Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fiction: House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

Depending on who you read, Nicholson Baker’s latest work of (ahem) literary erotica is either “a ridiculous porn-fest” (The Guardian), “a bona fide filth-fest” (the Los Angeles Times) and “Gleefully Goofy” (The Toronto Globe and Mail). The funny thing? All of those things are true. And more.

At times House of Holes (Simon & Schuster) feels like a solid attack on a culture that has demonized sex and sexuality. At other times it feels like an aging writer’s poke at a fickle literati that can, nonetheless, be easily led astray. And, in fairness, at still others, it feels like a genuine attempt to push the literary envelope as far as it can be pushed.

We’re first introduced to the House of Holes on page four, when roommates Shandee and Rianne have found the arm of a man named Dave. Not the man himself, just his arm. Dave’s arm has a tender touch and can also write things down. And so a bit of backstory comes to us that way: with Dave’s arm writing things down to share with either Shandee or Rianne and then with the two girls bickering jealously about it:
“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 called Lila, said to him: ‘Would you be willing to give your right arm for a larger penis?’ Dave said no at first, because his right arm was necessary for his work. But Lila said that it was only temporary -- only till someone found the arm and took it back and stuck it on him. Dave said, ‘Oh, if it’s temporary, sure.’ So he underwent a voluntary amputation right near the blow, and his arm had the self-contained life-support pack grafted on.”
You see where this is going, I guess. I chose this particular excerpt partly because it’s one of the few benign enough for public consumption and partly because it sets up just what kind of ride this is: an insane one, obviously. An acid-washed sexual fantasy from a National Book Critics Circle-winning author. Even at its best, the reality of House of Holes can be a little much. Real-life holes lead patrons to the House of Holes where men pay to play, but women get in for free. Once there, all sorts of transformations are possible -- like Dave and his penis and even more so. And all of it to make sex possible in more ways and with more partners than would be conceivable in the real world.

In conclusion: to be honest, I’m still reeling a little bit. House of Holes is relentless in its pursuit of the purely sexual and, at times, the book is numbing at best and just plain dumb at worst. Though I’ll allow that it’s possible Baker was here trying honestly to push at some unseen envelope, in the end I wonder if this is an envelope that really needs pushing. I was not offended, but neither was I moved and, lacking either, can we really render House of Holes as art?



Post a Comment

<< Home