Keep talking

Julian Loose

  • Vox by Nicholson Baker
    Granta, 172 pp, £14.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 14 014232 0

Howard Rheingold, in his recent Virtual Reality, explained the idea of ‘cybersex’: how someday we will be able to don sensor suits, plug into the telecommunications network and ‘reach out and touch someone’ in ways entirely unforeseen by Alexander Graham Bell. Speculating about the impact of such artificial erotic experience, Rheingold turned to an already up and-running technology – to ‘telephone sex’, the adult party lines where you pay to make conversation with a member of the preferred gender. While the UK attempts to shut down such hi-tech services, in America they are already writing academic papers on ‘Sex and Death among the Disembodied’.

And as the gold-embossed cover helpfully explains, Nicholson Baker’s new novel Vox is also ‘about Telephone Sex’, about getting turned on by tuning in. Jim and Abby meet on the phone-sex party line ‘2VOX’. By the time the book starts, they have punched in their private code numbers and transferred to the ‘fiber-optical back room’, where conversation is one on one and charged at 95 cents per half minute. Undaunted by these rates or by the strangeness of their encounter, the two ‘click’ almost at once. Vox consists of their voices in extended conversation as they exchange memories and confessions, anxieties and fantasies.

They talk about the telephone itself: the pleasure of calling in sick, the ‘companionable hiss’ when chatting long distance, how the mouthpiece is like a sieve down which you could pour yourself. Mostly though they talk about sex: her fantasies about a trio of imaginative house painters, his memories of masturbation alongside a female workmate. The telephone sometimes features here too. Abby called the chatline excited by the idea that a half-dozen men would ‘hear me come, as if my voice was this thing, this disembodied body, out there, and as they moaned they would be overlaying their moans onto it’. Jim, Vox’s dominant voice, is something of a ‘telephone clitician’: he excites his ‘Werner Heisenberg’ by phoning up an unsuspecting assistant at Deliques Intimates and ordering a pair of ‘pointelle tights in faun’.

Delightful, charming, a little odd, Vox is also profoundly erotic. For Baker, an author fantastically alert to ‘the whole problem of self-repetition and self-influence’, both form and content are a departure. His three previous books had approached ever nearer to autobiography, as though taking literally Nabokov’s dictum that writing is ‘a gradually evolving effort to be more accurate about life’. Born in 1957, Baker grew up in Rochester, Upstate New York (coincidentally the birthplace of another sui generis writer, John Ashbery). Abandoning an early ambition to become a composer, he graduated from Haverford College, and then worked for a year on Wall Street. Attracted by ‘the prosperous-seeming world of books’, he had short stories and ‘quasi-philosophical essays’ published in the Atlantic and the New Yorker. He also worked as a technical writer specialising in computer-network management software manuals, a detail which helps explain the extensive outreach of his ‘information rich’ vocabulary. In the knowledge that his idol, John Updike, had written The Poorhouse Fair in six months, Baker quit work and set himself the same amount of time to complete his first novel.

Although The Mezzanine (1988) describes itself as a mere ‘opusculum’, there is nothing slight or insignificant about its impact. Baker’s half-believable intention was to write a novel about the business world, ‘filled with plot, intrigue, wheeling and dealing’; he soon discovered he could not get his chronically digressive narrator beyond a single lunch hour. The Mezzanine charts the thoughts that circulate through the mind of Howie, archetypal penpusher, during his sixty-minute odyssey from his office desk and back again. By the end of the novel he has done no more than ‘broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated successfully in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half a bag of popcorn, bought a new set of shoelaces, eaten a hot dog and a cookie with some milk’. Yet these activities are transformed by up-beat, near-mystical reflections on such matters as the utility of ear-plugs, how people stand like Easter Island monuments when riding up escalators, and the ‘almost sonic whoosh of receptionists’ staggering and misguided perfumes’. We learn little about what Howie does, but explore instead his world of ‘mechanical enthusiasms’: his childlike (but not childish) excitement at airport luggage conveyor belts, at innovations in the design of plastic straws, at the fact that someone has thought through the need for horseshoe-shaped toilet seats.

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