Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Nicholson Baker's fiction is the way it seems both to ingratiate and provoke, aspires to be both accessible and difficult. Most of his novels could be described as at the same time formally simple--a man tends to his six-month old baby one afternoon, two people hold a telephone conversation--and quite radical, at least while we are still attempting to adjust ourselves as readers to such reduced narrative assumptions (which conversely expand the scope of the narrative's attention.) Stylistically, the novels are also simultaneously transparent, with few "literary" affectations, and elaborate, the sentences themselves expanding in length and complexity to meet the challenges of the kinds of minute observations and prolonged reflections in which Baker's narrators habitually engage. Even the themes of Baker's books can seem both obvious and not that easy to discern. What finally are we to make of the succession of images and memories that go through the mind of the narrator of The Mezzanine as he ascends an escalator, or are we left simply with the fact of their succession? How are we to regard the narrator of The Fermata, who tells us of his magical powers to suspend time, which he then exploits to remove the clothing of desirable women? Is he repulsive? Pathetic? An honest portrayal of the creepier inclinations harbored by all men, maybe by everyone?
Baker is probably best known for works such as The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, and A Box of Matches, in which the dilation of time, the obsessive recording of detail, and the constant sidetracking onto secondary and tertiary paths of thought characterizing his work are most pronounced. These novels test the reader's patience with their narrators' propensity to digress, as well as their intense interest in such things as shoelaces and airplane tray tables, but the narrators go about their business with such good cheer, assuming we will of course share such interests and appreciate the painstaking delineation of them, our resistance is weakened, ideally leading us to reconsider our presumptive need for a more recognizable story to develop. As the first, most audacious, and probably most successful of these books, The Mezzanine in particular seems likely to endure as a signature work, both standing as an impressively achieved first novel and providing potential insights into Baker's strategies that I believe can help us approach Baker's other books as well, even those that might seem departures from the expectations set up by The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, his second novel.
Because at the time The Mezzanine was published "minimalism" was the most prominent trend in American fiction, some critics did attempt to associate this novel with minimalist neorealism, and there are on a first impression some reasons to regard Baker both as a minimalist of sorts and as a realist. Although his minimalism is a minimalism of plot rather that style, Baker's first books do seem to share with minimalism an inclination to pare back the ambitions of fiction and to return it, after the purported excesses of postmodernism, to a more willing acceptance of the conventions of realism. However, their reduction of plot to such microlevels of act and observation are so extreme, their fixation on surface details so insistent, they could almost be regarded as parodies of minimalism. Fiction's scale and scope have been constrained so radically in these novels that it may even at first seem they do not ask to be taken seriously. When it eventually becomes clear the author is sincere indeed, the effect is if anything more comic yet, although certainly Baker's narrators do not intend for us to take their accounts with anything other than the dedicated seriousness of purpose with which they are related.
Ultimately Baker's minimalism is really its own kind of maximalism. The microscopic focus on quotidian objects and processes that ordinarily escape our notice is a way of rescuing them from neglect, of preserving them in their actual profusion as elements of human reality. His characters are so immersed in their environments and their interests that the perspective normally provided in a work of fiction, which avoids proliferation of detail and refrains from following all streams of thought in the selective way that allows a story to emerge, is necessarily replaced with one that sacrifices story but arguably stays closer to reality--at least as these characters engage with it. Moreover, their preoccupations are certainly not registered in a style that could be called minimalist:
. . .For a second the fifteen-percent figure made me unhappy, and then I thought, Fine, yes, I welcome all this imperfect mingling--I want this circling refluxion of our old reconditioned pleasures and our new genuine ones to continue for years, decades, until it becomes impossible to trace backward the history of any particular liking, just as it was impossible to unstir the rash dollops of red or yellow tint my mother used to add to the custom-mixed paints she got from Sears: she used old peanut butter jars as receptacles, and sat cross-legged in the side yard pouring imperceptibly different yellow-greens from one jar to another, refining the color that she wanted for the porcelain-knobbed dresser in my sister's room, though the young technician in the paint department at Sears had with apparently scientific precision injected what seemed to me a perfectly acceptable series of squirts of yellow, cyan, and magenta from the paint organ into a while base, according to the recipe in a notebook for the sample chip my mother had matched to the border of the cloth calendar. . . . (Room Temperature)
In what may be Baker's most notorious books, Vox, The Fermata, and now House of Holes, we are presented with characters whose preoccupation is with sex, but even here the emphasis is on variety and detail. Baker is not really concerned with the psychology of sex, with sex as an expression of love or intimacy, or even with sex in the conventional form of sexual intercourse. All of these books emphasize the multifarious ways of eliciting sexual arousal and of achieving sexual release. Autoeroticism and mutual masturbation occur as frequently as actual sexual congress between a man and a woman (and Baker's depiction of sexual activity is almost entirely heterosexual). Fantasies of sex are perhaps as common as sex itself. The most noteworthy quality of Baker's treatment of sex may be the way it emphasizes the sheer enjoyment it provides. The depiction of sexual desire and the myriad ways it might be satisfied is relentlessly sex-positive, even in The Fermata, whose narrator acts on his fantasies in a way many readers could find distasteful. Vox is an unambiguous celebration of sex, in this case allowing both its male and its female protagonist to indulge their uninhibited fantasies.
