House of Holes – Nicholson Baker
[Simon & Schuster; 2011]
What are we supposed to do with Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, his third and most recent “book of raunch?” In form, this novel is perfect for a New Hampshire library book club. In content, it is begging to be kept behind the counter.
So should I recommend this book to my parents or colleagues? The book opens with a young woman, Shandee, finding a disembodied arm while on a Geology field trip. The arm once belonged to a man named Dave who has temporarily traded it for the considerably larger penis of an Australian photographer. But long before Shandee crosses paths with the rest of Dave in the House of Holes and learns about the peculiar economy of exchange in that institution of ill repute, the arm seduces her and she soon yields to it’s soft, attentive touch. As Kurt Anderson said in a recent interview with Baker, for many people this will be the filthiest book that they have ever read. Yet the prose is buoyant and there is a Calvino-like literary imagination on display. While the ensuing moment of sexual congress is odd, it is also oddly moving and sets the tone for the many forms of coupling and decoupling that are to follow.
Baker is in no rush to provide any sort of grounding mythology that might definitively explain the House of Holes. You simply arrive, entering through any number of mundane holes (straws, a joined thumb and index finger, a hole on the putting green). Once there, you meet Lila, “large and pretty in bifocals, about fifty, with lots of loose light-brown hair.” Lila is the director of the House of Holes. She is a stern administrator, upholding regulations and attempting to manage emergencies such as finding a pilot to fly the “pornsucker ship” to suck all the bad porn out of Baltimore. She is also generous, arranging internships and work-study scholarships for people too poor to afford all that the House of Holes has to offer. The House of Holes is not cheap, nor is it an exclusive preserve of the rich. Perhaps in the economy of desire this is what capitalism with a human face looks like in its most utopian form.
There is no mystery to how nearly all of these chapters are going to end. Someone, or more likely many people, are going yield to the situation and get off. In one such instance Luna agrees to see some Russian music with Chuck, another visitor to the House of Holes. She agrees to go on the date more out of sympathy for him than any genuine desire. They end up in the Velvet Room, “very quiet, very private, and there were two holes in the wall. A strangely shaped low chair was positioned in front of the two holes.” Over the course of a few economical passages Luna reconciles herself to the fact that there is no stage to see, that two dead Russian composers are playing her legs “like the keys of her piano keyboard,” (first with their hands, then with their penises), and that she and Chuck are both about have the best orgasms of their life. Luna concludes the date: “Thank you for the lovely concert of Russian piano music.”
This pattern of accepting a normally bizarre situation en route to orgasm structures most of the episodes in House of Holes and in many writers’ hands this would result in 262 pages as taxing to write as to read. Indeed, it is impressive that this is Baker’s third book of erotic fiction (following Vox and Fermata). The reason that he is more successful than most in this endeavor is the unfailingly celebratory tone of the book. The ground rules that are set between people are nearly always respected and require a large degree of mutuality and sympathy between the players. If someone needs to temporarily lose their head, their finger, or their balls in order to uphold the division of sexual labor in the House of Holes they do so willingly. We do not want to diagnose this world for symptoms of polymorphous perversity, but rather can look admiringly upon these bizarre forms of human cooperation.
It is an understatement to say that House of Holes is a sex-positive piece of erotic fiction. It is this celebratory tone and general spirit of mutuality that led Elaine Blair to ask “wouldn’t it be nice for parents to have a way to convey our highest ideals on the subject? House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur.” Indeed, college orientation leaders and RAs would do well to commit some of these possibilities to memory and keep a copy of House of Holes close to hand. A timely intervention may go a long way in furthering the mission of the “pornsucker ship” and suck all Girls Gone Wild copies off of our campuses.