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.

Howie’s non-narrative is interrupted by numerous footnotes, a ‘gray silt of further example and qualification’ which recalls the works of his heroes Boswell, Gibbon and Lecky. Like an Arden Shakespeare, these marginalia often crowd out the main text: rather as Howie describes the topsy-turvy working of memory, ‘what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed’. Howie elaborates this principle of reversal into what he calls microscopy, which like chaos theory discovers that very small perturbations can have very large effects. Microscopy allows for descriptions of objects usually beneath our notice, but also for a kind of precise whimsy, as in the sublime footnote description of walking along the hushed black asphalt valley of a LP record groove, like one of the micronauts in the Film The Fantastic Voyage, ‘your feet sparking static with each step’ as you observe ‘big obsidian chunks of cigarette smoke ... lodged here and there in the oddly echoless surface’.

The introspective, macro-lens vision of The Mezzanine has been likened to the atomising gaze of the nouveau roman, with Howie representing alienated corporate man. There are certainly elements of sadness in the book: Howie feels for the ‘great men’ who invent popcorn-makers, vending-machines and hi-fi systems yet go as unremarked as the passing of their products; and he himself has a moment of poignant self-recognition (‘I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I hoped to be’). Yet the dominant tone is one of celebration:

Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped wood-fibre.

Baker does not need to transform the familiar into something rich and strange, because he can convince us that the everyday is quite exhilarating enough.

Room Temperature (1990) contracts the workplace lunch hour to the short span it takes Mike to feed Bug, his baby, in the ‘lulling domestic setting’ of home. A part-time technical writer and reviewer of TV commercials, Mike (like Howie) is possessed of an active inner life, is always ‘primed for awe’. As the baby sucks at her bottle, looking ‘like a screech trumpet player’, he free-associates: on the rubber air hoses used by traffic engineers to monitor passing cars, Robert Boyle’s General History of the Air, the vacuum in an unopened jar of peanut butter, playing the French horn, personal ventilation jets on planes (‘a participatory jet engine for each passenger’); he ruminates, too, on the paedomorphosis of pet names, and contemplates writing a monograph history of the comma to demonstrate that this mark of punctuation is nothing less than ‘the embodiment of civilisation’.

Even more than its predecessor, Room Temperature is a work of brilliant, seemingly impromptu synthesis. There are no footnotes, so each outsize digression eventually loops back, with unexpected pertinence, to the main theme:

As with the man in the joke who when given a glass of snot to drink drains it dry, and when asked why, says, ‘What could I do? – It was all one strand,’ everything in my life seemed to en-jamb splicelessly into everything else.

Mike’s starting-point is the Bug, and his comfortably room-temperature thoughts consequently tend to the benign and sentimental, to not quite complacence yet but approaching it’; as Baker will later argue, ‘when it is believable, sentiment is not a liability.’ The snot joke exemplifies the book’s seamless quality, for the one low-key moment of crisis turns on the act of nose-picking. When Mike finally confesses his ‘abject, charmless, filthy stealth’ to his wife, the thrilling intimacy of the moment – sparked by her earlier revelation that she searches for reading material (‘often a specialised work of reference’) to take to the bathroom – is cherished by them both as ‘one of those powerful, marriage-reinforcing confidences’. Mike wonders whether he might one day overstep the mark, but then ‘this unease in fact was part of the exciting risk of our mutual revelations. Was there a limit between us? Would disgust ever outweigh love?’ Baker would next try for himself the anxious delights of the confessional mode.

A compelling and often uncomfortable read, U and I (1991) owns up to an ‘intense, rivalrous, touchy admiration’ for Updike. It also reveals an unexpectedly large gap between narrators Howie and Mike, who both feel they are ‘doing all right’, and their creator, who portrays himself cruelly racked by literary ambition. The Mezzanine had provided a glimpse of this competitive literary streak, when the Proustian associations of childhood sparked by the smell of a Band Aid were dismissed as a mere olfactory trick, ‘mistakenly exalted by some writers as something realer and purer and more sacredly significant than intellective memory’. U and I, nonetheless, is deliberately impressionistic: Baker terms his approach a ‘closed book examination’, and relies excessively on his existing knowledge of Updike’s works (less than half of a prolific output). He performs a series of close readings on his memory-board of Updike phrases, engages his maître in conversation during an imaginary round of golf, and discovers half-convincing traces of himself in Updike’s work, both as a writer and as an ‘overeager, technotalkative, slack-but-smart’ character type. Ironically, despite Baker’s incredulity at the way none of his critics has spotted his indebtedness, he never persuades us that he and Updike have much in common: yet, post-Baker, in the kind of twist elaborated in Harold Bloom’s topology of influence, the reader of Updike’s Self-Consciousness finds a series of footnotes and enthusiastic descriptions of commonplace objects (‘Stacked squarish things excited me ... I was a devotee of packaging’) which – impossibly but unmistakably – seem to imitate the upstart ‘writer on the make’, Nicholson Baker.

