From the beginning of his career, the US novelist Nicholson Baker made it obvious that he was gripped by the detritus of capitalism: in his first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), he praised floating straws, toothpaste tubes and shoelaces. It was a terrain crowded with objects, but seen through the eyes of the solitary flâneur. In her 1978 essay “Under the Sign of Saturn”, the critic Susan Sontag, invoking the ur-flâneur Walter Benjamin, wrote: “If [the] melancholy temperament is faithless to people, it has good reason to be faithful to things. Fidelity lies in accumulating things – which appear, mostly, in the form of fragments and ruins.”
But Baker’s landscape wasn’t necessarily composed of the ruins that Sontag felt the melancholic was drawn to. It was a shiny world created by the free market. The Mezzanine began with a paean to a pair of escalators: “They were the free-standing kind: a pair of integral signs swooping upward … ” Baker’s language is prescient of the critic Fredric Jameson’s testament, three years later in 1991, to the birth of the postmodern in LA’s Bonaventure Hotel. What Jameson realised there, in a moment of illumination, was that the architecture of the present shunned depth, and was all surface and refraction. Describing the escalators and glass elevators, Jameson may have had Baker in mind when he compared the latter to “great Japanese lanterns and gondolas”. In Baker, the new world order had already found its new poet.
In U and I (1991), his self-regarding book about John Updike, Baker revealed further his comic acuity and his lack of fidelity to human beings (dressed though the book was as a homage to one). His new novel House of Holes is about a pleasure-dome for sex: thus the “holes” in the title. But a hole is also an absence, and it’s in that sense that Baker used the word in U and I, when describing his abortive plan to write a critical appreciation of the writer Donald Barthelme: “It was, after all, the standard way to fill the hole a writer leaves behind.”
To move from the sensory and sensuous to the sensual and masturbatory is logical, at least if you think of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Baker made that move with Vox (1992), which celebrated phone sex and shocked many of his admirers. He followed it with The Fermata (1994), a tale about a man who has the ability to stop time and unclothe women. These books are as much about sex as they’re about the redundancy of human beings in the context of fantasy and especially writing – Baker’s original, subterranean theme. The couple in Vox never meet; the women in The Fermata don’t have any memory of being touched.
In House of Holes, the human being is an accessory to the body, rather than the other way round. Bodies, and even body parts, have personalities and sometimes names; the personalities and psychologies of people – notwithstanding their relentless impulse toward localised pleasure – are more difficult to fathom. Each chapter about this sex resort (which is at once situated in middle America and in allegory) is self-contained and descriptive of fresh encounters.
The story begins with an encounter between a woman called Shandee and a severed arm – “It belongs to someone named Dave” – which then proceeds to pleasure her girlfriend Rianne: “He has a lovely touch.” This is a preamble to a journey made by several people to the House of Holes, at which they arrive through any sort of O-shaped opening – the window of a washing-machine; a full-stop; an O created by the thumb and the index finger – to find the men, women, implements and ambulatory body parts that will help them to orgasm. Technology also allows some men to temporarily acquire vaginas, and women penises, so that, Tiresias-like, the gamut of sensation can be experienced, without, however, any of Tiresias’s agonised self-division.
What’s most bizarre about these chapters is their uniformly upbeat pitch and repetitiveness, which is not quite the repetitiveness of pornography. I suppose the best way to describe it is to say that it feels like a cross between the children’s series Teletubbies – with its happy venue (the Tubbytronic Superdome finds its counterpart in the House of Holes’ Porndecahedron), recognisable implements, simplified landscape, childlike joy – and a sort of Ovidian mysticism (the metamorphic bits to do with bodies are occasionally quite disorientingly beautiful). Teletubbies is about the comfort of the familiar, and so is House of Holes; but Ovid gave us the uncanny, and Baker does too.
Amit Chaudhuri is professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia and author of ‘The Immortals’ (Picador)
House of Holes, by Nicholson Baker, Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99, 272 pages