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Love at First Glans

House of Holes

By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 2011

In his novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Vladimir Nabokov articulated a reticence toward writing about sex that seems contrary to his reputation:

Naturally [says the narrator], I cannot touch upon the intimate side of their relationship [Sebastian’s with a fleeting love interest], firstly because it would be ridiculous to discuss what no one can definitely assert, and secondly, because the very sound of the word “sex” with its hissing vulgarity and the “ks, ks” catcall at the end seems so inane to me that I cannot help doubting whether there is any real idea behind the word.

Few novelists have been more pedantically preoccupied with meaning and phonetics than Nabokov, and with this offhand complaint he gets to the core of the antipathy between Eros and English. Nearly everything about our written language—from its bastard one-night-stand hybridization of Saxon and Romance tongues to its endless clutter of shin-barking articles and prepositions—seems to conspire against arousal.

The novelist who wants to write a sex scene is confronted with an unpromising thesaurus. We’ll confine ourselves to the male genitals (a word I use only to underscore how unacceptable it would be in fiction). “Penis” is the simplest option, but it’s so forlornly clinical that it has to be specified with an ugly adjective like “hard” or “erect.” “Dick” and “prick” have been co-opted as insults. “Cock” is a little more useful, but it always carries the suggestion of crudeness. Slang words like “wang” or “dong” or “johnson” are irredeemably puerile and comic. Invoking some foreign phrase such as membrum virile implies a kind of mandarin squeamishness. I recall reading a lovely translation of Alessandro Barrico’s short novel Silk and being roughly jarred from its spell by the line “I am close to you, stroke yourself, my master and beloved, stroke your organ….”

The readiest alternatives to synonyms are metaphors and allusions. These, indeed, were Nabokov’s solutions in “Lolita,” which has no classifiably obscene language. Instead there is Humbert Humbert’s “sceptre of passion” or his “beast” to Lolita’s beauty. But such writing runs the risk of irony or silliness—sex metaphors have an uncanny way of deflating into frat-boy euphemisms.

Innumerable double entendres are already built into everyday speech (“package” or “junk”), but these are no help when writing directly about sex. The last, and probably the most popular, options are to replace the offending words with a broad and generic synecdoche like “he” (“he entered her,” etc), or to elide the quagmire of language entirely by describing bulging biceps or groans of pleasure or the crackle of electricity in the sultry atmosphere.

Such images will invariably call to mind shirtless beefcakes with fainting women on their arms, and it’s true—the achievement of romance novels has been to negotiate the semantic obstacles of sex to reliably deliver scenes that are both emotionally and sensually gratifying. The genre has been extraordinarily successful, establishing a virtually foolproof science of arousal that its most skilled practitioners can put to limitless use. By the indisputable standards of book sales, Nora Roberts is the master of this craft, and if there’s a key to her technique, it is in the art of the tease. Roberts’ novels have far fewer sex scenes than the uninitiated would expect—only around two or three—and most of her stories, whether they’re police procedurals or soapy wedding dramas, are designed to frustrate your desires and put you in a state of itchy anticipation. When the scenes do arrive, as much of their excitement is unleashed in the foreplay as the inevitable penetration (the men often stop to put on condoms, which, as well as being very responsible, helps to extend the exquisite build-up). This is from Roberts’ Blue Smoke: “Hard, strong hands, brushing, tantalizing, then clamping, possessing. Breasts, thighs, hips, with the heat still rising so she wondered her skin didn’t catch flame.” In comparison, the moment of intercourse is dealt with mistily and cursorily—“She took him into the wet wonder of her”—so that it seems almost beside the point.

Not all romance novel sex is this tender, of course, and when it roughly cuts out the foreplay it is meant to appeal to dreams of safe submission. Diana Gabaldon’s bestseller Outlander has this vividly unsexy first move: “He spread my thighs with his knee and sheathed himself to the root in a single thrust that made me gasp.” But the ravisher here (a gruff Scotsman who, until this sheathing, was a virgin) has asked for and received his lady’s consent, and his dominating lovemaking ultimately transports her to the same ecstasies as any satisfied heroine. The central fantasy in all these scenes is that the men are good at what they’re doing, and that what they do is vouchsafed to impart pleasure.

Sex in literary fiction, which has tended to be written by men and to inhabit the male perspective, can only do so much with romance strategies. For one thing, sex here requires subtext; such scenes are part of an effort to advance a story, illuminate a character, or develop a theme, so arousing the reader is usually a collateral concern. More to the point, the mandate for literary writers is to use original language, and this snares them in traps that the romance writer can easily sidestep.

