With Fifty Shades of Grey giving pornography a bad name, it's time to turn to Nicholson Baker's The House of Holes. Unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, the prose in House of Holes in skillful, inventive, and playful.
This book is fun to read; it is fun for the lighthearted and imaginative sex, and its ever-bubbling imagination and use of language. The plot is episodic. There is an overarching story of the character Dave's Arm reuniting with Dave, but basically it is divided into many short chapter-length adventures with intermittently recurring characters. The House of Holes itself is a fantastic resort estate spacious and sunny, and the managers and staff of the resort play deus ex machina to resolve several crises, often with somewhat ritualistic healing powers. The characters are not stereotypes, but they are not deeply drawn. They are, mostly good-looking, unattached 20- or 30-somethings (no one under age) pining for erotic romance. Men and women are equally present, equally thoughtful and randy, equally initiators of action. They have a range of longings, needs, quirks, and oddities that distinguishes them and involves the reader in various ways. The sex is almost all heterosexual, with a few woman and woman bits, and a few gentle touches of S&M. The text is primarily action described from an omniscient third person point of view but the dialogue has what I would call a flirty, mischievous banality.
Here's an excerpt, which describes some paintings, but that gives a feel for the characterization:
They [five paintings] were all of women sitting on chairs wearing pants but not wearing anything over their breasts. Some sat relaxedly, some seemed tense. It caught something unusual in their expressions, which were sad and human.
This dialogue follows:
“I like their faces,” Jessica said.
“Thanks, will you excuse me for a moment? My underpants are wet with my come, and I am just going to take them off and throw them out.”
Bosco went into the back and reemerged in a few minutes…
“Do you offer a modeling fee she asked?’ in order to preserve her dignity.
“Name it,” he said.
“When I modeled for the photographer, he paid me $200.”
He shook his head. "I'll sell the painting for eight thousand, of which the gallery will take fifty percent. So, I will gross four thousand dollars. Nothing that I paint would exist without your beauty. How about 2000 for you, 2000 for me?”
She thought. “That’s generous. But sure, yes.” He nodded. “Good. Now?”
She took a moment to reflect. “I’m kind of sweaty from walking,” she said.
Baker’s imagination and verbal inventiveness are ever present in this book. They are present for instance in the way people arrive at the House of Holes.
“Any hints on where to find a porthole?”
“Try the fourth dryer from the left of the laundromat on the corner of 18th St. and Grover Avenue,” said Jackie she waved. “Bye.”
Her face began to blur and liquefied, and then she poured herself down into her straw and was gone.
Cardell picked up the straw and look through it. There was no blockage. “Jackie?” He said. The bartender stood watching him, holding a glass. “What just happened?” Cardell said.
“Your lady friend seems to have been sucked into her straw,” the bartender said.
That’s what I think, too,” Cardell said.
The bartender shrugged. “It happens, man.”
Note also the meticulous punctuation.
It's hard to write well about actual sex, as any of you who have tried know, and Baker does it with apparent graceful ease.
Separation of parts from bodies is a common event in this book, which I don’t believe appears in most people’s erotic fantasies. Besides arms, and penises, of course, vaginas, and separately clitorises, heads, and other parts are painlessly detached, skillfully maintained, and ritually reunited. I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that the person who obsessively snatches clitorises, has a change of heart and returns them to their owners.
In his long and thoughtful review of Fifty Shades of Grey in New York Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/07/fifty-shades-grey-why-so-popular/?pagination=false), the distinguished critic Tim Parks attributes a substantial part of its popularity to the mixture of guilt and pleasure. That is, the characters and actions are so constructed that people can indulge in mildly S&M sex and at the same time feel bad about what they’re doing. Thus, they satisfy themselves in forbidden pleasures while maintaining the moral structure they believe in that sustains their self-image. The House of Holes gets a similar effect in a different way. In the House of Holes, it's all innocent fun.
This sense of fun made me puzzle a little about Baker’s lengthy and public admiration for John Updike. I have never been comfortable with Updike’s attitude towards sex, which seems to me to be squeamish and guilty in a way that denigrates pleasure. I remember two characters talking in his novel Couples, where among some suburban neighbors most of the heterosexual combinations have been guiltily realized. At one point a mopey woman is dancing with a man who has not shown interest in her, and she asks something like “Why don’t you want to fuck me?” I answered in my mind, 'because, in Updike, sex is no fun'. Quite the contrary in the House of Holes.