House of Holes by Nicholson Baker: Bad Pornography

Nicholson Baker’s new novel is great as pornography but utterly fails as a novel.

Every book reviewer nurses some version of the waking nightmare where he reviews James Joyce’s Ulysses and does not realize that it’s a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. So when confronted with Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a collection of graphic sex scenes that calls itself a novel, one wonders if this is not some elaborate literary prank wherein Baker has married the porn novel to, say, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. After all, Baker has won a national Book Critics Circle Award. He has penned elegant novels about, among other things, a man buying shoelaces and a man contemplating the assassination of President George W. Bush. His nonfiction has a similar range: a fan’s notes on John Updike, the troubles of newspaper and library archives, the motives behind World War II. Then again, he is also the author of Vox, the erotic novel that Monica Lewinsky supposedly gave Bill Clinton as a present. That would make him the nation’s most visible pornographer.

But Vox and its successor, The Fermata, were not simply porn. They were erotica, i.e., porn with literary aspirations. Both books put graphic writing about sex in the service of something besides mere prurience. So what’s he up to this time? To write graphically about sex? Clearly. And to do it with a modicum of wit. After that it’s anyone’s guess. The novel is full of talk about confiscating the world’s bad pornography. Is that to make room for the good pornography? And what’s the difference? Then again, Baker is a contrarian and a traditionalist—he’s tenaciously opposed the Library of Congress’ efforts to digitize its paper archives—so, in an age where pornography has migrated almost exclusively to the Internet, maybe he’s just fighting to keep it in print.

In trying to unriddle his motives, you won’t get a lot of help from the plot because there isn’t much, merely situations and setups for hot encounters. And while the people in these setups have names, their appendages are more fully described than their characters. Some of this is pretty funny (“Dave angled out his Malcolm Gladwell;” and there are “peckerwood dildos”). Still, no erotica-or-porn dilemma this time—this one’s a stroke book all the way.

The eponymous House of Holes is an X-rated resort, a sort of sexual funland that plays host to a handful of parallel narratives. A couple of these stories begin with an appealing air of twisted whimsy. Shandee, a student on a geology field trip, finds a disembodied—but talkative—arm in a quarry. The arm belongs to man named Dave, and in no time, Dave’s arm has convinced Shandee to go with him to the House of Holes to find the rest of Dave. But screw the plot. Bring on the sex. And so it goes. Elsewhere a man grows small, dives into a woman’s purse and begins to explore. It’s a surreally erotic scene—deft, clever, funny, and the sex is all between the lines but there. For a couple of pages, you can see what might have been.

Baker knows how to write an arousing scene. He’s a good pornographer, as far as that goes. But that’s the trouble: his genre—as formulaic and monotonous as a train schedule—does him in. The result is a book that starts off sexy but winds up mechanical and tedious. The reader is left feeling hot and bothered. And bored.