Coming Attractions

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…

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