Nicholson Baker's new novel is a bizarre riff on pornographic themes. The problem is it's just not creepy enough...
July 20, 2011
House of HolesBy Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)

“She went to a quarry with her Geology 101 class…It was vast and they dug granite there, mostly for tombstones…She turned away from the edge, and that's when she saw a hand poking out from behind a rock.” This may sound like the starting point of a murder mystery or a horror story, but in Nicholson Baker's new novel, House of Holes, the detached arm turns out to be a sentient sex-toy. It invites the woman to follow it.

As anybody who's fallen in love with a beauty or taken care of a toddler knows, people obsessed with their own desires can be irresistibly charming. Baker has made his literary career out of expatiating on his offbeat interests. His first novel, The Mezzanine, which appeared in 1988, has the slimmest of narrative threads: a office worker goes shopping for shoelaces during his lunch hour. Meanwhile he muses on the technology of escalators, the history of drinking straws, and much else. Part of the fun of the book is Baker's delight in language; he stretches out his sentences, always ready to toss in a a bonus metaphor or a nugget of recherché vocabulary. The structure is ingenious, replete with footnotes; he studied music, and the text feels composed and orchestrated.

Two books later came his crossover success, Vox. The entire novel consists of a long-distance conversation between a man and a woman, talking on an “adult” phone line. They are young, lonesome, yearning to connect. Sex is their topic of choice; he makes up erotic stories to please her. The novel is a tour de force, touching, funny and, yes, a turn-on. It is said that Monica Lewinsky gave a copy to President Clinton.

Baker’s subsequent novel, The Fermata, divided readers. The premise is that the narrator has a superpower enabling him to freeze-frame the world, while he alone is able to roam. He uses this gift not to bring about peace or make a fortune, but to undress women and have his way with them. He uses this power to further his romance with a co-worker in his office. Seriously creepy, yes, but the hero is aware of this and is trying, in a confused way, to behave morally.

After the success of these two works Baker was (as he said in an interview) “pretty much sexed out.” Over the next decade and a half he published a variety of fiction and non-fiction, ranging from a novel in the voice of a nine-year-old girl to a lamentation on the passing of the card catalogue.

And what now? Whither beckons the detached hand? On the title page, House of Holes is denominated an “Entertainment.” A cast of characters is enticed into the eponymous resort—more purgatory than paradise—where, in order to pay for their pleasures, some of the clients have to temporarily surrender body-parts. Baker riffs on pornographic themes; there is much description of genitalia in action, often referred to by whimsical pet-names. Some of the males, called Deprivos, consent to serve as sex-objects; at the most extreme, women obtain the services of headless men.

The novel is made of up separate episodes. For example a woman at an airport security check is told, "I'm sorry, but we've determined that your clitoris is not a carryon item. It's swollen and oversized, and it's over the weight limit, and it's a security threat, and I'm going to have to remove it now." And a man, peering into his striped boxer shorts, beholds a miniature woman who shouts, "Welcome to the House of Holes. I'm here stuck in your penis for some reason."

The problem with this work is not that it's too creepy and obsessed, but that it's not creepy and obsessed enough. In contrast to the sustained conceits of Vox and The Fermata, here we are given an assemblage of fragments, none of them thought through in depth, with a few recurring characters and the loosest of connecting plots. I suspect that Baker had Gogol's novella The Nose in mind. There, a man's nose goes AWOL and ventures out on its own. Gogol conjures up and critiques Tsarist St Petersburg, whereas Baker's novel doesn't have much to say about contemporary America. For a reader unfamiliar with his oeuvre, this would not be the one to begin with. It will appeal only to the Nicholson Baker completist, and to the special reader attuned to his penchants and sense of humour.

“Whatever I get into, I get really into,” Baker once said in an interview. I wonder what he'll be obsessed with next.