Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Vox by Nicholson Baker

For some inexplicable reason, one week in early August I decided to spend the week reading smutty books of one kind and another. This was the first of four books on that loose theme that week -- all short, all with some redeeming value, but all about sex in one way or other.

Vox is probably the great smutty novel of the current generation, as Peyton Place was for the post-war generation and I guess Valley of the Dolls was for the boomers. Nicholson Baker, though, has always been a miniaturist in his fiction, so he was never going to give us the sprawling state-of-the-world style of those earlier examples. No, a Baker book is usually about an event, something simple and discreet, that he can then elaborate, to see how much complexity he can layer on top of something simple.

So Vox is the story of one call; two people who connected on a phone-sex line and who switched over to a private line the second before the book begins. Abby and Jim are horny, but they still have high standards: they want to talk to someone interesting while they masturbate.

And they find each other so interesting that they talk for about a hundred and sixty pages before they get down to the serious masturbation.

This is a Baker novel, so it's full of digressions. It starts off about sex, and continuously loops back to sex, since the two people involved want it to, but the conversation isn't closely focused -- the two of them are throwing out ideas and images that arouse them, and riffing on those. They enjoy talking with each other, talking dirty -- I almost said flirting, but it's more than flirting if you hands are already in your pants -- and, in the end, almost enjoy it enough to never stop.

But sex always leads to a climax, and so does Vox. Readers will be happy to learn that it has two climaxes, basically simultaneously, as in all the best such stories.

Baker is an interesting and inventive writer, particularly as he keeps giving himself near-Oulipo-level restraints on what he can write about in a particular book. Vox is one of his most restrained books, since it's nearly all about sex, and thus almost pure Baker. I find that his books are short enough to be enjoyable without wearing out their welcome, but, in case of this particular book, that will depend a lot on your interest in sex and willingness to listen in on these two people's fantasies and desires. (They're pretty vanilla, but I know some of you are either too prudish to like anything or too jaded to care about the basics -- because people are both of those things, and you're people.)

Vox isn't the scandalous book it was twenty-four years ago, and it's technology is slightly outdated. (Who looks for a hookup by talking, these days?) But the impulse and the desire is eternal, and it's still a sexy run through the fantasies of two inventive people who are discovering how compatible they are.

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