon, before they find the Internet, if they are to have a fighting chance at being wholesome and delightful fuckers instead of hopelessly depraved ones like yourself.

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