House of Holes is even more emphatically about sex than Vox or The Fermata. One could argue that Vox is also about the need for caution in sexual relations in the AIDS era, with its protagonists confining themselves to the safety of phone sex, or about "sex" as an artificial construct, a phenomenon of language, while The Fermata could be taken as a satire of the male preoccupation with sex. Both of these novels certainly offer representations of explicit sexual activity (at least in fantasies), but neither could really be called pornographic in either legal or artistic terms. Each features well-rendered, believable characters whose existence cannot be reduced to their participation in sexual activity. The creation of these characters involves subtle uses of point of view, so that in Vox the more aggressive and at times more explicit conversation of the male caller is balanced off against the more restrained sensuality evidenced in the talk of the female caller, each influencing the other, eventually approaching a kind of harmony that mirrors the movement of a love story. The Fermata is related to us in the first person by its potentially unsympathetic narrator, but Baker gives him a voice that is undeniably engaging and helps to mitigate the contempt we might otherwise have for him, an aesthetic triumph that in itself brings redeeming value to the novel that raises it beyond the pornographic.
House of Holes has few of these complexities and might indeed be the most direct and sustained exercise in pornography of the three sex novels. It is about people having sex, explicitly and in almost innumerable varieties. There is no single protagonist or controlling consciousness, simply a third-person narrator relating the various characters' escapades at the “House of Holes,” an erotic resort to which its sundry visitors suddenly find themselves transported by entering real holes. This initial fantasy device—characters are sucked through a hole on a golf green, through a straw, etc.—sets up the House of Holes as itself a place where sexual fantasies can be fulfilled, and Baker lets his imagination loose. In addition to depicting a multitude of sexual positions and expressions, the novel features a severed arm and hand adept at pleasuring women, a "crotchal transfer," whereby a man and woman exchange genitals, and a sculptress who gives birth to her sculptures (made of "ass wood") after engaging in anal intercourse. As in Vox and The Fermata, sex is portrayed with great energy and humor, and while it is all very colorful and explicit, it would be difficult to call this a "dirty" book, if to be dirty or smutty requires that sex be implicitly regarded as shameful, something that otherwise should remain furtive, hidden from view and excluded from conversation.
In an essay criticizing Baker for writing a book like House of Holes, Barret Hathcock asserts that it is indeed a dirty book and cannot "be evaluated as anything but pornography." That House of Holes consists of graphic representations of sex is undeniable, but Hathcock's assumption appears to be that if the novel is pornographic it is thus by definition irredeemable as literary art. He goes so far as to charge that Baker is "demeaning" himself by indulging in the pornography of this novel. But there is no reason to conclude that even if a literary work can be called pornographic it can't also be worthwhile as art. The possibility that the pornographic representations in House of Holes might make some readers uncomfortable or even offend them is not itself a reason to assert the author ought to feel shameful because he is not also uncomfortable. It is also no reason to regard the work as without value, however difficult one might find it to appreciate that value because of a distaste for the sexual content it offers.
Hathcock believes that House of Holes could be aesthetically credible only if it were to "comment" on "our current sex-saturated culture" or if it revealed "an interesting inner life" in its characters, neither of which is attempted by the novel. This assumption that a work of fiction can be regarded as "art" only if it is engaged in "saying something" or in "going deep" into human consciousness (ideally both) is a widely shared one. It betrays the further, rather strange, assumption that aesthetic success has more to do with subject and content than it does with the actual fashioning of art through style and form. Presumably if Baker could be found to be satirizing sexual mores or critiquing the cultural preoccupation with sex as reflected in pornography Hathcock would find something aesthetically valuable in House of Holes. Similarly, if it were to focus on revealing what goes through the minds of the sexually adventurous characters as they frolic their way through the narrative, we would be witnessing something more appropriately aesthetic. But Baker merely presents their frolics without satire or social commentary (although certainly with humor); this is content of which Hathcock disapproves, so it by that measure alone lacks art.1 Such standards seem to me misguided as applied to any fiction with specifically artistic ambition, but they are especially misguided when applied to Nicholson Baker's work.
