“Porn, ugh. So sick of it. What else?” says one of the largely interchangeable bodies populating Nicholson Baker’s novel House Of Holes, upon being sucked into an erotic paradise of the same name. In envisioning even weirder and more expansive pleasures, Baker embraces the challenge endemic in those words, but his is ultimately an empty game.
People find their way into the House Of Holes through a variety of portals (the inside of a straw, a golf course, the back of an industrial dryer) or through sympathetic strangers who boast of its group-sex arrangements or private rooms. In one clever fake-out, a woman is guided to the House by a man’s detached arm found in a park; turns out it wasn’t violently removed, he just voluntarily surrendered it to borrow a larger penis. The erotic wish-fulfillment of the House Of Holes, brainchild of a former hospital administrator named Lila, at first seems unlimited, but is in fact closely governed: Those who can afford it enjoy its delights until their money runs out and they become slaves, fulfilling others’ desires, while everyone else assumes various jobs (washing new arrivals, minding “Deprivos” who have been banned for a length of time from their fetish objects) to earn their keep. Lila also dispatches “pornsucker” ships on quasi-humanitarian missions to sweep American cities for bad pornography, recruiting for her pleasure garden as they go.
Like a dirty nature preserve (bounded by all-too-real farms, as one man discovers when he is caught masturbating to a particularly saucy cloud), the House Of Holes is a land of exuberant filth populated by characters who say things like “I want every woman in the world to see my dick” without irony. Baker has a field day with the euphemistic glories that spring from describing ever more elaborate sexual scenarios, and the pace of its amplification forces every episode to move on the surprise of what the author will do next, not on any individual character’s narrative arc—to the detriment of passages that attempt to ground them in professions and lives.
An author so bold as to culminate his novel with a masturbation competition shouldn’t get timid when it’s time to pin his hot-air balloon of adult fulfillment down to a larger point. The intimation of a world in which men and women (the House Of Holes is primarily heterosexual in orientation) can speak openly about their proclivities to total strangers is an even more startling idea, but Baker never develops it beyond brief, stilted conversations—nor does the agenda of the House’s creator, who cautions her customers not to become too attached to each other, receive more than a cursory treatment. Beyond its search for perversions that have not yet been imagined by the perverse, House Of Holes, unbelievably, could get away with more.