When Nicholson Baker stopped writing about sex after Vox and The Fermata, I thought he'd lost his nerve; now he has returned to it with House of Holes, I fear he's lost his mind. What was so impressive about Baker's previous sexually explicit work (only part of a wide-ranging oeuvre) was that the transgression took place within a thought-out narrative structure. Vox, written entirely in dialogue, contained long male and female fantasies exchanged on a phone-line as they progressed towards mutual satisfaction (the book gained notoriety when Monica Lewinsky made a gift of it to Bill Clinton). The Fermata was a bawdy take on Wells's The Time Machine, featuring a narrator, Arno Stine, who stopped time to undress women without their consent - which he slowly realised was a bad idea.
House of Holes tries to repeat the trick, using the popular science-fiction concept of alternative universes to create a parallel world in which people endlessly participate in elaborate and peculiar sexual scenarios. The book begins with Shandee discovering a sentient disembodied arm that once belonged to man named Dave. Dave gave up his arm at a place called the House of Holes in exchange for a thicker penis. The arm communicates to Shandee that if she lets it masturbate her, it will take her to the house of holes. She agrees. Before we find out what happens to Shandee, we witness a man named Ned climbing through a hole on a golf course. When he too arrives at the House of Holes, he is greeted by a woman employed to sniff and juggle men's testicles to test for magic sperm.
Once inside the House of Holes we are introduced to a variety of characters and scenarios, including "Masturboats" (sic); a "Pussy Cradle"; two long-dead Russian composers who rub their genitals against the feet of a willing woman; penis sandals; "headless bedrooms" (men with their heads removed) and the "Squat Line" (don't ask). When Shandee arrives, she goes to see Lila, the director, taking Dave's arm with her. Lila is experiencing serious problems: a woman called the "Pearloiner" has been stealing clitorises, and she's worried about her deputies' mission "to suck all the bad porn out of Baltimore".
Dave shows up, sans arm, just past the midway mark, having tested out his new giant member. Baker utilises an enormous number of euphemisms for sex organs, perhaps the best being a reference to Dave's penis as "his Malcolm Gladwell". As the sex scenes mount up, the book grows steadily more grotesque. The conclusion involves the hatching of a silver egg. Frankly, by that point, I was past caring.
The purpose of this smutty gibberish isn't clear. Baker does seem to capture what a world based only on the fulfilment of frustrated desire might be like, but while Vox and The Fermata were playfully erotic, there is something heavy-handed about this strange third volume. Baker has commented on the responses of his long-suffering family to his more explicit writing, and I couldn't help feeling sorry for anyone close to him while reading this. He sets himself in opposition to "bad porn", with one character noting that all you need for good pornography is "a pretty smiley woman having fun and a dude with a hard dick who isn't fat", which seems fair enough. But far too many of Baker's sexual sequences conclude with endless money-shots, or "the long warm twitch of liberated jizm". To which one can only respond: put it away, Nicholson.
Matt Thorne's 'Cherry' is published by Phoenix