Yet romance novels have more of an influence on mainstream literature than we might like to admit. The superb sex scene between Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, for example, has all the important hallmarks of Harlequin. The two characters prelude the scene with chapters of severe flirting (indeed, McEwan makes it clear they’ve pined for each other for years); when they do come together in the library, most of the ardor is in their kissing, groping, and undressing (the “contact of tongues,” the “sighing noise,” the earlobe nibbling); the mechanics of the deed are not dwelt upon (“They held their breath before the membrane parted, and when it did she turned away quickly”); and the sex itself is revealed through the metaphor of climbing a mountain until the moment of falling backward off its peak.

It’s telling that when McEwan has chosen to write graphically about body parts and sticky fluids, it is to show disastrously bad sex, as in his short novel On Chesil Beach, in which the central episode describes a newlywed ejaculating all over his horrified bride. The writers with the best chance of using explicit language in a sexually stimulating way are those from writing traditions that make their home in vernacular and are able to free slang words from the bubble of perceived public naughtiness. Hubert Selby Jr.’s prose, for instance, is an amazingly flexible compound of Beat poet improvisation and the seedy naturalism of Stephen Crane. Most of his sex scenes are terrifying—many are of rape—but sometimes, as in this scene between two stoners in Requiem for a Dream, he captures both the mental overload and the sensual abandon of lovemaking:

…she rubbed the inside of his thighs and gently ran her fingertips around his balls as she kissed his chest and stomach then grabbed his joint and stroked it for a moment before wrapping her lips around it and caressing the tip with her tongue, Harry continuing to fondle her ass and crotch as he squirmed and stretched, his eyes half closed, streaks of light shattering the darkness of his lids and when he opened his eyes he could vaguely see Marion hungrily gobbling his bird, his mind electric with ideas and images, but the drugs and the pleasure of the moment created an inertia that was delicious, absolutely delicious. The inertia was suddenly broken as Marion sat up and nested his bird and for hours, or perhaps seconds, he just lay there with his eyes closed listening to the exciting squish of joint against snatch—Ride a cock horse to Branburry Cross—then opened his eyes as he reached up to grab her boobs…

We’re maneuvered around here, pulled back to take quick objective glimpses at Harry’s mindstate and personality (he’s self-satisfied, lazy, and, given his memory of the nursery rhyme, a little sarcastic) before being released into the turn-on of his physical ecstasy. But we’re never removed from the scene into the clammy air of readerly self-consciousness. The slang has been transfigured by its poetic cadences—the “squish of joint against snatch”—so that it’s shed of its essential crassness.

Yet even unabashedly hot stuff like this offers a shrouded pleasure, an awareness of sex as debauchery. The truth is that because the vocabulary of sex tends toward vulgarity in sound and usage, most of the indelible sex scenes in literature are farcical, embarrassing, dreary, contemptuous, or violent—or they read like the notes of a naturalist in a zoo. In other words, very few succeed at arousal. The Literary Review’s notorious Bad Sex in Fiction Award is given every year to earnest attempts at sexiness, and in every spotlighted excerpt there is some word or figure of speech that calls so much attention to its own awkwardness that it yanks the reader away from the motions of the scene. John Updike, who received a lifetime achievement award from the Bad Sex judges, was once singled out for a passage from The Widows of Eastwick with this line: “She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin.” The unfortunately anatomical “glans” (coming directly after the encompassing pronoun “him”) first gives you pause as you look up its meaning in a dictionary and second as you puzzle over why it’s necessary to specify the part of the penis where the spurting is done.

Nicholson Baker, Updike’s most ardent acolyte, has written a male-centric book that tries to inspire arousal without the usual fictional baggage of characters, story, meaning, or even thought. House of Holes (subtitled A Book of Raunch) has the cringing dialogue and faux naiveté of a juiced-up issue of Penthouse Forum. Set in an erotic fantasyland (“where you can do whatever you want”), it’s a series of tenuously related sex vignettes featuring a bunch of interchangeably horny people. The romance novel trick of the erotic slow burn is nowhere on display. Instead, with the exception of the brief chapters devoted to explaining the funky amenities and bylaws at the House of Holes, each scene provides a little distracted pretext, gets down to the screwing, and usually culminates with the pornographer’s money shot (although Baker occasionally asserts his artistry by taking a few sentences to describe the copulating pair falling asleep together). This is from a woman named Luna’s orgy with a sex toy, the Russian composers Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and a guy named Chuck:

Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov were squeezing her calves and doing mad cocky things at her toes. “My penis is coming right now!” moaned Borodin. “My penis is coming, too!” said Rimsky-Korsakov. “Oh god, Chuck, I can’t hold back much longer,” said Luna. “Stuff my mouth with that fucking beast!” She ground her pussytwat against the crotchy holder, lifting her hips high to hold the moment in suspense. “Nnnnng-aaaaa!” She let her orgasm wave crash down just as she felt two hot blasts of white Russian semen drizzle against her toes.

