Book of Raunch
A Review of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes
By Steven Axelrod
House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s new “Book of Raunch,” as he calls it, is an impish, jaunty circus of sex, a porn film directed by Jacques Tati, a Broadway extravaganza devised by Kenneth Tynan and Julia Taymor – with puppets!
In a world where sex is either furtive, tracked along the deleted search histories of internet porn, crudely commodified in the sterile ardor of beer commercials, or simply forbidden and demonized (abstinence education in school), or else lost in the dray horse drudgery of daily life; where even commercials for sex performance drugs show couples in separate bathtubs, or men alone solving other intractable problems (broken sailboats and mud-locked horse trailers), this book has a revolutionary message: sex is fun, sex is funny, sex is the essence of living and we spurn it at our peril.
Slithering through pin holes and the back of industrial washing machines and any other orifice the physical world provides, the characters in Baker’s book travel from the chilly world of dating and day jobs where sex is rarely even discussed to The House of Holes, a bizarre carnival world where no one talks about anything else. Even the tradesmen are sexual: the ass-infused wooden bowl makers and collectors of wet dream memories
The House of Holes – actually a fairly extensive estate — is a magical Oz of oral gratification and glandular gusto, run by a Wizard named Lila. Sex is everything on that piece of surreal estate, along with the bizarre buccaneering intimacy that unbridled sex creates. Do you want to trade your arm for someone else’s penis? No problem. And rest assured the arm will have quite a few erotic adventures of its own, before the ultimate reunion. Do you want your legs massaged by the cocks of dead Russian composers? Got it. Do you want your ass inflated, your clitoris restored, or your sex organs changed out with a beautiful woman so she can fuck you with your own dick? It’s a snap. Do you want your tattoos removed sexually, in order to achieve authentic nakedness? Who doesn’t?.
Of course it costs money. Lila is a shrewd businesswoman who keeps stringent records and demands payment to the last penny. Or you can work your debt off in service – there are lots of services required at he House of Holes, from allowing your head to (temporarily) removed so a woman can have an uncomplicated fuck, to washing penises and maintaining the masturboats on the lake, which seems to be made up of some moisture cream-like substance that increases sexual pleasure when applied to the vagina. Well of course. Just watch out for the Cock Ness monster. And the pornmonster, a mutant creature that lives in a huge underground tank, multiplying and deforming and growing as the good soldiers of the House scour up the bad pornography in the world and dump it in the toxic sex slurry on the estate. But even this many tentacled, multi-erogenous glob of undifferentiated desire can be tamed by a good woman and a little wholesome sexual attention.
So what’s the difference between the bad porn the troops of the pornsucker squadron relentlessly hoover up from the net and the newsstands, and the obvious prurience of Lila’s kingdom? A sense of humor: there’s a joy and mischief in the activities at the House of Holes that stands in sharp contrast to the drab mechanical fetishism of average x-rated stash. Part of the humor comes from everyone’s cavalier, blasé response to Lila’s world. A disembodied arm is fondling you? Well, yeah. A woman pulls a silver egg, with a tiny man and woman having sex inside it, out of her vagina? Why not? A man wants to let his borrowed female sex organs give an interview by inserting the microphone? How else? I thought it was especially charming that the while the woman, named Luna, is having her thighs rubbed by the cocks of the Russian composers, Baker tells us, “Her main thought was, boy am I glad I shaved my legs this morning.”
Other thoughts might have occurred to the average person, but the House of Holes seems to instill a blissful jaded approach to the most inexplicable and even aw-inspiring events. You expect to commune with another person’s soul by walking in their footprints on a beach, you expect to change your penis size, or be trapped in a man’s penis and surf the ejaculation back into the world. Still, some requests are too much even for the House of Holes. When a man named Pendle wants literally every woman in the world to see his dick, and suggests making a movie of him masturbating, and “projecting it on the moon,” Lila demurs. ‘Not our style,” she says. “But I like your ambition.”
To evoke this paradise of prong and pudenda, Baker invents a whole new vocabulary, a new language of lust: vaginas become famished slut slots clit hoods and snatch patches, gasping pussyholes and slippy sloppy fuck fountains; cocks become thunderbolts of dickmeat, cock trains, ham steaks and meat sticks and blood-pulsing truncheons. One man notably reaches into his shorts and pulls out his “Malcolm Gladwell.” The House of Holes has its own armory of strange sexual devices, whose use and purposes I’ll let you guess from the names alone: the Pussy Cradle, the Bag of Bras, the Silky Flesh Communicator, the Belt of Jiggly Bells and the Healthy Cloth of Ka-Chiang.
Read this paragraph aloud to get a sense of the exuberance of Baker’s prose, detailing the Dave’s first sex with Shandee, after getting his wayward arm and his time-share traded penis back on his reassembled body:
Suddenly, Glenn’s orgasm slammed into gear, and he threw the first hot clot of a busted nut load of jizzling twizerling sperm up inside her. Shandee let out a ragged joyous screamy cry of pure consummated cockfuckedfullness. Then she said to Dave, “Dave, I’m ready to tug you off onto my lips. Come on these lips, these Terranova lips that will always be true to you.” She saw his eyes meet hers and his hands – the one she knew and the one she didn’t – hold her head. She said “I’m going to jack off your beautiful real Dave cock onto my face now – oh my God, it’s never been this good.” And suddenly Dave bucked in her hands, and she felt a Tuilleries Garden of manly Dave-jizm leap onto her forehead and then again on her cheek and her neck. She was dripping with one perfect man’s cockjuice, and she loved it so much that when Glenn touched her clit with his thumb she wonked down full force on his restored dickitude and that was enough to start the Atlas Shrug shudderation of arrival that made her shiver her way through the seven, eight, nine, twelve seconds of worldwide interplanetary flux of orgasmic strobing happy unmatched tired coughing ebbing thrilled spent ecstasy.
The House of Holes invokes a joyous world with few obstacles and no consequences, apart from temporary ones. This creates a problem for Baker, since most fiction involves people struggling to get what they want against the efforts of other people, the world at large and even their own conflicted natures. The other people here are up for anything, there is no outside world and no one has any doubt or ambivalence about the pleasure they’re chasing.
With the characters, sketched in only in terms of their libidos, Baker has set himself a difficult task, working without most of the novelist’s standard tools. Absent any fully realized characters to draw us in, and a plot full of escalating risk and urgency to pull us along, Baker is forced to rely on the set pieces of his imagination and the thrill of his language. To say it almost pulls it off is high praise, indeed.
And even if the book’s giddy but static sexual derangement ultimately becomes reductive, the writing has enough gleeful prurient energy to make the journey more than worthwhile. After all, the book does what it sets out to do: it delivers its message of liberation, it turns you on, and it makes you laugh out loud – often, all at the same time.
I don’t think Nicholson Baker could ask for any more than that.