I Review House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s Ovidian Raunchfest

In his Paris Review interviewNicholson Baker says that “one of the questions House of Holes is trying to answer” is: is “there still a point to writing words about sex when you can see anything you want, and a lot of things you don’t want to see, on the Web?” The book answers a goofy, gooey, bright-hearted “yes” to this question, unfolding its pornographic vignettes in a surreal Ovidian holiday, a midsummer’s night sexfest that sails lusty and smiling over the borders of morality, social convention, and plain old biology. Baker creates an organic, oozing world where genitalia is swapped freely between lovers, where one might exchange an arm for a bigger dick, where old tattoos get fucked away, where a woman and a tree can make sweet, sweet love:

She looked out from her high-splayed vantage and she said, “I’m a treefucking woman!” Dappled sunlight shone and emptied itself onto her. She squeezed her Kegeling love muscle around the smooth, thickened branch within, and when the wind came up again all the leaves twittered and shook. The tree itself shuddered: It was having some kind of orgasm.

If it seems like I’m getting ahead of myself, citing text before outlining plot, I assure you I’m not: There really isn’t much of a plot to House of Holes. Well, if there is one, it’s something like this: Lila, a large-breasted madame runs The House of Holes, an equal-opportunity brothel/fantasy factory that can only be accessed through portals that appear in strange spaces. This pornographic Arcadia operates on slippery wet-dream logic in which strangers cheerfully and eagerly engage in all sorts of raunch. Characters of varying physical attributes screw their way through a surreal holiday. There are a few conflicts, most of which are too light to touch on (this is a light book, for sure).

Two conflicts stand out with some (slight) weight though:

First, there’s the Pornmonster, “a personification of polymorphousness unlike anything the world of human suck-fuckery has ever known.” The Pornmonster is the mutant offspring of all the bad porn slurry collected on a pornsucking mission (don’t ask). The Pornmonster is typical of Baker’s tone throughout House of Holes, and its polymorphousness embodies the book’s depictions of sexual metamorphoses. This monster is tamed through playful, loving lust, and becomes a good guy, its raw sexual energy redirected for the forces of good (i.e., good sex). This is a book full of good guys.

Second, there’s the Pearloiner, an embittered, sexually-jealous TSA agent who steals clitorises (two of our heroines are afflicted by this heinous crime). The Pearloiner is a product of post-Homeland Security draconian measures, and her inclusion is about as close to contemporary culture criticism that House of Holes approaches. Sexy fun times interest Baker more.

Like the Pornmonster, the Pearloiner finds herself redeemed at the end of the book; moral shifts of allegiance are as easy as physical transformations in House of Holes. The Pearloiner and the Pornmonster alike atone their sins with a facile simplicity that fits the ludic silliness of Baker’s book. They are invited to participate in the handjob contest that (quite literally) climaxes the book. It’s an easy, orgasmic end to an easy, orgasmic book.

In some ways, House of Holes is more remarkable for what it’s not. Most of the so-called pornographic literature (or literature of pornography, if you prefer) that I’ve read has a darker streak. (I’m thinking of Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, de Sade,The Story of O, Alan Moore’s The Lost Girls, etc.). Holes shares Willliam Burroughs’s sense of surreal transmogrification and picaresque rambling and J.G. Ballard’s infatuation with the bizarre intersections of sex and technology, but it’s never sinister or cruel, or honestly, even disturbing.

House of Holes is a fundamentally good-natured book,” suggests Baker in his Paris Review interview, also pointing out that it’s a work of “crazy joy”—and he’s absolutely right: The book is joyous, good-natured, affable even. When Baker approaches a remotely Sadean cuckold fantasy he punctures it with a politeness that’s humorous—but he also dramatically lowers any stakes that may have been in play. In short, this is a novel of pure fun, of infinite gain and no loss (quite literally—Lose an arm? Get it back. Lose a clit? Get it back). Holes is silky and slippery and light, more ephemeral than ethereal in the end.

But shame on me. I seem to be faulting the book for not doing something it never sets out to do (namely, I seem to be faulting Holes for a lack of depravity and depth and darkness, three “d’s” the book’s rubric never sets out to register). It’s pure fantasy stuff, reminiscent of the partner-swapping exercise A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I am not saying Baker is Shakespeare) or the erotic shifts in Metamorphoses (ditto: Baker is no Ovid) or the voluptuous Victorian serial The Pearl: dreamy, and perhaps (small r) romantic, but not turbulent—sure, Holes will ruffle unwitting feathers (let’s be clear, it’s pointedly sexually graphic), but it’s unlikely to damage anyone’s soul. (If you’re worried about soul-damage, check out the editorial style-sheet for Holes, which lays out Baker’s invented porn-lexicon).

Is House of Holes a novel or a flimsy pornographic riff? Baker is less interested in ideas than he is in sensations, or rather representations of sensations (which is the most literature can do anyway, I suppose). Holes is unwilling to offer any answers or explications about the deep mysteries behind human desire, but it does pose questions about those desires, and it poses those questions with shameless glee. A fun, breezy read.

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