Christopher Tayler

  • House of Holes by Nicholson Baker
    Simon and Schuster, 262 pp, £14.99, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 85720 659 6

‘Sometimes,’ a woman says during phone sex in Vox, Nicholson Baker’s first foray into smut, ‘I think with the telephone that if I concentrate enough I could pour myself into it and I’d be turned into a mist and I would rematerialise in the room of the person I’m talking to.’ That’s more or less how people get to the House of Holes – a sexual spa resort, offering expensive bespoke treatments, located in a parallel dimension. Almost any kind of opening can serve as a portal through which visitors are sucked in an atomised state before recondensing at the HoH, often wearing fewer clothes. One character gets there through the end of a drinking straw; another makes the journey via his own urethra, an experience that’s described as ‘odd’ and ‘self-referential’. Many things are possible at the HoH: reversible ‘crotchal transfers’, for instance, or sex, of a sort, with Rimsky-Korsakov. In exchange for a larger penis, a man called Dave has an arm lopped off. Another man, Dune, threatened with the loss of a finger for a breach of the house rules, volunteers to swap genitals with Marcela, an art critic.

It sounds like a less po-faced version of the Chapman brothers’ work – figures with penises for noses and that sort of thing. But unlike many blenders of porn and art, or of sex and strange comedy, Baker doesn’t add a slug of grimness, an ingredient he’s never cared for. ‘Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life’, Howie, the narrator of his first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), reads in Marcus Aurelius. ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong!’ he writes. ‘Destructive and unhelpful and misguided and completely untrue!’ – though ‘harmless, even agreeably sobering’, to a man having a pleasant lunch break. Baker’s narrators are unswerving about this. ‘Spending your life concentrating on death is like watching a whole movie and thinking only about the credits that are going to roll at the end,’ we’re told in The Anthologist (2009). ‘It’s a mistake of emphasis.’

When Baker was starting out, his good cheer was a clue that he wasn’t a programmatic avant-gardist, though it took a while for everyone to notice. In U&I (1991), his witty exploration of his feelings towards John Updike (‘this imaginary friend I have constructed out of sodden crisscrossing strips of rivalry and gratefulness over an armature of remembered misquotation’), he mentions his surprise at being compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet and Francis Ponge by reviewers of his first two books. It’s easy to see how they got there: The Mezzanine – Howie’s footnote-strewn account of a morning at his anonymous corporate workplace, defamiliarised by intricate descriptions of vending machines and shoelaces – looks a bit like an Americanised nouveau roman and puts Baker somewhere on a line of descent between Donald Barthelme, with whom he briefly studied, and David Foster Wallace. Yet Howie isn’t void-struck or an object of satire. Like Mike, the narrator of Baker’s second novel, Room Temperature (1990), he just wants to get things ‘correctly situated in the felt periphery of life’. ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er etc’ is listed, between ‘Paper towel dispensers’ and ‘People are very dissimilar,’ on a chart in which Howie ranks his subjects of thought by frequency.

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