Hello, Mr. Baker. ... I know you're out of town, but I'm alling to set up, well, yes: a phone interview. You'll probably be getting lots of those. But hopefully, we can do this with dignity and, well, some intelligence. ... I'll be in on Monday, and we can talk about talking... .

Martha Sherrill, it's Nick Baker calling. Uhmmmm. ... It's Monday morning at 10:20. I'd love to do an interview. Call when you want to set things up.

"I always have better conversations on the phone," he says, "or driving in cars."

"Why?" she asks. "Because there's some distraction? Because you're not really facing the person?"

"Right," he says. "I'm basically the scared, rabbity type. When you're looking at the windshield wipers go back and forth, you can say things. The conversation has more freedom. You can slip easily into whatever subject is adjacent, you know, whereas when you're face-to-face there are these moments where you both can get sort of hydroplaned up into a good conversation but then you're stabbing the Caesar salad and it doesn't work as well somehow."

"I've found that very late at night, after dinner, it's good," she says, "sitting around, when you get too tired to be thinking anymore."

"Right. One person's lying on the floor or somebody's propped up. That can work too," he says. "And usually at that point somebody is maybe flinging around a book or a rubber band or something, and they're essentially duplicating the phone ideal or the car ideal of no eye contact and idle thinking... ."

"There is always this feeling of what you can get away with saying and what you can't," she says. "But if I started to ask you a bunch of questions about what your house looks like and what you're wearing ... if I dove into questions about what you're doing right now and where you're sitting, all of a sudden it becomes more uncomfortable. Doesn't it?"

"Well, there's a spin on it that wouldn't normally be there," he says, "because of the book."

The conversation of a lifetime. Intimacy, distance, no distraction. In Nicholson Baker's new novel, "Vox," due out soon, the conversation takes five hours and costs $1.90 per minute. Abby and Jim live across the country from each other, but meet on a phone sex line -- a 900 number -- where, while the meter's running, the conversation of a lifetime swerves to, well, ah, to the goal, really, of any novel with a plot: a climax.

It's written entirely in dialogue, and with a cheerful sense of humor, despite the darker implications of two single people calling "2 VOX," a sex exchange. Jim calls a certain part of his body "my Werner Heisenberg." He admits to a fantasy involving Tinker Bell. ("She's got quite small breasts but quite large little hips, and large little thighs, and she's wearing this tiny outfit... .") Abby describes her fantasy of being painted -- not brushes, but rollers -- with the Sherwin-Williams color "Paper Lantern."

These two intelligent characters theorize about sex while they're having it.

Baker has been respected and praised -- for his stories in the Atlantic and the New Yorker, for his other books, "The Mezzanine" and "Room Temperature" and "U and I" -- but now ...

"Are you a little worried about the reaction to the book?" she asks. "That the world is going to think of you as some sort of male Erica Jong?"

"Well, I am curious," he says. "I don't think it's going to make me famous. I don't know what's going to happen. A male Erica Jong is a new one."

"That was horrible, wasn't it?" she says.

"No, it wasn't. It wasn't at all," he says.

"It just came out of my head."

"The thing is," he says, "these characters really aren't very promiscuous, and they aren't really celebrating. I mean, they're rather un-promiscuous, so they really have to kind of struggle to get to things that are slightly kinky, you know?"

"They seem very likable," she says.

"I didn't mean the book to be shocking at all," he says, "except insofar as the two characters would create conversational moments in which they could then shock each other, and the witnessing of that reciprocal shock would be pleasing to the reader. But I didn't want the reader to kind of recoil and say, Oh God, that's a sexual practice I've never seen before. I wanted the thing to, the final sex -- such as it is that they have -- to be very normal stuff, not really wild in any direction. But that's the way sex is mostly. 'The Mezzanine' was interested in taking a typical lunch hour and finding the little secret vaults of interest that might reside in it, and here I was taking what I thought to be a kind of typical sexual experience and finding all kinds of hidden -- not perversities -- oddities. But I didn't really answer your question about whether the book is going to get me into trouble."

Baker's first book, "The Mezzanine," was published in 1988 to great acclaim. It was shocking mostly for what it didn't have: dialogue, plot, sex. Most of it -- chapter after chapter after chapter -- takes place over one lunch hour, on an escalator and in an office men's room. Nothing much happens. A pair of shoelaces break. The steps of an escalator keep opening up, then flattening again. It's 135 pages, mostly virtuoso descriptions and tour de force ponderings about: the escalator, the men's room, industrial hand towel dispensers, the broken shoelaces.

It's riveting.

"U and I: A True Story" is about John Updike. It's a wandering, self-conscious essay about Baker's obsession with Updike, and about his need to say something about him even though he hasn't read half of Updike's books, and refused to reread anything for the essay. It's not a scholarly take. It's about what remains with you, after you've read the books.

