Nicholson Baker writes about sex the way most people wish it existed—uninhibited, thorough and immensely pleasurable. Throughout his wildly varied literary career, Baker has maintained the wry humor and detailed wit that won him acclaim for his fiction [Vox; The Fermata] and nonfiction [Double Fold] alike.
Read more reviews of books by Nicholson Baker at Kirkus.
In The House of Holes, Baker explores sex in the funhouse as sexually frustrated citizens are magically transported to the hypersexual House of Holes compound for as much sex as they can handle—or afford. Once there, they can spend time in the Porndecahedron or visit the Pornmonster. It'd all be perverse if it weren't so entertaining. Here, we talk to Baker about his return to literary erotica, nonsexual interests and the file he’s dubbed "Sex Words."
The men and women at House of Holes can have whatever they want sexually for a price, but how significant is the underlying tenet of "be careful what you wish for?" Can they have too much of a good thing?
I think that's a very useful question to ask. Maybe it's only in fiction that you can explore certain hypothetical possibilities and figure out what the limits would be. If you could be sucked through a straw, or sucked down a hole at a golf course into a world where the rules didn't apply, what would you want to do? It's fun for anybody to ask himself or herself that. What would you end up doing? One guy gives up his left arm for a bigger penis, but it doesn't turn out to be as important to him as he thought it might be.
You've got an impressive array of euphemisms for sex acts, organs and orifices—a “jizm prism," a "lovely Lincoln Stiffens," "my Malcolm Gladwell"—but they never repeat. Do you have running list of sex slang that you've been collecting since your last book?
Yeah, I have a file called "Sex Words." At one point when I was doing this I wanted to refresh the vocabulary a little and have fun with it. If the word was going to be an unexpected, odd word, maybe a made-up word—something surprising and, with any luck, a little bit funny—then I would have to think of it right then. On-the-fly was the way I did it a lot of the time.
The other thing with using creative words—it's fun—but then there's a point if you're writing a sexy book that you want it to be sexually arousing. There's a moment when the tried-and-true words are better, I find. There's this kind of curve where you're allowed to use these strange words, and then you have to veer back into words that aren't strange in order to make the whole thing work. Part of the fun was in balancing those two curves of energy.
You've written about some unsexy topics—Wikipedia, John Updike—so why do you find yourself returning to literary erotica?
Life is a big messy, wonderful experience. It has all kinds of layers to it. Sometimes you're in the mood to think about Wikipedia, sometimes you're in the mood to think about World War II, sometimes you're in the mood to think about the odd little moments of life—like going on errands but not buying shoelaces.
Sometimes you think about sex. I think about sex a lot, so I devoted those two books in the early ’90s, Vox and The Fermata, to sex as a mutual seduction with digressions, and my own adolescent fantasy of stopping time. Then a whole bunch of years went by, and you reach a point where it seems like there's more to say. I thought I was done with sex as the subject of novels—not necessarily as something for me to think about, but more of "do I have anything new to say?" I thought I had finished with it when I reached the last word of The Fermata.
But I guess it was about five years ago that I started writing these vignettes and pieces of things. I came up with this place, the House of Holes, and I thought, what if a women stuck her legs through these two holes and there were some crazy composers [Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, masturbating] on the other side? It just started to feel fun again. Also, it was sort of a challenge. Can you do something that, let's say, a dirty movie can't do? What is it that words can do still that movies can't do?
This is what a book can do—you can suddenly be in this crazy world where people are switching body parts and doing things that are impossible. I got a kick out of warping the rules so that could happen. That's really what you get to do as a novelist—just make it up and see if it makes sense in its own way.
Most of the time when people are being transported to the House of Holes, they're in the middle of something mundane—they're pulled through a golf hole, or a pen tip, or a period in a sentence. There's a boundary between the two realms, like when one character actually crosses over the property line separating House of Holes from a normal working farm.
The idea that the real world becomes the forbidden fruit or the exciting world that you're prohibited from entering, that's kind of interesting. I was playing with that back in Vox, too, when one of my characters would start to tell a story that wasn't seductive or sexual, but was just about staring at the dial of an FM stereo receiver or something. The reality becomes sexualized because you're swimming in so much sexual stuff. A real woman on a real farm becomes more interesting in some ways than all this crazy stuff that's going on in fantasy land. I did get a kick out of reversing the polarity there.
When you're in a certain kind of mood, you're sucked into a very luridly colored universe. There's still gravity, people still look like people, but your hormones interpret it differently. It's an altered state. It seemed worthwhile to write a book that went with that warpage, that allowed itself to be warped the way your mind is when you're turned on.