Nicholson Baker writes three kinds of books: non-fiction, literary fiction, and porn. It's odd that although he's known for the phone-sex masterpiece Vox, the only thing I'd ever read by him was The Anthologist, a wonky first-person slow-moving story about a poetry writer and editor with a near-fatal case of writer's block. It's well-written and has a solid voice. So when his latest porn novel, House of Holes was released, I had to buy a copy.
House of Holes is an homage to the Golden Age of Porn that began in 1972 with Behind the Green Door and ended, thirteen years later, with New Wave Hookers. In it, Baker reveals three secrets about porn from that era that we should all be aware of.
First, there are only two kinds of women-shaped creatures in porn. But neither are really human women. The first are almost human women, but they lack a terribly deep inner life. They attempt to go about their daily business, but they all have a kind of attention-deficit disorder where the suggestion of sex may overwhelm their attention at any moment, turning them into happy, cock-hungry fuckbunnies. A rare few are fuckbunnies in potentia, but this can be resolved within a day or two. If no cock is available, at least an orgasm must happen and another woman will do. When all else fails, she can do it herself. The second kind are man-eaters, always on but exhaustingly dangerous to know.
Secondly, the men in porn are ordinary men. Most of them are confused about sex, confused about what women want-- even when said women are simply cock-hungry-- and confused about their place in a world full of maneaters and fuckbunnies. They're just trying to get along and get laid. Some are well-hung, some aren't; some can last a long time, some can't. They like a little variety, but can be tempted to a long span of monogamy by a particularly beautiful or wonderful woman, and sex doesn't really enter into their motives for a relationship. It can, however, tempt a man to do wrong.
Third, Golden Age Porn is absolutely full of magical realism. For no explicable reason, and often with an "it happens" shrug of the shoulders, clitori move to unfamiliar parts of the body, men swap penises, penises and vaginas develop minds and voices of their own, various accessories (hats, scarves, belts, shoes, watches) give people unusual powers, usually to either spy on people having sex or increase the user's chances of having sex. And over all there is just a sudden increase in people having sex: the pornoverse is a localized phenomenon, inconvenient but hardly tragic.
House of Holes is written like an acid-trip magical realism porn film, only put into the hands of a respected literary writer. The book opens up with Shandee who, while walking in the woods, comes across an arm. Just an arm. It waves at her, and she takes it home. Giving it a piece of paper and a pen, it introduces itself: "Hi, I'm Dave's arm." They have a conversation about how Dave's arm came to be independent of Dave: It turns out that, at the House of Holes, if you want a bigger dick, you have to give up another appendage to get it. You can get the arm back, but you have to fulfill a contractual obligation. The owner of the House, an ancient wise woman named Lila, knows exactly the right obligation.
There are all sorts of weird, arbitrary rules at the House, and a thousand and one different ways to have fun. Thousands of men, in quest of a great orgasm, have chosen to give up their penises in order to let the "jizm" build. The Hall of Penises has all of these, poking up, sagging down, all waiting to be re-united with their former owners. If someone else wants an especially large one, he might get it from that Hall, but only in exchange for a finger, or an arm, or something.
But it's 70's porn: nobody is mean, everyone says "please" and "thank you," and the banality of the porniverse is that, for these people, it's a pleasure as ordinary and as mainstream, and as separate from real human sex, as any porn film ever can be. It's blissfully a long way from the cruel gonzo porn that's fortunately fading away to a low roar.
If there's a weakness to the book, it's the way the literary form shows just how much the women of 70's porn were like William James' Automatic Sweetheart, "a soulless body which should be absolutely indistinguishable from a spiritually animated maiden, laughing, talking, blushing, nursing us, and performing all feminine offices as tactfully and sweetly as if a soul were in her." Books take us where movies cannot, into the mind of a character. For most of the women in House of Holes, there's no "there" there. To me, that expectation often ruined my suspension of disbelief.
Some reviewers, I think, read too much into the "horror" nature of the way Shandee has a loving relationship with Dave's arm, or Reese gets off with a "sexbody," a male body who's head is in cold storage, waiting to be reunited with the rest of his studly, getting laid, but generally mindless anatomy. For all we know, Baker was analogizing the way we compartmentalize our awareness that the food on our plates comes from cruel factory farms, or that our sexy life-conveniencing iPods are put together with slave labor. He's not saying.
There are some moments that come across with authorial voice, such as the character of Hax, whose mission is to convince women that their nakedness is beautiful-- and Hax has a long soliloquy about how both tattoos and shaved pubes are often forms of hiding one's self. Or the character of Dune, who says that all of the House of Holes, and its concentration on variety and fetish, is "too much," and that what one really needs for good sex is a man and a woman, "not too fat."
There are a lot of short scenes, set-ups of people doing it or planning to do it or getting ready to do it, with titles like "Shandee finds Dave's Arm," or "Dune takes a walk on the Boardwalk." They follow a small cast of people through this weird, psychedelic landscape.
House of Holes is sexy, inventive, and funny. It's also exhausting, full of a kind of humanity that is as distant from us as the New Soviet Man or the Randian Hero. It says things about human beings and about sex by showing wonderfully, creepily inhuman people having sex. But if you like really well-written, witty, and genuinely inventive erotica, I strongly recommend House of Holes. It has set a new standard, and if you're going to write erotica from this day forward, it is a standard that will challenge all of us.