Alternate title: What the hell is Nicholson Baker trying to say in House of Holes?
“Look up at those great clouds while […] I fuck the planet earth.”
Published in 2011, House of Holes is described on the back as “a modern-day Hieronymus Boschian bacchanal set in a pleasure resort where rules don’t apply.”
I don’t know what some of those words mean. I’d describe it as a filthy, fun, sci-fi porno enriched by Baker’s wonderful gift for language, but fails to hold my undivided interest for the entire thing. In that sense, it’s almost exactly like a porno. I’ll go back to it occasionally, but not to re-read the whole thing. I’ll just flip to the money shots.
Like these: “You mean I’m supposed to wank while Crackers does a lap dance?” (97) Even in context, I find this line LOLable.
Or this dry exchange: “Thank you,” said Kazumi. “I will let you feel my breasts now.” “Okay, great. Thanks.” Wade felt her breasts. (117)
Anything that isn’t completely out there and/or repugnant (like a woman being shrunk to a half-inch in size and stuck in a man’s penis, forcing him to masturbate her out.) is given nary any page space. “Mindy cooked him a three egg omelet and he ate it.” (228) And then back to the bangin’!
Holes is a collection of loosely related stories with recurring characters. Each one has a setup usually involving two strangers who have absolutely no qualms about discussing their most private and kinky sexual fantasies with each other. Then they do them. And anything is possible in the strange sci-fi world of the House of Holes, especially when it starts off with a girl named Shandee finding a disembodied arm that then feels up her roommate (causing Shandee to get fo’ realz jealous), that then transports them to a magical sex carnival.
The set-up, brief exposition, XXX action, and money shot would get tiring if it wasn’t so incredibly out there and imaginative.
Still, after almost 200 pages of this, I started to wonder: Why?
It’s not until page 167 until any of his characters seem to show any form of human emotion, but in a very robotic fashion.
“And what after all is a soul mate?” “A soul mate is when you really think someone is great. You really like her a lot. You like when she explains things to you. You love her. That’s a soul mate.” “Oh,” said Trix. “Will you take me to the groanrooms?” Then they go to a pitch-black room and moan at each other. It’s like an aural orgy.
Later, there’s a very interesting chapter about Ned, who has his head detached (don’t worry, he’s fine), which leaves his body to have sex all by itself and the woman named Reece who rents out his body in the Headless Bedroom. She kind of has to teach the body what to do, sexwise, and grapple with her own feelings about casual sex. What’s more casual than having sex with a body that can’t think, speak, or respond?
If the tables were turned, and the woman was headless, it would come across as quite sexist at the least. But Baker never makes his women objects. They have their own desires and drives, and they always get what they want too. Even though all the sex is exclusively hetero, it’s a very inclusive book, spanning many different fetishes.
Holes has a surprisingly wholesome message: Two consenting adults can and should be able to do whatever the heck they want without any judgment. Your imagination is the only thing holding you back.
Baker occasionally makes other points beyond just “ngghghghghgh.” When magically removing a client’s tattoos Hax says, “[Tattoos are] something that hides you. It is a way of not being naked while being naked” (110). And when magically growing back Jessica’s pubic hair, Hax says about shaving, “That, too, is a way of hiding. No hair means you are dressed in hairlessness. You are finding a way to be clothed when you aren’t clothed. Hair is your true nakedness. Do you want your nakedness back?” (110) I hate living in such a shaved and plucked society. Hair is a statement. Hairlessness is the cowardly way out, and Baker put into words something I didn’t even know I had been thinking for a long, long time.
The book has what seems to be an almost backwards ending. A small couple made out of silver living in an egg (ignore the silver skin and egg part if you must) discover their own private parts, that they give them pleasure, and that they’re attracted to one another. On the last day the House of Holes is open for business, the egg hatches and the couple copulates in front of a cheering crowd of hundred.
Yes, this kinky book ends with a couple in love having vanilla sex with one other. Of course it’s voyeuristic, but every book taps into that voyeuristic desire to see and analyze someone’s private life. Back to the point, this couple is cheered and celebrated in its innocence.
So what do we learn, along with the residents of the House of Holes? Despite your kinkiest desires (and may they bring you the greatest of pleasure when you act them out safely and responsibility), loving sex of any kind, no matter how plain, is to be celebrated and revered.
I also recently finished Baker’s The Mezzanine, which, as far as Holes go, is startlingly clean. But it has the same wide-eyed appreciation for seemingly mundane aspects of life that I really connect with. I’ll write about that book soon.