I spent a recent morning at a brightly painted, high-ceilinged coffee shop that serves a modest variety of salads and panini, nursing a pot of white tea and reading a book by the founder of the American Newspaper Repository which featured, in its opening chapters, a severed arm stimulating a college student’s vagina to the point of orgasm, a large Filipino masseuse squeezing fruit juice into an art critic’s anus, an amiable topless woman aggressively sniffing a golfer’s scrotum, and the Russian composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin ejaculating onto the feet of a soup-kitchen volunteer. At the table to my left, a man and a woman were holding a conversation in broken French about deep-sea fishing. Most of the people in the coffee shop had MacBooks. “He wanted them all to be on their knees on couches and chairs with their asses up and ready,” I read, “and their slippy sloppy fuckfountains on display. He’d walk in front of them holding his generous kindly forgiving dick, saying, ‘Do you want this ham steak of a Dr. Dick that’s so stuffed with spunk that I’m ready to blow this swollen sackload all over you?’ And they’d all say, ‘Yes Mr. Fuckwizard, we want that fully spunkloaded meatloaf of a ham steak of a dick.’” I was hoping to meet a girl.
Nicholson Baker’s first two novels made you want to pay attention to everything in your life you normally paid no attention to, and to be gentle and kind and laugh with the people you loved or at least to yourself. Then he wrote a book-length love letter to John Updike, two very sexually explicit novels, and a novel in the voice of a nine-year-old girl. When he wrote his National Book Critic Circle Award–winning exposé of American libraries’ systemic destruction of rare newspapers, magazines, and books, his beard was still brown. But by the time his pacifist history of the buildup to World War II came out, his beard was as snow-white and full as Santa Claus’s. The seven years those books bracket, in fact, might be considered Baker’s saintly period, marked by a less mischievous spirit and a less ambiguous morality (though they do also include the publication of a novel in which two men discuss the assassination of George W. Bush, a “scummy little book” according to one of the many wrong critics). It was during those years that I lent Vox, Baker’s phone-sex novel, to a woman I liked, and a week or so later felt her hand moving up the inside of my thigh as I read aloud from Keats’s “Lamia” on the loveseat of my first apartment. I date the onset of my erotic reading-aloud fantasies to that night, but their true origin may lie many years earlier, some evening when my mother read me Are You My Mother?, for example, in which a baby bird falls out of his nest and goes around asking nonbird animals and objects if they’re his mother. Because I knew the bird would find his mother in the end, and because my mother was right there next to me, I was only scared in a safe and pleasurable way.
Reading House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s new “book of raunch,” in a coffee shop is not so different from reading a book of short stories by Mavis Gallant in a coffee shop: most other people there probably don’t know or care what it is—plus a book of raunch is printed in very small font that’s illegible at a distance of more than ten or so feet. And, anyway, we all move through the world harboring thoughts and desires and urges that no stranger could discern by looking at us. House of Holes imagines a world in which strangers trade the wildest of these freely, and act on them whenever they please. “I don’t want to come alone,” I read. “I want a forest of cocks around me. I want to see them up close—I want to wear my sunglasses and have dick juice splurt all over them. I want ball loads of hot cockslurp landing on all my soft parts.” Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” was playing softly through the coffee shop’s speakers, and I thought of the woman with whom I’d recently agreed not to speak for six weeks—my girlfriend, maybe, or ex-girlfriend, maybe, we could never decide what to call ourselves. We listened to that song together soon after we met last winter, and then we returned to our respective cities and spent the spring and summer writing emails and letters and talking on the phone, and the first two times we met up we existed easily together and knew more or less what to say and read Proust to each other, but the third time we didn’t and decided we were done, for a while at least.
“I’m into animals,” I read, “especially horses, beautiful strong brown stallions with very glossy coats and six-pack abs, I think about washing the ends of their long penises with a soft cloth and watching them sniff at a mare and nip her neck, and I think about getting them ready to mount the breeding mount.” A tall, tall woman wearing a low-cut flowy black blouse tucked into very short jean shorts stood in line near my table, absentmindedly braiding strands of full-bodied curly blond hair over one shoulder and gyrating her torso in the manner of a restless five-year-old girl. She took her iced coffee, sat down two tables away from me, propped a big law textbook against her brightly woven purse and began reading. A prematurely-old-looking man wearing a dirty white T-shirt and ill-fitting jeans limped between her table and an adjacent one, and she smiled sweetly at him. Her ankles were encircled by thin leather sandal straps that I imagined were made of my middle fingers and thumbs.
As I made my way through House of Holes I decided it was a little too long—or maybe it should be read over a longer span of time—and also came to some conclusions about its virtues. It finds ecstasy in sex’s silliness. It rescues sex from its traditional literary function as a source and expression of pain and tension, a preassembled piece of narrative machinery whose purpose is to ironically demonstrate the impossibility of truly meaningful communication between two human beings. It points us toward the infinite number of alternatives to canned sexual fantasies involving classrooms or maids or friends’ mothers or leather. It legitimizes and exalts our most personal and private sources of delight. It says everyone’s different and basically the same. “How much nakedness do you want?” it asks. “Be honest. So few people are able to tell the truth.”
By the time I reached its final chapters, three days had passed and I was in a different coffee shop, and the tall girl with the sandals wasn’t there. I’d seen her again on the second day, and though we twice made fleeting eye contact we never spoke. Now I was sitting on a stool next to a woman wearing thick dark eye makeup, overstrong perfume, and big ugly heart-shaped hoop earrings. Earlier in the summer, in my girlfriend’s friend’s chocolate-brown ski-resort condo full of chocolate-brown furniture, I’d asked my girlfriend (if that was the word for her) if she’d marry me if she didn’t already have a husband, and she said she would. “Sweet boy,” she said. Her marriage was open; her husband liked that she liked me. I wanted to call her now but couldn’t, because we’d agreed on six weeks and it had only been a few days. “In general I come hardest when I put something in my ass,” I read. “My husband is away a lot, and I read one of my erotic romance books about bad assfucking vampires, and I start to get a little wild, and I put a screwdriver in a latex glove and put the handle in my ass.” A stout middle-aged man with a goatee and a yarmulke approached the woman next to me, leaned toward her and said, “I just wanted to tell you your earrings are fantastic.” Filled with Nicholson Baker’s magnanimity, I forgave the man his taste and partook of the moment’s small joy.
I have a fantasy involving a naked woman—the woman I read Keats to, or the tall sandaled woman, or the woman I still can’t call, or an amalgam of all of the women I’ve ever wanted, or a woman I haven’t met yet—lying on her tummy on top of the sheets of a bed in a boutique hotel. I’m lying on my back next to her, also naked. The hotel has themed rooms; she and I are in the English Poetry Room and there’s a Donne quote painted on the wall: “And now good-morrow to our waking souls, / Which watch not one another out of fear; / For love, all love of other sights controls, / And makes one little room an everywhere.” There’s dim indirect yellow light, and electric red candles hanging from the ceiling, and a smell of something like peat, and the woman is reading to me from House of Holes. “She wanted him everywhere, in all holes at once,” she reads, and—I can feel it so vividly it seems like a memory—I put my hand on her bare back and move it slowly down her spine, and she keeps reading as I move my body on top of hers but stops before the chapter’s over.
Andrew Palmer’s writing has been published in The Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.