Baker wonders whether he should proclaim so unreservedly that Updike is a genius: ‘He doesn’t want to hear me say that. How embarrassing!’ What is really embarrassing, of course, is Baker’s relentless self-revelation, the way his naked ‘I’ shamelessly shoves aside the ‘U’. As Updike has himself commented, ‘I realised that U and I wasn’t about me and my work at all, or hardly at all – it was about the way we construct writers in our minds, to serve our own purposes.’ Measuring himself against Updike turns Baker into his own best critic. He describes his precise yet goofy vocabulary as a ‘touch-me-anywhere-and-I’ll-secrete-a-mot-juste kind of thing’, characterises The Mezzanine as ‘a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers’, and notes that a ‘flea-grooming visual acuity’ is typical of early novels, something he hopes to replace by ‘a finer social attunedness’. But driven always by some grinding gear of self-betrayal’, he also takes a masochistic delight in showing himself pinned and wriggling on the wall, recalling for example how he buttonholed U himself at a Harvard party and lied about where he went to college, or how he welcomed the spread of psoriasis as testimony to his Updikeness. With a risky, at times enraging knowingness that even he calls ‘creepy’, Baker savours the peculiar ‘thrill that the writer himself shivers gleefully with as he writes: “Ooh boy, I’m really going to catch it this time!” ’

At one point in U and I Baker attributes the present thriving state of gay fiction to a frankness about sex which has fortuitously led writers ‘back toward subtler revelations in the novel’s traditional arena of social behaviour’. The same truth-telling urge has taken Baker in the opposite direction, from office life and domestic nose-picking to the sex and ‘nastybation’ of Vox. And this, of course, is Updike territory. Baker has championed the older author as ‘the man who, by bringing a serious, Prousto-Nabokovian, morally sensitive, National Book Award-winning prose style to bear on the micromechanics of physical love-making’ has helped ensure that ‘the sexual revolution is complete.’ Even if Baker has ‘never successfully masturbated to Updike’s writing’, it is that very writing which makes such an outré admission conceivable.

Baker’s distance from Updike is apparent in the way he always focuses in on lust’s more private manifestations, on sex in the head. Visiting the pharmacy to buy his new shoelaces, the hyper-acute Howie had detected a low level luridness (‘You slip by a woman reading the fine print on a disposable vinegar douche kit. She feels you pass. Frisson!’); a pre-adolescent Mike found his pornography in the pictures of birth-giving in The Family of Man, ‘the incredible full-lipped ugly powerful arousing frown of the woman pushing amid the hospital sheets’. Jim’s tastes are only slightly more orthodox. The cartoon character Tinker Bell may drive him ‘absolutely nutso’ but primarily, as Abby points out, he’s ‘interested in women masturbating’. ‘Any woman masturbates anywhere, I want to know about it,’ agrees Jim.

Jim may be all talk, but at least he gives good phone. Another mechanically-minded microscopist, he describes the beauty of a photo-activated street-lamp, pictures the display on his radio tuner as a skyline (‘The FM markings were all the buildings, and the AM markings were their reflection in water’), and conjures up a ‘Bionic-Mmmmm Detector’ which senses the presence of ‘intelligent masturbating women’. In The Mezzanine Howie had complained that there is ‘no good word for stomach; just as there is no good word for girlfriend’; a delight of Vox is the way Jim inventively sets about tackling the even greater problems of sexual language: ‘fiddlin’ yourself off? The dropped g is kind of racy. No, no. Strum ... That’s it’; ‘I get so fricking horny ... now there’s another inadequate word ... so porny, so gorny, so yorny ... I get so yorny.’ Abby responds in kind, talking of his ‘Delgado’ or ‘pale Ramone’, of ‘dithering herself off’ and of her ‘Opulent Opal tockhole’.