"I remember almost nothing of what I read," Baker writes. "What once was 'Portrait of a Lady' is now for me only a plaid lap-blanket bobbing on the waves; 'Anna Karenina' survives as a picnic basket containing a single jar of honey... ."

Updike is only Updike as remembered. Like Baker's other books, it's a slow, Proustian study of mental processes and the vagaries of memory. Updike might as well be a madeleine. "Hardly a day has passed over the last thirteen years," Baker writes, "in which Updike has not occupied at least a thought or two; and while his constant summonings were at the outset brought on more by skeptical ambition than by simple enjoyment, the enjoyment and admiration were there as well."

In "Vox," the description is less external than internal. It's not about sex as much as arousal. It's about the odd circuitry, the bizarre processes, the funny images and tidbits that flash and buzz through the noggin of somebody becoming sexually aroused. It's about certain pages of a lingerie catalogue, certain adult movies, certain memories, the sensation of simply touching a woman's wrist ...

Jim says to Abby: "I used to think when I was little of swimming up toward the surface holding a woman in trouble and letting her use my scuba mouthpiece, and carrying her up on the boat and taking off her wet cold wetsuit and toweling her off as she got her breath and shook her head at her close call."

Abby says to Jim: "I imagine myself flying miles above the earth, very cold, and one of those black secret spy planes is up there with the huge round engines with the spinning blades in it, the blades that look like the undersides of mushrooms? The black plane's going very fast and I'm going very fast in the opposite direction and we intersect, and I fly right through one of those jet engines, and I exit as this long fog of blood."

Jim says: "There are strong evolutionary pressures on fantasies, aren't there? If it doesn't work, and if it doesn't metamorphose itself into something that does work, it doesn't survive."

"Did you call one of those 900 numbers to try this out?" she asks. "Or to listen in on people having phone sex conversations?"

"Well, I did a little of it," he says. "I thought it would destroy the mood to do it while I was writing the book."

"So, you did it beforehand?"

"No, I didn't really do it a lot beforehand, but after," he says. "It was a very odd experience to call the numbers themselves after having written this baroque conversation and then hear the actual stuff, which is very basic, you know."

"Yeah," she says. "I'm sure a lot less fascinating. I've never listened to -- "

"Well, fascinating in other ways," he says, "but it's not, I didn't hear anything like this... ."

"But what gave you the idea to write about phone sex?" she asks. "Were you looking for a way to prove you could do dialogue? A book of incredible conversation? Or were you wanting to write a book about sex, and the phone was the vehicle?"

"I think," he says, "the mid-thirties are the time to write about sex."

"Why?" she asks.

"Well, I don't know. There's just a logic to it. There seems to be a fading progression of books that one has inside. {In "Vox"}, the man talks about the woman's ovums -- you know, how she has them queued up -- and I feel them queued up in the same way, and as you unload one whole set of, well, one book's worth of information, the equilibrium of the whole changes and you have to then move over to the other side of the freighter -- he says, mixing his metaphors. I moved from ovums to freighters.

"And a sex book," he continues, "seemed like the only possible next book."

Last week, he turned 35.

His voice sounds like it parades up a long and narrow windpipe. It starts deep and gets higher-pitched as it comes, turning tight at the mouth. It's the voice of either a particular person trying to be loose or a loose person trying to be particular. He succeeds at both. He is obliging and game and funny.

He describes:

He is sitting in his strata-lounger, he says, and it's reclined. He's in his office, on the first floor of his Victorian house on a quiet street in the quiet town of Mount Morris, south of Rochester, N.Y. He is looking out the window of his house -- the curtain is raised, revealing a leafless lilac tree and a neighbor's porch.

Inside his "messy" and "squalid" office, there's a Canon copier, a computer screen about five feet from his eyes (a distance calculated not to make him more nearsighted), a pale blue blanket that he sometimes uses in the middle of the night when he comes downstairs to write in his pajamas. There's a marble chute too, that he made from toilet paper tubes and paper towel tubes and wrapping paper tubes for his 4-year-old daughter, Alice. It runs from the second floor down, over the door into the office, across a bookcase, and empties into a little bowl.

Originally, he wanted to be an inventor. He wanted to have his own mobile chemistry lab when he was in 4th grade. "Then I gradually realized the arts were easier," he says. He played the bassoon for years and wanted to be a composer. He even had a little stint as a substitute bassoonist for the Rochester Philharmonic.

"But essentially I'm a scientist," he says, "who happens to write prose better than I can solve differential equations."

He became interested in writing when he heard his mother laugh uncontrollably one Sunday afternoon, while she was reading John Updike's essay on golf. In "U and I," he wrote: "My mother's delight that Sunday had no charity or encouragement in it: it was miraculous, sourced in the nowhere of print, unaided by ham mannerism; it caused her to spill her tea."

