In literary terms, House of Holes by North American novelist Nicholson Baker has provoked somewhat of a brouhaha. That’s in literary terms, mind you, meaning a few book reviewers both sides of the Atlantic have lot a bit hot under the collar about a book with a lot of sex in it. No-one else has battered an eyelid, we’ve seen it all before.
More than just being a dirty book with a lot of sex in it, Baker’s novel is also eminently a novel about sex and, as these types of books – I’m thinking of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley here – tend to do raise a lot of questions, not least the age old one, ‘is it porn, or is it art?’ What is it about sex writing that means some novels, Emannuelle Arsan’s famous Emmanuelle for example, are readily dismissed as ‘pornography’, whilst others, such as George Bataille’s notorious Story of the Eye are embraced by artists and critics alike? House of Holes (magnificently subtitled ‘a Book of Raunch’ for the US market, but not, alas in Europe) is leading the reader (and those outraged reviewers) down a well-travelled path.
The problem with reading writing about sex is the loin-stirring effect it creates. Literature exists with the unpredictable certainty that the reader will become even more implicated and involved in the writing if they become emotionally, or even physically, aroused by what they read. It often comes down to the question of use-value, the ‘pornographic’ text is one that distinctly aims to arouse, whilst the ‘erotic’ text is one that uses sex to explore more profound philosophical issues. In practice, the distinction is less clear-cut, the erotic text can quickly become pornographic.
The complicity that writing about sex can generate is part of the reason why people find writing about sex so troubling. Equally, this explains, why the 1960s and 1970s, ages where artists and writers, particularly in France, were engaged in a battle to re-evaluate all values, there was so much interest in erotica – ‘dirty’ books were either being written (the works of Sollers or Guyotat) or rediscovered (the likes of Sade and Bataille for example). Sexualised writing was, in short, linked to the grand old idea of revolution. The thinking was that since experience is mediated by (some by say composed of) language, then taking language to an extremity, crossing the boundaries of what is deemed to be acceptable has the potential to be a challenge to the reasoned order of the world. The erotic, then, is a political act.
Take, for example, then the example of French writer Bernard Noël, who published Le Chateau de Cène (translated into English as Castle Supper) in 1969. This extremely explicit, and often deeply unpleasant, book recounts a young man’s adventures on a remote island with a mysterious countess and her entourage, saw Noël ultimately tried for obscenity. In 1975, he published ‘L’outrage aux mots’, an important text, where he justifies his earlier book as a revolutionary act, both against the French war in Algeria and bourgeois society (that much-loved target of the European dissenter). Noël argued, (my translation) “there is no language because we live in a bourgeois world where the vocabulary of anger is exclusively moral. How can language be turned against itself once we realise we are censored by our own language”. Le Chateau de Cène was Noël’s answer. Everyday language is imposed, it was deemed no longer sufficient. It needed to be obscene, it needed to become unacceptable.
Can, then we explore House of Holes in a similar way? The book is a loosely-connected series of brief vignettes, all tied together by the fact they all feature lust-filled characters who, by way of some aperture or another, by design or accident, make it through to the House of Holes, a twisted theme park built on satisfying men and women’s (mostly heterosexual) desires in the most freakishly fantastical ways possible. If we are to make a case for the book, following Noël, then the reader might want to look for a message or a clever satirical intent that allows Baker to enter the pavilion of erotic art rather than wallowing in the gutter of pornography. The possibilities are there; the book features, for example, a passage that involves a women looking for gratification via an encounter with a man whose head has been surgically removed – is Baker making the relatively un-original point that men are dumb lumbering sex-crazed animals? Is a woman having sex with a tree a comment on ecology? In addition, the narrative makes the constant implications that all the characters are in some way paying, and paying dear, for their experiences, although this isn’t developed as much as it could be. Is Baker, then, following Lyotard and exploring our desire-fuelled libidinal economy?
I’m not sure the novel is doing any of these things. For me, the monster, birthed from a lake of bad pornography, a repulsive mass formed of penises, vulvas and mouths is just that, something visceral, living and based on raw, naked sex, just like the House of Holes itself. Baker reportedly said he wanted to write a ‘positive’ book about sex, which it is. Sex in the book is a joyful, guilt-free experience, poles apart from the anxiety which clouds so much classic writing about sex (Bataille, for example).
Like that writing, however, writing and sex are linked so they reflect an intense experience for the reader, here, however, this becomes a joyful, positive celebration about the act of reading, rather than an uncomfortable affront. The textual experience created by Nicholson Baker is what this book is really all about. It is genuinely funny, mostly because of the language Baker used to talk about sex, his marvelous word play. Never has shameless pornography been so well written. Rather than looking to unlock any hidden meaning here, the reader would be best advised to see how many different wonderful conglomerations Baker creates to describe sexual terms – the cockbundle, manwater, Malcolm Gladwell (seriously).
If one was to be overtly critical of House of Holes, the finger could be pointed at the fact all the fantastical sex takes place almost exclusively from a hetero-normative perspective, but that would be missing the point of this resolutely a-political book When writing about sex is as much fun to read as this, does it really matter? And if it gives you a rollocking orgasm, then so much the better!