Over the Holes and Far Away

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).



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Granny Was a Baller

First the obvious in this photograph of my grandmother (center, holding the ball) surrounded by her teammates: she played basketball, which I didn’t know until this photograph came to light while going through my father’s things after he died, and which is something of a shared family activity. Between us, my father (her son) and I played some 80 years of pickup basketball; he was playing until he was 70 at which point he had a terrible accident on the court, shattering his nose, bleeding into his brain, causing seizures that would make the last ten years of his life something of a torment. I’m still playing, despite knee surgeries, countless turned ankles, torn tendons and four broken bones, the last of which required a plate and seven pins.

The ball reads Sneezers 13 meaning 1913, meaning my grandmother was 18, a senior in high school, meaning she was playing basketball in La Porte, Indiana 22 years after James Naismith invented the game. I have no idea what Sneezers is about, though it has an air of deprecation, maybe even a touch of that whimsical derision you imagine accompanied women’s basketball before the first World War.

What else? All five girls are attractive in their way, my grandmother the only one who might be called sultry, her expression holds a flirty aggression, a kind of steely focus and resolve, as if she’s daring the photographer. Her shirt seems unbuttoned and spread out by design, she dominates the photo both literally (she’s in the middle, she has the ball) and by affect. Does it matter that I can’t remember even one thing about her that meshes with the lovely, even provocative creature at the center of this photograph?

Is that even true? I know her and her sister drove the Alaskan highway in a Studebaker in 1960, all the way from Indiana. She was 65. The 1,300 miles of dirt road tore their car to pieces and they had to ferry it back to Seattle. I’d always known the story, but it wasn’t until this photo that it made sense, that I could see in that 18 year old girl the resolve it might take to drive a road that is 55 years later still an ordeal. And if I’d always assumed she had out of loneliness, even desperation, stumbled into a second marriage with a charming Greek man who turned out to be grumbling pain in the ass but by all accounts was at the time they got together (meeting in the diner where she was a waitress at the age of 70) a geriatric who had a real touch with the ladies, this photo tells me she was used to attention, used to attracting the alpha in the room.

I can make other connections. Sylvia, the oldest of her three daughters had a reputation for being wild in high school. When my mother moved back to Indiana after my father died and into an assisted living facility, she promptly met a 90-year-old woman who remembered Sylvia and said exactly that, “Wow, was she a wild thing.” Sylvia died in 1960 in northern California at the age of 42 after a night of heavy drinking; I’ve always been fascinated by the story because there was no one else in the immediate family like her, not someone who might be labeled headstrong and unchecked. But in this photo, I can see some of that in my grandmother, a focused willfulness capable of running over or burning down anything in her path.

And writing this, I realize something else. In 1936, after her youngest daughter died of whooping cough at the age of 10 (it forever scarred my then 8 year old father), the family loaded everything in the car and drove to California, a serious trip in pre-Interstate America. And in 1960, after Sylvia died, she had the same basic urge; get in the car and go, this time to Alaska. This matches my own impulse in response to extreme stress, the thought of hours behind the wheel a salve.

The past has the power to change the present; I’ve always known that, though I think as a younger man (with significantly less of a past), I didn’t think about it much because everything important seemed still ahead. Less so now, which is why I find it reassuring that an old photograph still has the power to generate insight almost 100 years later.

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Joy is But the Shadow Pain Casts: The Elementary Particles

A friend had told me the last few pages of Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” really flips everything and changes how you feel about the book and it’s true, if I’d skipped the Epilogue, I’m not sure where I might fall on this book. For much of the length of it, I was mixed; sometimes engaged, sometimes repelled, often bored. It took me three months to read it and I read at least three books in that time, putting down the Houellebecq again and again. It is ostensibly the story of two half-brothers and what’s difficult to take for long periods of time is that peculiar brand of French misanthropy on display, rendered in such detail here that the mood lingers for a time after reading a section, until you re-gain your bearings. It’s always a nice moment when you realize, hey, I don’t actually think like that, though I’m susceptible to the argument that if there was nothing about the world view on display that I related to, I wouldn’t be so affected.

I think one reason it took me so long to read is I didn’t find much of the human interaction particularly involving or convincing, though to Houellebecq’s credit, he never posits the whole world as this place of pure hopeless Gallic melancholia, we see characters who don’t feel the way the brothers do, it’s not a one note tone. And I don’t mean to suggest the two brothers are miserable in the same way, though they share a deep existential emptiness. This becomes fully clear with the revelation in the Epilogue** wherein we understand why we were given such detailed descriptions of the lives and minds of Bruno and Michel Djerzinski.

And even this is a bit unfair to Houellebecq, he paints two lives empty of any kind of joy, but late in their lives, gives both brothers women who love them and who they, in their own ways, love back. There’s warmth of a sort here, in context of the bleak landscape surrounding them, though there’s always an edge of doubt and disgust lurking and nothing really works out other than Michel’s ideas and theories.

I’m hesitant to say too much about the writing itself, having read it in a translation, but there are some beautiful moments here, both descriptively and in terms of integrating complex scientific and philosophic material into the narrative. This isn’t always successful, it often seems arbitrary and self-conscious, but these sections are almost always fun to read. And what to make of a line like this one, late in the story: “In cemeteries all across the world, the recently deceased continued to rot in their graves, slowly becoming skeletons.” It’s ridiculous of course, almost a parody of a certain kind of mindset, and that’s the key; I think he understands how funny this line is, I think he knows how funny in a very dark way the adventures of Bruno and Michel are. I didn’t end the book feeling like Houellebecq was some raging misanthrope with enough genius to turn his neuroses into art but not enough control to keep his obsessions fully in check, it seems to me there’s more there’s more calculation here than that, more novelist’s skill.

**I’ll remain coy about the revelation because I liked coming on it cold, not knowing about it, though normally I don’t believe knowing what happens in a book lessons the pleasure of reading that book.


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Franzen’s Freedom

With the bevy of “best of” year-end book lists appearing, I thought it time to re-visit Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom which seems to be the 800 pound gorilla in the collective room, either appearing on the list (see Salon’s editors’ picks, The New York Times ten best books) or being trumpeted as absent from the list (Slate’s books, Salon’s authors’ lists). Already seemingly forgotten is the controversy that the Tanenhaus review in The New York Times Book Review engendered, a not wholly off-base gnashing of teeth over the critical circle jerk that greeted Franzen’s book, with complaints about why such a middling book is getting the full masterpiece treatment and pointing out that in our literary culture, male writers get an inordinate amount of this kind of “capturing the zeitgeist” adulation.  I have to admit to some surprise that Freedom commands such year-end attention. Collective critical opinion tends to settle over time and I thought given the basic mediocrity of the book that a lot of critics, now freed up from that initial critical lockstep, would simply allow it to drift away unremarked upon (and to be fair, after sampling a number of such lists, Freedom is hardly a ubiquitous presence). Continue reading

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