Where sex is concerned, there is nothing new under the sheets. For all our sex-positive self-congratulation, our forebears make us look tame, and not necessarily in a bad way. The classicist Sarah Ruden, in her 2010 book Paul Among the People, tried to soften the Apostle’s condemnation of homosexuality by explaining that in his time, homosexuality typically took the form of sanctioned rape, and was savage and dehumanizing beyond description. Then she described it. For a paraphrase, I’ll quote Kingsley Amis: “Now that something had happened which really deserved a face, he had none to celebrate it with. As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome face.”
So it’s all been done, but that doesn’t stop us from hoping. While reading Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, I challenged friends to name the smuttiest books they’d come across, the newer the better. Sure, the Greeks and Romans were filthy. Chaucer worked blue; Rochester and Pepys were masters of sleaze; and de Sade was a cesspool in print. The question is, will we moderns ever outdo them—or even add to their legacy? Sometimes it seems that we’re stuck with the likes of Tom Wolfe, whose I Am Charlotte Simmons won the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2004:
Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand—that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns.
Apart from the correspondent who asked if fan fiction “counts,” my friends rounded up the usual suspects: Miller, Lawrence, Mailer, Burroughs, Nabokov, Updike, Roth, and Houellebecq. I would add J. P. Donleavy and the Amis men, Kingsley for the hilarious threesome in The Green Man, Martin in more of a Lifetime Achievement sense. But this is a very small club, and most of its members are dead. Nicholson Baker would seem to be the champion by default.
Baker’s 1994 Fermata, in which a man with the ability to stop time chooses not to use his powers responsibly, is the most imaginative, baroquely descriptive, and (forgive me) balls-to-the-wall erotica I’ve ever read. Baker also wrote Vox, the phone sex novel famously presented by Monica to Bill, but alongside The Fermata it’s a bad Penthouse Letter doomed to the slush pile. So news of Baker’s latest, a “gleefully provocative, off-the-charts erotic novel…unlike anything you’ve read” was galvanic, because he’d have had to top The Fermata to pull off a feat of that magnitude.
He hasn’t. This can’t be called a failure, though. Apart from the sex and the fantasy, House of Holes never meant to have anything in common with The Fermata. The latter is a novel, one whose full-blooded narrator, Arno Strine, struggles with complex emotions and desires as he abuses his power over time. House of Holes is no novel. It announces its impure intentions right on the cover: This is raunch. The characters are cartoons, their exchanges—at once deadpan and overwrought—a spoof of porno movie dialogue and a foil for the dizzying absurdity of Baker’s sexual scenarios.
Structurally, the book is simple: A succession of men and women find their way, through various bizarre apertures—e.g., a laundromat dryer—to an anything-goes sexual Wonderland called the House of Holes. Like The Fermata, this smacks of science fiction. In the opening scene, a woman named Shandee is visiting a quarry with her Geology 101 class. There she finds a hand attached to a forearm, which signs its way into her handbag. She gives the arm, which is anything but dead, a notepad. The hand writes, “Please…feed me some mashed-up fish food in an electrolyte solution.” The arm “had a solar panel for energy.” We learn that it once belonged to a certain “Dave”:
He went to a place called the House of Holes. There Dave had requested a larger thicker penis. Apparently you can do that. But at a price. The director, this woman named Lila, said to him, “Would you be willing to give your right arm for a larger penis?”
That deserves a cymbal crash and a round of applause. Baker has taken a lame joke and pushed it to its delirious conclusion, and he does this again and again in House of Holes. Is this a sly comment on the way pornography often seeks to disarm moral qualms with cheesy humor? Or is Baker just showing off that he’s better at it?
Shandee and Dave’s Arm enjoy some safe, consensual, completely disturbing adult fun, before the Arm whisks her away to the House of Holes. Again, this could be a very deliberate illustration of the way sex between two adults can still be fundamentally masturbatory—or it could simply be the sort of full-tilt weirdness Baker enjoys. It could, of course, be both. Like most pornography (or so I’ve heard) House of Holes is episodic, each episode being more or less self-contained. Some of these are elaborate sexual fantasies—like the chapter in which a woman is invited to “an intimate concert of Russian piano music,” only to find herself the instrument in a piano four-hands performance by Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Others describe the tasks—like penis washing, and temporary head removal—that make up the less glamorous day-to-day of the House of Holes. I could go on, but this is a reading experience that benefits from the element of surprise.
Why did Baker write this? In small doses, it can be entertaining, but, again, it’s no novel. On top of that, it’s too distractingly ludicrous to titillate, so it doesn’t work well as pornography, either—though I guess I shouldn’t speculate about Baker’s tastes. Perhaps it’s an extended joke, surrealistic filth for its own sake, a transgressing of boundaries not of taste or propriety—which, as the publication of House of Holes shows, no longer exist in any meaningful sense—but of creativity.
Our disappointingly short list of literary pervs suggests that the elimination of legal barriers didn’t lead to a renaissance of highbrow porn. Something else is holding writers back, and it may be the knowledge that just because the moral stigma has vanished, doesn’t mean the aesthetic one is any more easily overcome. Since explicit sex belongs to romance novels and terrible “erotica,” the bar is set pretty high. Most attempts to write sex in a dignified way get nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction award.
Baker’s answer is to do away with the dignity, the grasping after high seriousness. House of Holes is a burlesque not of pornography but of the sexual imagination itself, and he seems to understand that it’s more often ridiculous than sublime—though it’s sometimes both at once. Sex and sexual fantasy are uniquely resistant to being put into words. The tension between what sex is like and how it sounds on paper, between the desire to evoke it and the near impossibility of doing so, leads straight to absurdity. Baker’s tack is to embrace absurdity, to find something humbling and humanizing in living at the mercy of an irrational impulse. As the great Sam Cooke once sang, “Don’t fight it, feel it.”