House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

Listen, if you buy this book, take the dust jacket off and throw it away. Because if you glance at the author’s head shot from time to time like I tend to do, that will cause problems with House of Holes. You don’t want to finish a story about a woman pleasuring herself on a penis tree and then be reminded it was written by Burl Ives.

If you stare at the hole long enough, then everything around it starts to move and... oh, never mind.

Nicholson Baker is no stranger to erotic fiction (Vox, The Fermata), and in the publishing world, his is qualified as literary. More on that later. He took a break from that with a nonfiction book on WWII and then tribute to poetry called The Anthologist, which I went sort of apeshit over. With House of Holes he returns to what I guess his calling always was as a writer.

The titular House of Holes is an eccentric compound where visitors are indulged in even their most ridiculous fantasies, especially some they didn’t know they had, ranging from sex with a headless person (for those who fear being judged by their partner) to crotchal transfers, where volunteers have their genitals exchanged with another’s and basically go from there. And then there’s a cinema multiplex known as the Porndecahedron. It’s fun. The whole book carries the tone of that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” when Sir Galahad stumbles into Castle Anthrax.

People usually find this place by being sucked down some random “Being John Malkovich” portal that happens to be a tumble dryer or even a hole punched in a business card.  A complete stranger might ask a character if she may de-pants him and watch him manhandle himself, or something to that effect, and the guy invariably says, “Okay.” Everyone has few, if any, reservations toward the bizarre sexual opportunities presented to them and the effect is hilarious. Would you like to go pussysurfing? Sure, why not? There’s little to fear in the world of House of Holes beyond a clitoris-stealing madwoman known as “The Pearloiner.”

Ironically, No Climax

It’s filthy without ever being nasty. Unless you like nasty. Do you like nasty? Do you? Well… maybe you should read a different book or something. This is like a silly, faintly sentimental version of Letters to Penthouse. So don’t expect any kind of character development or plot trajectory across the stories. It is what it says it is– “a Book of Raunch”– just one smutty tale after another, but still, part of my giddiness waned as this became more apparent. While there are some interesting things going on here, like the old question of whether sex can engender love as opposed to vice versa, it probably has more value as a collection of some pretty stupendous dirty talk. You’re likely to find more substance in a Christopher Moore novel and with almost as many impressive moves on the prose dancefloor. This doesn’t make House of Holes a bad book, but any “literary” designation is wishful thinking on the part of highbrow readers who in reality just like the sexy, funny stuff here.

This was enjoyable, but if I ever get the opportunity to attend a book signing where Baker himself reads from it, I’ll pass.

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

“Let’s have a look at this poem,” says speaker Paul Chowder in Nicholson Baker’s new book.

Here it is, going down. You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space… The words are making room, they’re saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here, the magician will do his thing. Here’s the guy who’s going to eat razor blades… So stand back, you crowded onlookers of prose. This is not prose. This is the white playing field of Eton.

Damn right.

It isn't really a novel. More like a great lecture on poetry occasionally interrupted by "Ooh, a birdy!"

In The Anthologist, Paul is a poet struggling to write a 40-page introduction to his edited anthology of poems, “Only Rhyme.” He has so much to say on the subject that he can’t hardly begin, and as a result of his writer’s block his frustrated girlfriend, his moral and financial support for eight years, leaves him. Instead of writing the introduction like he’s supposed to, he talks to you, imparting his wisdom on English verse and observations of inchworms and subtle appeals to Roz to get her to come back to him.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done so much underlining and scrawled so much personal marginalia in a book. This is partly because many of the books I’ve read lately weren’t mine, but mostly because I can’t help but talk back to The Anthologist.

On the subject of poetry Paul is both inviting and strongly opinionated. He despises Ezra Pound, adores Sara Teasdale, ridicules the Beats, defends rhyme, and hocks a couple bitter loogies toward Billy Collins. (That last one for me is not okay)

Here’s where I was sold, though: Paul recalls the first poem he’d ever heard, a pair of lines by Edward Lear his mother used to read to him: “Plumpskin, Ploshkin, pelican jill./We think so then, we thought so still.” His thoughts:

They were the first to give me the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry—the feeling that something wasn’t right, but it was all right that it wasn’t right. In fact it was better than if it had been right.

H.L. Mencken said that a poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child. That’s a good start at describing Paul. The thing is, he, like the rest of the book, is cute but not overly quirky, sage but not pretentious, and honest. This is a light, deceptively simple book that has this sublime balancing act going on.

Not a perfect one, sure. Sometimes the lecture drags too long; sometimes he takes uninteresting departures from it—all things eventually forgivable in a lightweight 250 pages.

I can’t decide whether it reads more like Bill Bryson with its exuberant informativeness or Donald Miller with the speaker’s underdog confessional. I’ll just say that if you’re fond of either of those authors, The Anthologist ought to grab you right quick. But really, anyone who’d like to experience a spike in his/her poetry appreciation would do well to read it.