Baker is neither a satirist nor a psychological realist. However much his fiction examines the shared (if often ignored) details of contemporary social reality, it does so not in order to dissect it but to record it, not to mock it or call it into question but simply to apprehend it fully. If anything, Baker's fiction could be accused of being too uncritical of the reality it records, too willing to accept things as they are, especially the "things" that exist as the commodities of modern capitalism. One could say that Baker's novels are "about" their characters' self-conscious immersion in their reality, but this focus is on the "inner life" only in the way in which the novels' protagonists themselves bring it to the surface. Since most of the novels are first-person narratives, we have access only to the thoughts and perceptions the narrators have chosen to verbalize. Psychologically, these characters are remarkably transparent: one would hardly think to look for their hidden motives or deep psychological conflicts. Finally, that House of Holes offers no social criticism and attempts no exploration of its characters' minds should not be at all surprising, since these ambitions have always been absent from Nicholson Baker's fiction. Baker's art is the art of sincerity and the surface.
In some ways, sex seems a quintessential subject for Nicholson Baker's art and House of Holes his most adventurous treatment of the subject. It is a common human activity that might be considered fundamentally simple but that invites almost infinite expressions--especially in Nicholson Baker's meticulous rendering. The multiplicity of sexual acts might seem obsessional, but what have Baker's books been from the beginning but chronicles of obsession (including his own obsession with John Updike in U and I)? Similarly, one might find the episodic structure of the novel, by which each episode relates a new sexual experience, repetitive, but why would anyone familiar with Baker's work find the strategic use of repetition surprising? That House of Holes completes what is now a trilogy of sex novels suggests not so much that Nicholson Baker has a dirty mind but that he himself recognizes that this subject allows him to exploit his distinctive approach to fiction in a particularly felicitous way.
Yet at the same time, House of Holes significantly departs from Baker's previous novels both formally and stylistically. Although it shares with those novels a refusal of conventionally plotted narrative, its use of sequential episodes, each of them tidily provided with a proper story structure, aligns it more closely with traditional storytelling, while continuing Baker's resistance to larger-scale narrative development. This episodic structure combined with the novel's large cast of characters necessitates that Baker use a third-person point of view for the first time in his published work. The narrative voice is lively enough, specializing in particular in colorful names for the sexual organs—"She lay on the bed and stuck two fingers up her simmering chickenshack and shook them"—but this voice does lack the more personal charm many of Baker's first-person narrators are able to convey through their sincere efforts to share their experiences, however strangely magnified or entangled they become. The most immediate manifestation of the different sort of voice we encounter in House of Holes is literally in its style, which is much more functional, less disposed to the sometimes circuitous syntax of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature:
Pendle peered closely at the ad, and suddenly he felt a powerful air current pulling his hair and the whole of his head downward. He was vacuumed down into the black circle. He lost consciousness for a moment, and he came to he was in Lila's office. Lila was the director of the House of Holes. She was large and pretty in bifocals, about fifty, with lots of loose light-brown hair. Pendle told her that he was there about the job in The Rooster.
It may really be the tamer prose style represented in a passage like this, more than the pornographic content, perhaps, that prompts some readers to regard House of Holes as a disappointment, "unworthy" of Nicholson Baker. In those scenes depicting explicit sex, such a style would seem to even further emphasize the sexual content, leaving the impression that Baker's usual facility with language has been sacrificed for the naked (so to speak) pornographic imagery. Even so, we should not overlook that much of this imagery is actually conveyed through dialogue, making House of Holes closer in form to Vox and, as in that book, framing the subject as talk about sex and the healthy loss of inhibition such talk can bring at least as much as about direct representations of sexual acts. This loss of inhibition seems to have a particularly liberating effect on the female characters, who are portrayed affirming their sexual desires and asserting their right to sexual satisfaction. If what Baker has produced here is "pornography," it is certainly much in contrast to the usual male-centered focus characterizing pornography as a genre.
Since Baker has now written three novels about sex, we must assume that he himself considers this a subject both worthy of his time and consistent with his concerns as a writer. Perhaps it is coherent to believe that he shouldn't think so, but unless we are led to conclude that taking up this subject makes Nicholson Baker some sort of moral reprobate, I don't really know what purpose it serves to insist he should write about something else. It seems unlikely Baker would have written these novels only to provoke indignant responses from readers and critics, although House of Holes reinforces the impression his ambitions do not include the attempt to court universal approval.
1It should also be said that Hathcock otherwise expresses admiration for Baker's work and has intelligent things to say about Baker's fiction, even if he does disapprove of House of Holes.