It’s hard to shake the feeling that Bruno from Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles could use a few ‘treatments’ at the Houses of Holes, the title spa of Nicholson Baker’s most recent book. Surely Bruno’s sexual self-loathing would find no quarter in HOH, though his obsessions with sex and with his own constant hard-on would fit right in. And HOH could do something about his feelings of inadequacy over the size of his penis (though until the ‘crotchal transfer’ goes through, Bruno would no doubt be tormented by the truth that seemingly every other male in HOH is equipped with a large and often interestingly shaped dick), though he’d have to give up something in return. The book opens with Shandee finding Dave’s arm in the weeds (it’s first names only throughout the book, befitting the skipping-across-the-surface approach); it turns out Dave gave up his arm in exchange for an enormous penis. The arm itself is quite sweet and useful; sensitive, articulate (putting pen to paper) and, not surprisingly, adept at sexually satisfying women. I feel confident Bruno would like Dave give up a body part to be well-hung, though I suspect Bruno’s disembodied arm would not be quite as gentle and loving to the woman who finds it. There are moments where it seems the book’s primary reason to be is as an anti-dote to the collective male sense of inadequacy over penis size brought on by the ubiquity of porn. Every penis in HOH is fascinating on some level and even Dave’s is labeled beautiful; the feeling at the end of the Dave storyline is he’s better off with both arms and his own dick, sending out a can’t we (men and our penises) all just get along vibe.
If The Elementary Particles makes you feel even the simplest human interaction is hopeless and almost impossibly, if not always purposefully, cruel, dominated by venal self-interest, in House of Holes everyone is so pleasantly ready to get it on in a variety of ways, and the context is so willfully artificial, magical, even mythical, it’s like waking from the most pleasant sex dream and living in the afterglow. So we get vignettes where (for example) a tiny naked woman stuck inside the urethra of a regular-sized man’s penis, is slowly being masturbated out and playing with herself as he does, the two of them coming together, her settling in a little sea of his semen. When she grows to normal size again, they’re both quite happy about what just happened and go on their way. This is the spirit of the book and what makes it so readable, it is a series of comic, ribald fairy tales only vaguely connected (mostly by character and context) to each other. Narrative tension is supplied not by a functional forward-leaning plot but by the desire to see what comic sexual absurdity Baker will come up with next, and that often is enough.
Yet it’s all faintly ridiculous, with Baker’s bevy of made up words (manjig, twizzerling, cockfuckedful, doublethick sackshot, plasmic cockmeat puree, Dave-jism), which often feel like the punch windows from the old Batman TV series (GASPING TWAT! SWIZZLED! SLUTSLOT!), fun in the moment but cumulatively oppressive. I suppose it could be argued the book has something to say about our culture of porn, though beyond the fact that all the women are beautiful, thin and up for pretty much anything at anytime and all the men have huge dicks and are forever hard, I don’t see a lot of analysis here. If anything, Baker is positing his own particular porno world where everyone is forever enveloped in a hazy fog of sexual desire, no one is all that tortured over it, no means no, and yes means absolutely, I need your “thundertube of dickmeat” now yes, and the closest thing to a non-hetero interaction is when Dune (a man) switches genitals with Marci and they have sex (though not before he rejects going down on his own penis).