Sun, Aug 14, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Book review: House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, by Nicholson Baker

The author’s latest sex book aims lower than some of his earlier, more thoughtful fiction

By Janet Maslin  /  NY Times News Service, New York

House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker

Here is a highly abbreviated chapter from Nicholson Baker’s full-throttle pornographic new novel, House of Holes:

“We’re professionals. I know it may seem a little strange to you that we don’t have pants on.”

“I thought about you yesterday. I did rude things to an orange.”

“This is pleasant.”


“Ooh boy.”



“Did you take off your sponge gloves?”

There’s more, of course. But you aren’t supposed to eye it in a newspaper. You’re supposed to be teased into reading the full, unexpurgated House of Holes by even the tiniest peek at its fantasies and taste of its lingo. “Newspaper” is the only word in this paragraph that Baker, 54, now staking his claim to the title of World’s Oldest Teenage Boy, couldn’t give a smirky spin.

Among the unusual eroticized terms that turn up in House of Holes are “united parcel,” “chickenshack,” “address book,” “subway improvement project,” “the fondling fathers” and “cold Snapple in my condo.” Malcolm Gladwell could either sue or thank Baker, depending on how he feels about seeing his name used as a ha-ha synonym for a body part. However much fun he has toying with innuendoes, Baker finds lots of time for the Anglo-Saxon standbys too.

With a vocabulary like that, House of Holes comes with built-in hyperbole. It all but demands to be called the dirtiest book ever to emanate from an author who already has Vox and The Fermata on his curriculum vitae (not to mention Double Fold, a manifesto aimed at libraries, which won a National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction). But Baker’s earlier sex books veered into pervier territory, making House of Holes pretty innocent by comparison. This new book seems a deliberate course correction after The Fermata, about a man with a yen for secretly undressing women and a magical ability to make time stand still. The behavior that he called “chronanistic” gave more than one kind of pause.

No such kinks marginalize House of Holes. It describes a happy, friendly, doofy, incredibly polite (“May I?”) equal-opportunity playland where anybody can seemingly fulfill any sexual daydream, ideally while talking about it as graphically as possible. Actually there are limits: Baker has a well-hidden prim streak, and he sticks to cheery little vignettes in which everybody gets hot but nobody gets hurt.

Because House of Holes is sheer fantasy, it’s possible for a guy named Dave to lose an arm without suffering any real damage. He’ll get it back eventually. And while the arm is on the loose, it will make friends with a woman named Shandee. “Is that somebody’s arm you’ve got tucked away in your lap?” she is asked.

There’s no particular plot to House of Holes. People get whooshed through various portals and wind up at a friendly, porn-filled, oddly bureaucratic resort. The place is run by a woman named Lila, and she evaluates the needs of each new guest, sometimes even using a calculator to do so. Lila does quite the entrance interview. (“Can I kiss it a little, hon? To get a better diagnosis?”)

When one man describes a dream that involves slightly more than 4,000 people — and, now that he thinks about it, really ought to include every woman in the world — Lila is the voice of reason. “That’s not really our style,” she tells him, “but I like your ambition.” Another guest with over-the-top ideas involving a centaur is flatly told, “You’ve been watching cable.”

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