American author and essayist Nicholson Baker is known for a few disparate things. The two most frequently discussed are his metaphor-bursting prose and his love of sex. His sexual obsessions are the more lurid – and the more fun – because of that sparkling style, a comic-intellectual monologue that sees the everyday in unusual ways. His breakout novel, The Mezzanine (1988), was an experiment in the observation of the minute: The entire book takes place over one office escalator ride, in which the strangely sensual pleasures of shiny rubber handgrips and scratchy nylon carpet provoke linguistic arabesques. Its hint of perversion was its preoccupation with the tactile and the secret.
Baker’s real obsession with sexual fantasy came first to light in Vox (1992), a highly original narrative told entirely in telephone dialogue, between two unnamed anonymous intellectual sex-line chatters late at night. Then came The Fermata, an explicit and controversial 1994 novel about a guy with the magic power to freeze motion – a superpower he uses primarily to sexually assault defenceless women. (The protagonist masturbates so much in this book he develops a repetitive stress injury.)
Baker’s newest book, House of Holes, is equally graphic, but this time even more gleefully goofy. It is a series of fantasies that a very imaginative 14-year-old boy might have: They all involve metamorphoses that enable more sexual possibilities than are human. Genitals can be swapped, people can shrink to miniature size (you can guess where they go). These transformations occur, to a long list of characters, in a parallel universe, an uninhibited plane of existence (perhaps something like the unconscious) that resembles nothing more than a high-end holiday resort. It has a sprawling landscape of beaches, hotel rooms and parodic attractions (Upskirt Street, the masturboats, pussyboarding). Magical objects – the Belt of Jingly Bells, the Cable of Induhash, drops from King Bohuslav’s beard – can heal and arouse.
You get to this House of Holes through actual holes in the real world – the end of a straw, the back of a clothes dryer. The land of enchantment is run by a matter-of-fact headmistress, the plump, fiftyish Lila, who assigns and withholds its pleasures.
This landscape has been is described as surreal, or Hieronymus-Boschian, but is more reminiscent of mythology. The dramatis personae of these fables have names either comic (Rhumpa) or vaguely medieval (Mellinnas and Gallanos, the lovers born from a silver egg), and although each episode ends predictably in messy satisfaction for all parties, allegorical elements gleam through the liquids. The contravention of arbitrary rules – rules that ass-squeezers must have an Ass-Squeezers’ Licence, for example – are punished in horrifying and then suddenly gratifying ways. Arms, penises and heads are painlessly amputated and then reconnected with their bodies after orgasmic adventures; repression is imposed and triumphantly released.
What is difficult to describe without quoting – and it is all so unashamedly obscene it can’t be quoted even in short bursts in a newspaper – is its humour. Characters speak and moan in a parody of porn-writing that is so enthusiastically silly it will make you laugh your coffee through your nose. Euphemisms for penis vary merrily from the childish (“his peeny-wanger”) to the nonsensical (“his Malcolm Gladwell”). People do “the happy humperdinkle,” a woman refers matter-of-factly to her most erogenous zone as “Monsieur Twinklestump.” The trademark Baker metaphors are deliberately corrupted here by a humorous layer of cliché (“a thick lasso of manstarch”), and ecstatic moans are rendered with phonetic precision (orgasming people say things like “Hoof, hoof” and “haw” and “UUUHL”).
You might think this is too adolescent to be arousing, but you’d be surprised by the effect prolonged exposure to all this mad splashing might have. It’s a bit repetitive, for sure, and the characters are hard to tell apart, which doesn’t really matter, as there is no unifying plot. They are interchangeable bodies, reflecting the theme of mutability in their own stories.
You might also think these are very male fantasies, and this is acknowledged. Men pay to get into the House of Holes; women come for free. In fact, Baker’s consciousness of the ridiculousness of men – men plead for favours from women who resist perfunctorily until giving in out of sheer kindness – becomes his irresistible charm. His sexual universe is an entirely joyous one, in which neither women nor men have inhibitions, and his narrative persona conveys such generosity and sympathy for horny people in general I suspect it will elicit the same among readers of all genders, regardless of any ideology they may initially bring to bear.
Literature meets sex
Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988), by Harold Brodkey
There’s one famous sex story in this collection, Innocence, which recounts a long and painstaking act in the tenderest and most sensitive of ways.
Couples (1968), by John Updike
A commuter town in 1960s America becomes a lascivious coven, and the sex is detailed and gloriously transgressive. Updike has always been an important inspiration for Nicholson Baker.
Crash (1973), by J.G. Ballard
There’s even more twisted and precisely described coitus in this creepy novel than there is in the lush David Cronenberg film adaptation. Ballard’s somewhat overwrought language imparts an elegiac tone to the kink.
Wetlands (2008), by Charlotte Roche
This first-person narrative of a troubled, self-harming teenager with a sexual obsession with bad hygiene became a cause célèbre when first published in Germany. It’s not exactly arousing, but it’s impressively uninhibited.
How Should a Person Be? (2010), by Sheila Heti
The happily hysterical naughty passages in this honest and clever Canadian essay-novel are reminiscent of Nicholson Baker’s style.
Russell Smith’s most recent novel is Girl Crazy . He also writes on men’s fashion for The Globe and Mail.