THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Is that all there is?

Baker's humorous, erotic romp through sexual theme park misses an opportunity

By Steve Almond
August 21, 2011

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Nicholson Baker’s new novel, “House of Holes,’’ is brilliant, absurd, puerile, depraved, and completely enthralling. Reading the book nearly caused me to miss my bus stop. A day after I finished it, I could barely remember what I’d read.

The novel is a surreal sexual fantasia, set in a theme park called the House of Holes, and brimming with men and women eager to have sex in a startling variety of manners. It’s the Garden of Earthly Delights as redesigned by Kafka. Or perhaps an adolescent Kafka.

Baker’s early novels, “Vox’’ and “The Fermata,’’ both included loads of graphic material. But the blue patches in those books came across as jolting, an effort to arouse the reader in the face of emotionally anemic characters. “House of Holes’’ suffers from no such literary pretense. Baker has unchained his id and written a book simply intended to tickle the funny bone and excite the glands.

The action proceeds via a series of vignettes that all tend to travel in the same direction, from curiosity to ecstatic perversity. The end game here isn’t true love or revenge or even self-revelation. Baker’s people just want to get freaky.

In “Luna Goes to a Concert’’ the titular character finds herself caressed in an unusual manner by a pair of conductors, one of whom describes his procreative equipment as “very hard and very famous.’’

This winking line is typical of Baker’s approach. His characters loyally conform to the tropes of pornography (well endowed, gorgeous, willing). But they at least have a sense of humor about it.

The genital euphemisms deployed here are hilarious and unparalleled. (Standouts includes “britneys,’’ “succulent stovetop,’’ and, rather scandalously, “his Malcolm Gladwell.’’)

Patrons arrive at the House of Holes via invisible portals, which they are pulled into at the behest of their own outlandish desires. The resort is sprawling, quite expensive - at least for men - and strictly supervised. Those visitors who can’t control their appetites risk temporarily bargaining away an arm (or worse) to satisfy their desires, though to no apparent medical consequence. The central dictum is unbridled pleasure.

As Lila, the resort’s matronly director, explains to a new arrival, “Every time somebody has an orgasm somewhere in the House of Holes that light lights up. Whenever that light lights up I feel happy. I was working in hospital administration - I was seeing my friends get old, my life go by. Now I’m living.’’

It’s a seductive fantasy: the uncoupling of pleasure from its emotional and psychic consequences. Who wouldn’t choose a life of orgasms over anxiety?

But it also dooms “House of Holes’’ to superficiality. A world in which gratification is all that matters can’t hope to make us feel much more than horny. On those rare occasions when Baker aims for tenderness, the results are strained.

There’s no question, given its sheer magnitude of smut, that “House of Holes’’ will be widely discussed. But this discussion probably won’t take into account the simple fact that Baker isn’t writing about sex as it exists in the real world. He’s writing about sex as men wish it existed - at least socially liberal heterosexual men.

I found the book to be a genuine turn-on. But my hunch is that women and gay people will have a harder time buying into its vision of instant, unconditional, regret-free hetero coupling.

I say all this as a devout admirer of Baker’s fiction and nonfiction. He’s that rare writer who’s been able to transcribe the full range of his obsessions onto the page - from John Updike to straw technology, from the atrocities of World War II to breast fetishism.

As much as I enjoyed his good-humored erotica, I couldn’t help feeling that “House of Holes’’ squanders an opportunity to say something more profound about the state of our sexual culture.

The sad truth of life in modern America, after all, is that pornography has become ubiquitous. It dominates the Internet and defines our mass culture. What we lack isn’t sex, but an honest appraisal of how it awakens our hopes and fears and vulnerabilities.

Which may be why the single most heart-rending character in Baker’s novel is the Porn Monster. A gruesome creature composed entirely of naughty parts, the Monster is the unfortunate byproduct of an effort to suck up the “bad porn’’ from American cities.

The definition of “bad porn,’’ by the way, remains conveniently unstated. But the more of it that gets sucked up, the larger the monster grows.

“I’m lurid and loveless and lost,’’ the beast laments. “I need a real person. I’m growing out of control. I’m propagating without guidance.’’

Baker clearly understands the Frankensteinian relationship Americans have with their porn. Still, he can’t quite resist putting the monster through its paces.

Steve Almond’s new story collection, “God Bless America,’’ will come out in October.

HOUSE OF HOLES: A Book of Raunch By Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, 262 pp., $25