Monday, January 07, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #372: House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

You know how some genres are massively unrealistic, all tied up in their specific tropes and expectations?

Some people see that as a limitation. Nicholson Baker sees it as a challenge.

House of Holes is his post-modern porn novel -- well, Vox and The Fermata were also porn novels, of a kind, but House of Holes is a porn novel for our Internet-steeped, all-kink-all-the-time world, where everything is fine as long as you don't do it in the road and scare the horses.

(Note that I am not saying it is a good novel. It isn't. But let's see where my typing fingers take me.)

Porn, like improvisational comedy, relies on the "yes, and" reaction. In the fictional world of a porn, everyone is happy to have sex with the people who want to have sex with them, and everyone magically lines up perfectly in interests and kinks. If one person in a sex scene suddenly wants her toes sucked, her partner loves the idea.

Ironically, porn is frictionless. The world in which porn takes place is one where it's always easier, preferable, and more pleasant to just have sex. That's not any real world, but when so many stories take place in patently unreal worlds, why should we balk at this one version?

There are a lot of names in House of Holes, but none of them are really characters. Like a lot of porn, there are a lot of names so supposedly different characters can do different things with different people over time -- it would be boring if there were only two names, even if nearly all of the scenes here are deeply conventional one-man-having-sex-with-one-woman sessions.

The title House of Holes is a mildly extradimensional realm, run by a woman named Lila. It seems like anyone can go there, through various mystic portals found in various holes here and there, but there's clearly some kind of sorting mechanism: only those people who match the porn paradigm (at least relatively young, attractive, and having the mindset I described above) make it through. For some undefined "season" -- which is only mentioned at the end, in a slightly awkward way an unfriendly reader might characterize as Baker suddenly realizing he has no plot and no characters and has to make up some way to end the damn thing -- those people gambol and cavort in various sex-themed resort-type activities.

A few of them are employees. Most of the women are allowed in free, or nearly free, for the obvious reasons. Men pay through the nose, gladly. It's not clear if Baker means this as some kind of metaphor for sex in general, but House of Holes is generally too sunny for cynical interpretations.

Each of the first eight or ten chapters shows a new character, mostly alternating between male and female, stumbling upon the House of Holes and looking for fun there. These scenes all have something in common with portal fantasy, but none of the new arrivals are particularly surprised by their new surroundings, and all are thrilled to get down to the serious fucking. After a large cast -- or at least a large number of names with a couple of attributes each -- has been assembled, Baker begins to mix and match, and to return to some of the thin plot-like threads he has set up, but new characters continue to arrive until nearly the end: endless novelty is an absolute requisite in the land of porn.

The sex these names have is generally very conventional: the major real-world fetishes are vanishingly rare in the House of Holes. (Nothing in the vast realm of BDSM, surprisingly no serious group action, partner-swapping, or anonymous activities, and so on.) Baker seems more interested in sex as masturbation, so there's a lot of couples manually pleasuring themselves or each other, and some mild bukkake related to that -- the old "woman is sexually excited by seeing a man obviously sexually excited" porn trope. He does make use of his mildly SFnal setup for some body-part swapping and similar stuff -- warehoused heads, runaway arms, dick swaps, and one super-shrunk woman. So if your fetishes happen to head in that very particular direction, you may be in luck.

There's a little mild situational lesbianism, as I recall, but no male-male activity. This is disappointing, even for me as a deeply straight man -- most of the other sex-positive stories I've seen (mostly in comics) make a point of including non-straight sexualities across the QUILTBAG spectrum. Baker, on the other hand, is pretty much locked into a somewhat old-fashioned Tab A into Slot B porn paradigm. (Even when a male-female couple swap bits, that's what they then do with their borrowed bits.)

So the plot isn't the point of House of Holes. Nor the characters, nor even (maybe surprisingly) the sex itself. Baker is a literary writer, so the appeal here is his invented thesaurus of sex. Let me pick some random pages for examples: titboobs, "his purple cameroon," "her cuntal hand," crotchy holders, the pornmonster, dickybird, Monsieur Twinklestump. He uses the standard Anglo-Saxon terms a lot, too, but gets into silly flights of linguistic fantasy regularly when describing what the body parts are doing in this scene.

I found the language often painfully goofy, and regularly distracting, but I think "distracting" is the point. Baker doesn't want the reader to have the usual reaction to porn; he wants that reader to keep being pulled out of the porn-world by his strange terms, and keep dropping back in again. In fact, I think House of Holes is exactly the book Baker wanted it to be: mildly arousing, entirely superficial, arguable as a commentary on porn by a writer who clearly hasn't been particularly engaged with porn for a few decades at best. It's a fine book for vanilla people who want something a little naughty, but it can come across as pretty thin to anyone looking for more than that.

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