It’s tempting to imagine Nicholson Baker’s agent, upon reading the manuscript of “House of Holes,” nervously saying, “It’s very funny and original, Nick, but how are they going to review it when they’ll barely be allowed to quote from it?”
This consistently raunchy novel is, among other things, a test for critics — and for readers. One suspects it was partly a test for the writer as well. We live in a country where sex surrounds and frenzies us, yet each new political sex scandal is received with piety, sorrow and outrage. As in most areas of life, we seem to want it both ways.
Baker wants it all ways. He wants to provoke and delight and excite, but he also wants to write literature. Oh, and funny literature, no less. As a miniaturist who made his name with the novels “The Mezzanine” and “Room Temperature,” which mostly take place over the course of, respectively, an escalator ride and a bottle-feeding session between a father and his baby daughter, Baker dwelled joyfully in the depth of a protracted moment.
Later, he produced the slender, clever, phone-sex novel “Vox,” and then the maddening “The Fermata,” in which his protagonist, who possesses the ability to freeze a moment in time while remaining unfrozen himself, uses his skill to do dirty things to and around women.
The copulator and the onanist are all over literature. To this day, though, readers aren’t exactly sure what to think about so-called “literary” books in which sex plays a central role. Uneasiness and mortification set in. The resistance can come from prudishness or suspicions of immaturity or sexism, but also from the concern that sex can be an artistic dead end, a subject about which readers know so much from their own experience that they don’t imagine someone like Baker can say anything new.
It turns out that he can. “House of Holes” takes place in and around the fantastical sexual theme-park/resort of the book’s title. Baker has a grand time depicting the ways that unsuspecting people enter this phantasmagorical (and very expensive) world: “In the Rooster personals an ad caught his eye. It said, ‘Are you able to enter an alternative universe? . . . Good money, pleasant living quarters, must like naked people and be willing to relocate.’ There was a small round black circle at the bottom of the ad — no address or phone given.
“Pendle peered closely at the ad, and suddenly he felt a powerful air current pulling his hair and the whole of his head downward. He was vacuumed down into the black circle . . . and when he came to he was in Lila’s office. Lila was the director of the House of Holes.”
Or, “She saw a pepper grinder in the middle of the table, and while they talked about the price of tires she unscrewed the little knob on the top. . . . And then the pepper grinder got bigger and she jumped down into it and fell through tumbling peppercorns. . . .
“Then she was herself again, but standing on the porch outside the House of Holes.”
The novel captures the craziness and reduction to babbling babyishness of people experiencing surreal acts of sexual pleasure. Instead of employing only the same old vocabulary of porn (though that’s here too, used liberally and often satirically), Baker has added quite a few neologisms, including the “Porndecahedron,” a many-manyplex in which the viewer gets buckled into a chair in order to watch bits of porn above and below and all around. The catalogue of sex acts and names for body parts and objects in this book is sometimes brilliant and sometimes irritating. Its hit-or-miss nature isn’t surprising, given the high volume of invention.
The plot is minimal, concerning various characters’ wild and hallucinatory adventures at the House of Holes, which is run by the previously mentioned Lila, described as “large and pretty in bifocals, about fifty, with lots of loose light-brown hair.” The bifocals are a Baker touch: Just when things seem too strange, he reminds us of the ordinary humanness of sex, only to make us forget it again moments later.
People get sucked into the House of Holes in order to have new and outrageous experiences, and the same is true for the reader, who will have to suspend the desire for plot, real characterization and a semblance of familiarity (this is one of the least novel-like novels around), though in exchange gets something almost indescribable.
The prose is unflinchingly graphic throughout. It can be obsessive in the way that pornography can be, but virtually every page offers something smart and amusing, and sometimes there are little jolts of true tenderness. Baker uniquely scratches various itches, running from place to place as he sorts out the different sensations experienced by his many “characters,” though that word must be used loosely because, on purpose, no one emerges as an actual fleshed-out person here — just a very lively, and often very aroused, cartoon character. As a result, the book reads like good-natured, priapic, free-form performance art.
As tense as readers can be about sex in fiction, they can be equally tense about humor in fiction. They tend to want literary types to be literary, and humorous types to be humorous. When a writer starts playing for both teams, they get nervous. “House of Holes” is a nervous-making book in this way as well. What’s the meaning of all this shtick, the reader may wonder, thinking with some nostalgia of that sweet, long-ago escalator ride in “The Mezzanine.”
But sex is a valid, even profound topic for a novel, for it can show us who we are when we think almost no one else is watching. And humor is an essential ingredient for such a book, too, if only because without it, we’d be lost. “House of Holes,” though exhausting, is full of fearlessness, cheerfulness, wit and brio.
Shame, refreshingly, gets little play.
Wolitzer’s most recent novel is “The Uncoupling.”
HOUSE OF HOLES
: A Book of Raunch
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster. 262 pp. $25