Both see the phone line advertised in magazines, although Abby sees a discreet advert in her ‘bravely bought’ Forum, while the ‘enthusiastically pro-pornography’ Jim spots it in the more down-market Juggs, purchased that night along with three x-rated videotapes. He and Abby embody the classic opposition: she’d prefer a book, he needs the images. But Jim is certainly no Keith Talent, the unlovable character in Martin Amis’s London Fields who Fast Forwards and ‘SloMos’ through his nightly video, scanning for digitised images of sex, ‘astronomies of breast and belly, of shank and haunch’. Jim, by contrast, is conscience stricken and easily put off his stroke: a photospread is ruined because the girl’s hair is in pigtails, ‘and it just seemed so awful somehow, the age-old thing of men wanting to pretend that 28-year-old women are little girls’; his arousal easily tips over into self-loathing – ‘the sound of the VCR as it fast-forwards, that industrial robot sound, and I suddenly thought, no, no’. Voyeurism proves no solution: ‘I’m a man and a man is a watcher and a watcher disturbs the purity of the event, so I don’t want to exist, I want to be faded away to almost nothing.’

The fact that such new-man anxieties are expressed at all sets Vox apart from mere pornography. This is a novel which undeniably sets out to arouse, but it is also about arousal, about the nature of sexual fantasy. Yet some may feel that Jim’s hopeful description of himself as one of the ‘nonviolent normal intelligent men’ who happen to use pornography is, well, problematic. It’s a forgivable failing of Vox that Jim and Abby sound so alike, not only in what they say, but in how they say it: for the most part we can accept this as a precondition for their headlong intimacy. But Abby’s silence here – the lack of any contrasting voice to provide a distancing perspective – seems a more serious flaw. It is as if for once Baker hasn’t followed his own precept, his belief that the novel is the greatest literary form so long as it fulfils its capacity for ‘letting the pursuit of truth pull it forward’.

Baker’s real achievement is in making this conversation, for all its explicitness, seem genuinely fragile, a ‘miraculous once-in-a-life-time thing’ which is sustained through larger and larger helpings of candour. As compulsive a confessor as any of Baker’s characters, Jim also needs to be charged up with truths: ‘I need to know secrets and have secrets and keep secrets. I need to be confided in.’ The plot stems from the way he and Abby improvise to prolong their exchange, to deflect moments of crisis and build to a timely climax. At one point, having succeeded in weaving an elaborate fantasy, Jim dries up, complaining: ‘I feel that any second I’m going to misstep in telling this. It’s very stressful.’ Abby has to collaborate, to enter his fantasy and help him continue. At other times, even as they confess to being turned on and get further turned on by the act of confessing, the two circle cautiously around personal details. She will only tell him she lives ‘in an eastern city’, while he won’t give her his home number so that they can talk direct: what if ‘we’re suddenly awkward with each other, and we’re never quite able to resume the intimacy that we seemed to hit so easily the first time?’ The urgency with which they encourage one another to ‘keep talking’ suggests a loneliness as deep as any desire.

In Virtual Reality Howard Rheingold asks: ‘If technology enables you to experience erotic frissons, or deep physical, social, emotional communion with another person with no possibility of pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases, what then of conventional morality?’ What too, we might ask, does technosex mean for fiction’s traditional territory, the love story? Baker’s answer seems to be that the old forms are surprisingly accommodating. Jim describes discovering in a second-hand bookstore a series of women’s romances, all with titles like Love’s Eager Trial: seriously excited by their residual charge of female arousal, he purchases one of the more hardcore volumes, in which the heroine woos and finally wins a ‘klutzy scientist’. Jim is impressed: ‘when you read some of the stuff that passes for highbrow these days, you’ve got to admire it for hanging back so humbly in the genre category.’ No one could accuse Baker of hanging back in any category, but in a sense Vox, too, is nothing but a courtship romance, which proceeds through hesitation and growing intimacy to an unashamedly torrid climax. The story-spinning Jim is a more obvious figure of the novelist than either Mike or Howie, perhaps because in Abby – to whom he exclaims, ‘you get it, you understand, you have a complicated response to things’ – he has found his ideal reader. Nicholson Baker, we realise, has been similarly seducing the reader all along. As Hazlitt said of Coleridge, ‘he talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on for ever’: provoking, insistent and uniquely beguiling, endlessly digressive and yet always to the point, his is the unmistakable music of vox humana.