Monday, 3 October 2011

Full of Holes

I've just read Nicholson Baker's House of Holes. I was rather hoping it would be an interesting book, given his previous intriguing work in Vox (a book which builds up a world through reports of phone sex conversations) and The Fermata (a man who is able to stop time uses it to take women's clothes off, but doesn't seem to know why he does it). It wasn't.

One of the problems is the language. Nicholson Baker can write wittily when he wants to - he makes up words, he uses the thesaurus with glittering abandon - but he doesn't do it here (with a few exceptions; I chuckled at the renaming of one man's John Thomas as his Malcolm Gladwell, and the idea of a Cock Ness Monster). Instead, the work seems almost to parody the threadbareness of porn narrative - fuck me fuck me, MWONGGGG!, clitty, jizm, and wank... It's all rather juvenile.

There's no real narrative structure. There are a couple of tiny amusing narrative threads - the silver couple who end up inside a little egg that we've already seen in someone's pocket, for instance (I imagine it as a kind of netsuke, like the ivory carvings of clams that open up to display a pornographic scene), but overall there's no plot, just a series of encounters.

Nor is there really any concept behind the work. There are occasional flashes of satire - the woman who wants to have sex with a man 'without being judged', and finds a headless man; the woman whose tattoos are removed, and public hair restored, to restore her to 'real nakedness', the nakedness of someone who isn't hiding behind anything - but overall, this is just a slippery, slimy fuckfest.

Oh, and the heterosexuality. Did I mention the heterosexuality? (Put it this way, I don't think I've ever written a full length erotic novel that doesn't at least play with bisexuality or cross-dressing; in fact one of the things I enjoy about using certain historical settings for my non-erotic work is that I'm able to show homosexual relationships as normal.)

In fact, apart from penis-trees, cunt-cradles, penis-sandals (er... what?), and separable genitalia, this is really a tedious, predictable romp through Penthouse fantasies. A line-up of men waiting to be sucked, a line-up of women waiting to be fucked, glory holes and orgy rooms.

And there are no characters. The figures are two-dimensional, just as they are in porn; the housewife, the policeman, the artist, the milkman, are just uniforms stuck on interchangeable bodies in any porn film, and so they are here. There's nothing invested in the characters - and there are no stakes to play for. It's all a bit aimless.

If this had been a shorter book, or if it had been a fake travel essay describing the House of Holes, it might have been amusing. But I just couldn't get the point. It wasn't even all that arousing. Oh dear.

Now if you want real sex, in my opinion, go to Iain M Banks and his Culture - the totally over the top scene of Sharrow having an orgasm to the accompaniment of a thermonuclear device exploding, the idea of changing sex slowly, through some kind of mutation. You don't read Banks for the sex scenes (two pages in three hundred), but because his characters and his worlds are such strong creations, when it happens, it really packs a punch.