REVIEW: House of Holes, by Nicholson Baker

Eight pages into his newest novel, House of Holes, Nicholson Baker issues one of his characters, an affable golfer by the name of Ned, a friendly warning in the form of a sign posted in the front yard of the titular House. “All bets are off,” the sign reads, and Mr. Baker means it.  Lest we doubt, Ned—who arrived at the extra- or perhaps supra-dimensional House by way of falling through the hole on the seventh green—will, within three pages, undergo an exploratory crotch-sniffing by the interestingly-nippled Tendresse, with the aim of determining whether or not he is possessed of magic sperm. (He is not). Of course, by this time, a disembodied but still very much alive arm (it survives via a powerpack that runs on fish food mashed up in an electrolyte solution, of course) has tenderly and good-naturedly fondled and masturbated not one but two women, teleporting the second to the House in the process. The arm belongs to Dave, who temporarily traded it for a larger, thicker penis, obtained via cross-crotchal transfer from an Australian photographer named Glenn. And so on.

Absurdity threatens to unhinge the book at most every turn. The House itself is Baker’s first gamble. Presented with no explanation and no guile, the House is not one structure but a multi-themed adult amusement park consisting of mountains, forests, bodies of water and many, many attractions dedicated to the unbridled and broadly envisioned pursuit of sexual pleasure. We are made privy to the existence of Masturboats, pussy-boarding, penis trees, pornsucker ships flown by pussypilots arranged in pornsucker squadrons, and cross-crotchal interplasmic transfers, which are more or less exactly what they sound like. Guests can visit the Hall of Penises, the Garden of Wholesome Delightful Fuckers, Groanrooms, the Porndecahedron or the headless bedrooms (not as bad as they sound). “Cock” and “pussy,” already in heavy rotation, understandably give way to more outlandish monikers such as Lincoln Stiffins, spunk pipe, manjig and Malcolm Gladwell; or else bitchgroove, twizzled riddler, lettuce patch and fuckfountain. One anonymous phallus, post-orgasm, subsides “like an aged parliamentarian,” while another, suitably aroused, serves up a “doublethick sackshot.”

Yet, for all this, the book never topples over the edge into the realm of easy dismissal. This is due, in part, to the writing, which remains defiantly literary and expressive in the face of the goofily debauched and frequently juvenile subject matter. For all their absurdity, the breadth and depth of sexual fantasies on display are dizzyingly inventive and often legitimately, if fetishistically, erotic. There is skill in the work, intent, and this writerly control juxtaposed against such a strange set of particulars demands critical interpretation, even though it’s an obviously ridiculous book. Try to stop, try to read it one-handed as a simple whack-rag, and a nagging doubt that you’re missing something will surface.

Because somewhere in this book, beneath the dazzling sexual fireworks show, Baker is trying to heal us. He is trying to make us happy and horny and excited about the infinite possibility that arises when our bodies demand more from our minds and vice versa. Strangely poignant scenes arise from the heap of profound absurdity. Hax, the mystical tattoo remover, restores a degree of nakedness to Jessica she could never achieve while hiding beneath her ink. Dave, lost in the highly saturated and fragmented world of the porndecahedron, fucks “the planet earth” (a hole in the ground) at Chilli’s urging, before ejaculating all over her in an orgasm unlike any he has had before. Men masquerading as Russian composers, and hidden behind a wall Luna has stuck her legs through, play famous piano pieces up and down her legs as she remembers the joy and arousal that can come from all parts of her body. Baker is making us hot and making us laugh. He is reclaiming the realm of the sexual from de Sade by presenting us with the long-awaited antidote to the misery, humiliation and ultimate obliteration of the unfettered me-first libertinism described in 120 Days of Sodom. No, seriously. Their books are not so different.

De Sade’s chateau exists out of time and place, so removed from the world that we cannot help but understand that it is not the world, but our minds he has invaded for his murderous game. The House of Holes, too, exists in an otherwordly plane of sexual wantonness. In neither realm are the mores of society respected. Both exist as a kind of sexual laboratory for the explosion of their respective social taboos. But here’s where a divergence occurs: the four magisters of de Sade’s realm meticulously plan for a scenario in which everything they can imagine happens, whereas Lila, the voluptuous proprietress of the House of Holes, has made a place where whatever anyone else can imagine is possible. In that one trick, the switch is made. De Sade says, “Whatever I want to do to you I will do, and that is personal freedom,” and Baker answers “Whatever you want to do with me, I will do with you, and that is sexual freedom.” And poof! De Sade’s experiment in degradation and the exercising of power becomes a madcap romp flush with humor, wonder, discovery and rejuvenation.

At the core of this polar distinction is a show of good-naturedness, credulity and willingness that enlivens House of Holes, and ultimately saves it. Each character—and there are many—meets the challenges and rewards of the House with friendly amenability. They’re game, ready for the mind-boggling catalog of services and activities that the House offers—hell, at times they’re almost blasé about them. Most importantly, they’re ready to pay the price. Unlike de Sade’s magisters, visitors to the House of Holes understand that pleasure is a give-and-take proposition. For the privilege of deliverance and pure joy, they are willing to be temporarily headless, ball-less, to work shifts in the Midway being spanked, or in the Penis Wash, sponging clean an endlessly passing conveyor belt of cock. Each visitor realizes the ultimate satori of their private desires with the assistance of the supporting cast, not against their will, and this is the moral, the golden heart beating in the chest of Baker’s ribald hooker. The House of Holes is a Far-Away-Land of ultimate license—like de Sade’s—except here the ultimate destination is not humiliation, subjugation and annihilation, but simply the joyful release of one hell of a handjob. Somewhere in this book is the balm for centuries of neurosis, numbness and shame.

Baker’s realm, however, does have its limitations. For such a wildly inventive book, the sexual politics are surprisingly straight. Gay men have no apparent place at the House of Holes, and the few token views of lesbian sex we see are extremely brief and evoke the mainstream “girl-on-girl” aesthetic designed and packaged for straight men—in other words not at all possessed of the breathless inventiveness of the sexual scenarios depicted between men and women (or their respective non-human, but strongly gendered, stand-ins). The extent of queer behavior in the book can be more or less boiled down to a House-mandated cross-crotchal interplasmic transfer between a rule-breaker, Dune, and Marcela, a young woman interested in experiencing cock-ownership. The resultant sex hints at transgendered identity, but does not embrace it.

Additionally, though the book is lauded as “sex-positive,” do not look for its healing powers to cover the area of body image. Nearly everyone in Baker’s sexual playground is possessed of beautiful skin, enormous breasts, perky asses, humongous cocks and rock hard abs, and those few who do not possess such features quickly make use of the House’s strange, pseudotechnological facilities to temporarily gain them. While these limitations are disappointing, they do not spoil the book, which undoubtedly draws much of its authorial élan from the very excitement these specific scenarios inspire in Baker. Certainly such decisions reflect his own fantasies, but we are made to understand just as certainly that the House of Holes is always shaped by the one entering it.

House of Holes is a high-wire act, and like all such acts it requires a careful blend of skill and audacity to shock us, but not so much that we stop reading. The tenderness and joy in Baker’s writing, along with his undeniable technical ability, provide the necessary counterweight to what is otherwise a porny, horny pottymouth of a book. As long as that big heart keeps beating beneath the cocks and pussies and happy-slappy asses—and it does—Baker’s mission to reclaim sex as a fundamentally fun and ecstatic adventure is a success.

– Dan Pribble lives and works in Boston. His fiction has appeared in Redivider and The Ohioana Quarterly among others.


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