Like any porn sequence, this is more or less identical with any other scene in the book, and with each iteration the whimsicality of the sexual inventions becomes less and less redeeming. If there aren’t Russian composers, there’s a penis tree; if it’s not Luna and Chuck it’s Koizumi and Wade; if it’s not “Nnnnng-aaaaa” it’s “aaaaaaaaaaaaah.” It’s fascinating to see what reviewers have tried to make of these elaborate stroke-book scenarios. Katie Roiphe writes that “House of Holes takes on a culture entranced by pornography, a culture that sees and feels in fragments.” Meg Wolitzer sees satire in Baker’s “language of porn.” David L. Ulin thinks the book is a work of nostalgia, a paean to erotica’s innocent golden age of the 1940s and 50s. Sam Lipsyte, too, does his damnedest to construe some sort of message in all the smut, suggesting that the recited dirty talk—“the meaning-leeched Newspeak for our time”— exposes the emptiness of these sex-crazed actors and their impersonal fucking.

But as Lipsyte is eventually compelled to admit, Baker isn’t interested in the happiness or fulfillment of his characters beyond the moment of orgasm. Nor does he care about classic erotica (“’Erotica’ might be defined as … pornography that doesn’t turn you on,” Baker once commented). Nor is House of Holes a satire or burlesque of pornography. It just is pornography, without the slightest knowing remove—pornography in the banal mainstream version that’s prevalent today. The claim that there’s any underlying meaning to these sex fantasies (that they “investigate general emptiness,” in Roiphe’s words) is as ludicrous as the contention that a movie about a housewife bonking a pizza guy is a commentary on suburban ennui. The only differences between the book and Internet porn are that Baker uses slightly fancier words, has lengthier and more convoluted set-pieces, and sometimes includes classical musicians.

In 2010 New York Magazine ran a hilariously po-faced profile of the computer nerds who launched a company called Brazzers, the world’s most successful franchise for online pornography (their site pornhub.com is ranked 73rd among the world’s most trafficked websites, just below ESPN.com and just above The New York Times). The secret of their success, evidently, is that they cornered the sorely underrepresented “big-tit–MILF niche.” It doesn’t take Freud to spot the infantilizing tendencies of a trade whose megastars are large-breasted “mothers”: as the Internet has broadened pornography’s commercial demographic to teenagers, pornography’s forms of erotic wish-fulfillment have become more and more silly and juvenile.

This is the language that Baker is parroting in House of Holes. Most of the publicity around his book has focused on the goofy terminology that colors his sex scenes (“thundertube” and “manslurp” and other compound words like that). Such language is commonplace on porn sites, however, in the florid captions and tags that accompany the videos. In the name of serious research I went on pornhub and in two minutes I found “spunk stick” and “cock gravy” (which, if anything, is better than Baker’s “cockbrisket”). But even more representative of Baker’s lexicon are his cutesy-poo baby words: “clitty,” “peeny wanger,” and “thumper bean,” words that give the scenes what reviewer James Lasdun rightly called an “unsexy nursery flavor.” The childishness of House of Holes is based on a popular style of online pornography that is created, in large part, for children. Baker might not have meant it, but his book panders to the turn-ons of high schoolers, and with a galaxy of Internet porn to browse, those kids wouldn’t read it if it were assigned in their English classes.

Where can arousal be found? One of Baker’s odder assumptions is that his imaginative porn vignettes can stimulate the glands in a comparable way to high-definition videos of actual bronzed and depilated people having actual sex. But in books, real arousal can’t be triggered this way any more than real sadness can be produced by inflicting rapid-fire tragedies on faceless, forgettable characters. The key to every sensation in novels is an investment in the characters and story, a truth known to Ian McEwan and Nora Roberts alike. The seeds of arousal have to be planted well before anyone hits the sheets.

Baker certainly knows this too—his 1992 phone-sex novel Vox has an extremely steamy payoff. But as the title implies, Vox is more about speaking than sex, and the book’s climax comes only after a great deal of realistic conversational foreplay. Conversation, and indeed character itself, are superfluous in the fantasyland of House of Holes. Baker has gone there to escape those novelistic requirements, and that’s led him to produce this most useless of things: pornography that doesn’t get anybody off.

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Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and is an editor of Open Letters Monthly.