Already, Nicholson Baker's latest novel, "House of Holes: A Book of Raunch" has accumulated a pile of press exclaiming over its explicit content. How explicit are we talking? Consider: The House of Holes is a resort-theme park with attractions that include sites like the Porndecahedron, a theater where different kinds of porn play on multiple screens around their viewers, and a museum-like space filled with genitalia dangling out of holes (their owners are behind the walls).
Still, despite appearances, this is not pornography masquerading as literature. It's a truly playful, curious examination of what it is about sex that makes people squirm.
Baker's novel is subtitled "A Book of Raunch," which perhaps understates the situation. We follow a small cast of characters who have all, for one reason or another, visited the House of Holes. The sex here ranges from ordinary to insane. Men have sex with women, women swap their genitalia with men and then have sex, women have sex with trees. (If George Bataille’s "Story of the Eye" possessed a sense of humor, the result might have been an episode in "House of Holes.")
The collage of gyrating bodies is never so overwhelming that you can’t find amusement in it, though. And while the scenarios frequently verge on the ridiculous, they’re matched up with flashes of tenderness that elevate the scenes from pornographic sketch comedy into something that's as touching as it is provocative. Take the following exchange:
"I've spent all day in the darned Porndecahedron looking at self-filmed amateur masturbation movies, and I've seen almost too much of it, if that's possible."
"You're at the House of Holes and you’re watching masturbation movies? I thought it was a sexual paradise."
"It is," said Dave. "People masturbate a lot in paradise, let me tell you."
This is the kind of deflationary wit that keeps Baker's book afloat. Rather than allow himself just to create the filthiest, most shocking sexual acts he could imagine, Baker's most impressive achievement is in the accuracy of those little pauses between, the awkward moments where people must try to connect to each other on a level that doesn't include full-frontal contact.
Aside from the more human moments, Baker's language -- filled with made-up words and phrases -- also matches his scenarios in absurdity. The sheer variety of his invented terms for sexual acts and props seems like one big joke, aimed at the tendency toward euphemism that often characterizes sexual discourse in America.
Indeed, the book could be one big statement against the hypocrisy that dominates American culture when it comes to sex. Compared to the rambunctiously cheerful, extremely obscene acts in the House of Holes, it does seem more difficult to understand why the exposure of a breast is enough to spark national outrage.
It’s an admonishment of the most satisfying kind, and it leaves Baker’s characters with the last laugh -- they’re just very likeable people having a ton of sex, and feeling pretty good about it.