I’ve seen some flimsy logic in my time, but Elaine Blair’s review of House of Holes in The New York Review is pretty flimsy. The first two-thirds of the review are taken up by a description of the book, which is fine enough. Blair basically describes it as nothing more than straight pornography, albeit written with Nicholson Baker’s characteristic facility.
In the final third of the review, as if suddenly realizing that the book should do something more than just be high-class fodder for your personal pleasure, Blair strikes out into new territory. Noting the book’s complete separation from anything resembling reality–that the book, in fact, has nothing to do with anything involving sex in any known reality on planet Earth–Blair declares:
This will feel, to many masturbators, like a loss. But having banished these troubling reprobates from his paradise, Baker can draw a magic circle of wholesomeness around sexual situations that we normally interpret as scenes of defilement. I’m thinking, for example, of the woman in the House of Holes who makes “an emergency top-level request for dick” and welcomes into her hotel room eighteen tumescent men who masturbate over her while the woman exhorts them to “Jerk it out! Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry!” In the cheerful, egalitarian atmosphere of House of Holes, a woman’s desire to be covered in the semen of many men seems as unexceptional as her desire for intercourse or cunnilingus.
Essentially, a world where all sex is considered a priori wholesome simply because it fulfills one’s desires, is a utopia.
From here, Blair makes the leap that because in this world women need not feel any shame whatsoever at any kind of sexual fantasy they may have, Baker has constructed a realm that fixes sex. This is the basis of the “utopia”:
The wish behind Baker’s idyll is to be rid of the notion of female sexual abjection. Not only does this allow women greater sexual abandon, the book implies, but it also liberates men: the male characters don’t have to worry about offending or abusing women, nor do they have to worry about calling them for a second date.
Blair goes on to encourage that parents of her generation give the book to their children so that they can learn to have the joys of completely guiltless sex, with Bakers many illustrative scenes providing the education.
I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous on at least two grounds: first of all, how in the world would robbing women of any sexual mores whatsoever be a sudden liberating force that would make of sex a joyous nirvana of joussaince for both men and women? Call me stupid, but I have the idea that the very thing that makes sex enticing is the transgression of those norms, or at least the fact of having to contend with some sort of friction (excuse the pun) along the way to the eventual orgasm. And isn’t this argument for complete sexual freedom just a rehash of the arguments of the ’60s that . . . well, that opened the legal and moral pathway for books like Baker’s, that aspire to nothing greater than pornography?
But secondly and moreover, why would this instruction be helpful to anyone? Quite clearly, even if women wanted to have semen squirted on them by some 20 men without feeling any guilt or shame in the least, they couldn’t simple choose to throw off all of the cultural and personal baggage surrounding such a feat and do it. That’s why Baker’s book is pure fantasy, as Blair herself recognizes. It doesn’t pertain to any reality that any of us live with, and so its value as education is zero.
This, to me, seems to be the problem with Baker’s book: it presents sex as disconnected from any social, historical, gender, etc, etc, etc reality one could imagine. Except in a gross anatomical sense, the people having sex in this book are hardly human. How could such a book be valuable in any way other than a sort of erudite, high-class pornography? I suppose that’s fine if that’s what you want to read it for, but I would think that the critics of America would ask for more out of a writer of Baker’s stature.
We might usefully compare this book to J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which is also about establishing a revolutionary sexual order. The very success of that book is that it relates the bizarre sex envisioned by its narrator and friends to the world in which they–and we–live. More than that–it presents their vision of violent, technologically inflected sex as an argument about the culture that they live in, and where it is headed. Rather than simply abandon the world, as Baker does, it takes the reader on a journey from what we would recognize as our own world into a counter world dominated by the signs and sights understood by those who grasp the logic of Crash. It initiates us into a new order, which, I think Ballard would argue, is in some very important ways reveals the order that we already live in.
But Baker, cleanly severing his fake sexual world from anything having to do with ours, reveals nothing.
More from Conversational Reading:
- How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us? Katie Roiphe’s NYTBR essay on sex and American fiction is full of holes (Kunkel, Franzen, and Foer the heirs apparent to Roth, Updike, and Mailer?)....
- House of Holes The new Nicholson Baker novel (or rather “book of raunch”) sounds good, but ultimately, bad. The B&N Review: This can’t be called a failure, though....
- Menand on Baker The New Yorker: He likes to surprise, though, and one surprise in his new book (not the biggest surprise) is that it is all done...
- On the Coming of Science Fiction’s Time via Atwood and Ballard Interesting synchronicity in the literary pages last week. First, from Jonathan Lethem’s review of JG Ballard’s complete short stories: Ballard was, unmistakably, a literary futurist,...
- Lethem on JG Ballard By now, everybody has linked Jonathan Lethem’s review of JG Ballard’s complete short stories, just out from Norton. But I thought Lethem really nailed it...
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