His house is painted Sherwin-Williams "Kiwi" -- "not the berry," he says, "but the more tasteful shorebird." The strata-lounger is brown. The carpet in his office is gray. His shirt is green-and-white striped. His V-neck sweater is charcoal. His J. Crew pants were described, unfortunately, in the London Times last year as "purple" even though Baker believes them to be closer to "aubergine."

He is home alone. His wife, Margaret Brentano, has taken Alice to the library, and then they are doing errands. The family has lived in Mount Morris since 1988, but will be moving to Berkeley, Calif., soon -- where Margaret's father, it so happens, teaches medieval history.

Baker is drinking coffee from a cup and saucer. "I went through the mug enthusiasm, and now I'm beyond it," he says. He changes cups and saucers now with each new writing project. It's a thing of his. When he was writing "Vox" he used a cup "with an ochre-colored diamondy-looking Victorian cast-iron-fence pattern," he says. "But I didn't want the cup and saucer to match. I experimented with a number of different saucers."

He says that he looks "basically like the publicity photos. I've got a beard and I'm balding and I've got these wire-rim glasses. I'm thin. Skinny. Quite thin." He is 6-foot-4, maybe 5. And he doesn't want to talk about his shoes.

"Why? Slippers?" she asks.

"No," he says.

"You won't talk about your shoes?" she asks.

"You're getting me to say so much," he says. "Do you really want to know? You probably won't use this, anyway."

"No, I will use it, are you kidding?" she says. "I'll tell you what I've got on. I have on a pair of white deck shoes that are incredibly dirty and have been washed badly and put in the dryer a bunch of times."

"I mean, shoes are so personal," he says.

"But why?"

"They're just personal," he says, "because of a nonsexual embarrassment. I have kind of an odd form of arthritis that is in various joints in my legs, and it has also gone into my feet. And it's made me have to graduate to a Size 14 shoe, which is big. So I have to, so I've been having to order from the Big and Tall catalogues, you know? And you get the Big and Tall catalogue kind of taste. Anyway, I'm wearing a pair of New Balance, basically running shoes, that are not a pretty sight."

"Why, because they're huge?"

"Because they're huge and they seem to be more comfortable than anything else that I have. I've been wearing them in snow and sleet and everything ... these just fit right. No others. I always was contemptuous of people who had foot problems, so it's somewhat painful for me to talk about."

He says he's an exhibitionist. Baker confesses things in his books, which he says until "Vox" are largely autobiographical, and demonstrates a fascination for anything immensely personal and embarrassing. In "Room Temperature," 116 pages of musings and observations during the 20 minutes it takes for a father to give his baby daughter a bottle, there's an investigation of nose picking: "A certain amount of daily maintenance work on the interior of the nose was necessary, physically necessary, simply to avoid panicky feelings of claustrophobia, especially in the dry winter months. Those high hardened ridges had to be removed."

In "The Mezzanine," there's a chart of he character's thoughts per year: his girlfriend (580 times), his family (400), brushing his tongue (150), earplugs (100), "McCartney, more talented than Lennon?" (23), urge to kill (13), "Friends smarter, more capable than I am" (19), "Friends are unworthy of me" (15), and Immanuel Kant (.5).

In "U and I," he says: "I myself have never successfully masturbated to Updike's writing."

"You seem to be attracted to things that are embarrassing to most people," she says.

"Yeah," he says, "because they're the most human. Those are the things that we've secretly thought about enough that we have complicated notions about them, you know. The embarrassments just have a longer shelf life in the mind, so they accumulate."

"Why is that, though?" she asks. "Because we don't talk about it, so it keeps spinning around in our heads?"

"Yeah, and we keep working on it," he says, "and we don't have enough public information, and so we develop eccentric little theories about it."

"Like," she says, "theories about nose picking and -- "

"Yeah, right. DON'T," he says. "I mean, that's so embarrassing. A lot of the stuff, I have to tell you, is really much too embarrassing to talk about in an interview or in public. But a book is different, you know. A book is very private. The relationship that I have with a page is very private, and then the reader's relationship with the book is very private, so those things can be said. And the embarrassment of aunts and uncles and grandparents just doesn't exist while you're writing. It exists later, when you publicize it."

"Is your family embarrassed by this book?"

"Well, my parents haven't read it yet," he says. "But the terrible revelation if you're a parent is that your child is evil or malicious or violent in some way. So if it just turns out that they have a sex life, that's not so bad. But I think you've got a legitimate question there, earlier, about what were my motives in writing the book. Was I interested in having a different kind of success? I suppose I was. Well, I don't think I could have written this book first -- you know, I had to have written about nonsexual things before I could write about the thing dearest to my heart."