A Perfectly Unique Moment

Why is Nicholson Baker so obsessed with sex?

Nicholson Baker in 2007

The first bit of sex in Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes: A Book of Raunch appears on Page 5, where a minor character achieves a robust climax by the fingers of an amputated, still-sentient arm. Readers inclined to blush might wish to pause there and seek private shelter before pushing on to Page 6. As a document of erotic invention, House of Holes is daring, freakish, almost unrelenting in its kinky appetite and imaginative stamina. (In one memorable scene, a woman has her feet stroked by the “very hard and very famous” glandes of Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.) As a work of fiction, though, it’s dexterous and bizarrely charming. Baker’s projects have for years run awkwardly between two poles, between lurid provocation and high-literary grace, yet unlike several other naughty upper-middle-brow books, his efforts are nearly untouched by social pretense or priapic bluster. Baker may be the most lascivious mainstream author writing these days, but his work is more a clear spring than a fetid swamp.

In photographs and interviews, the white-bearded Baker puts forth a mien that’s gentle, self-effacing, cowed, beneficent—a kind of jolly elf chastened by self-doubt and the frustrations of modern life. On paper, though, his career has been wanton and bafflingly promiscuous. Recent decades have found Baker turning to rhymed poetry, time-freezing, World War II, and Updike’s literary ascendancy as subjects. His imagination does not so much “range” or “soar” as travel between continents by midnight airlift. In the middle 1990s, when Monica Lewinsky reportedly gave Bill Clinton Vox, Baker’s novel of phone sex, as a kind of handsel, the author was busy writing a warmhearted, delightful book narrated through the mindset of a 9-year-old girl. In 2004, just before George W. Bush was re-elected, Baker’s characters imagined several elaborate ways to murder him. These swerves of intent, joined with Baker’s protean style (ranging from stream of consciousness to jaunty comedy to flash-cut deadpan), have earned him a standing as, at best, an eccentric and, at worst, an overdriven dilettante. A few years ago, half a decade after Baker turned part of his retirement savings toward founding a repository of old newspapers in a New Hampshire mill, he won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ career-achievement award in prose. It was and remains possible to find the honor well-deserved without being able to say what Baker’s actual achievement is.

That may be because readers are seeking patterns in the wrong places. Peel back the superficial husks of Baker’s prose, and he is not the swerving, freakish provocateur or leery cultural critic he appears to be. He is a high-Romantic writer in disguise, heir to the tradition of Coleridge and Keats. Through his career and varied projects, Baker’s goal has been to re-create the way fleeting, ecstatic moments act on our emotions. He’s an artist of the firsthand, trying to capture what’s normally lost in the course of secondhand narration. He has labored to resensualize the life of the mind. In doing so, Baker has drawn uncannily close to the holy grail of the American literary marketplace: a style of fiction joining sophisticated conception with middlebrow allure. His zigzagging path appears eccentric, but it’s launched him toward a place where many writers only dream of going.

This course is not entirely surprising. Baker’s critics tend to cast him as a crank and literary outsider, an upmarket version of the guy who sells self-published chapbooks in small San Francisco bookstores, but in truth few working writers can claim a more eminent career path. Baker came to the fore as a precocious New Yorker contributor, submitting fiction to the Shawn magazine while still in his 20s. By the time he published his first novel, The Mezzanine, a few years later, he’d perfected a style of hyper-attentive prose that was both of a piece with the old New Yorker’s editorial tenor and an exception to it—a style that pushed creative renderings of everyday detail so far that the familiar took on strange, ecstatic hues.

The Mezzanine is a slim book of Proust-like protensity, describing its narrator’s return to his office one afternoon through the kaleidoscope of his wandering thoughts. (“A small, perhaps not very interesting question has troubled me occasionally: Is a lunch hour defined as beginning just as you enter the men’s room on the way to lunch, or just as you exit it?” one chapter begins.) The critic James Wood once described Baker’s obsessive, riffy style as “micro-realism.” But the realist’s mission is to identify and celebrate the landscape and habits of everyday life; Baker’s goal in The Mezzanine and in his next novel, Room Temperature, was closer to impressionism—using words to conjure the sensual and intellectual experience of passing through the world in time. Approaching the moving staircase to his office, the narrator of The Mezzanine ruminates on “all of these powerful, preexisting connections in my past life between escalators and shoelaces”—his mother’s injunction never to ride escalators with loose laces, his habit of trying to tie his shoes on the way up. Baker’s goal here wasn’t to set escalators and shoelaces in a landscape of polished banality. He was trying, instead, to help readers experience flickers of mind too idiosyncratic and fleeting for realist storytelling. To him, these passing motions were the story; the private revelations quickly dismissed and forgotten were most worth capturing on the page.

That literary project became flesh in the early 1990s, when Baker started doing freaky things with sex. “[E]ach of these thousands of times you have come alone constitutes a perfectly unique moment,” Vox’s male phone-sexer protagonist tells his female counterpart, whom he has never met. “I almost think that each one of the times a woman comes in private in her life has to continue to exist as a kind of sphere, a foot-and-a-half-wide sphere … and I would happily spend my life floating up to one after another of these unique orgasm-spheres and looking inside and I’d be able to watch you make yourself come that one time.”

This is not exactly an epigraph-worthy sentiment, but it provides an excellent voyeur’s window onto Baker’s literary goals. The uniqueness, subjectivity, and time suspensions of sex gave him an excuse to focus in on one kind of experience: the “unique moment” of ecstasy he describes, sealed for posterity. It’s an artistic fantasy more than a lurid one. In Vox and The Fermata (whose protagonist can literally pause time for his study and fantasy) he uses sex, with its private vocabularies and ineffable thrills, as an extended metaphor for fleeting consciousness. To be physically aroused by his kinky writing is to acknowledge his ability to use words to capture, and then to deliver, spheres of personal sensual experience.

Subtract the dildos from this pageant, and it’s all, of course, been done before. Late in the 18th century, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge got together with his friend William Wordsworth to launch a joint project they hoped would both give “the charm of novelty to things of every day” and convey “incidents and agents [that were] in part at least, supernatural.” Mixing these approaches as two sides of a single coin, they thought, would help convey the “sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sunset diffused over a known and familiar landscape.” Today, Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s creative goals are considered a cornerstone of the Romantic movement, a loose grouping of 19th-century writers who shared a creative interest in these sudden charms and accidents of light. (The literary critic Paul de Man has described the Romantics’ preoccupation as a “new kind of relationship between nature and consciousness,” reaching “from a certain kind of nature, earthly and material, to another nature which could be called mental and celestial.”) It’s as a 20th-century update to this tradition that Baker’s scattered body of work starts to make sense.

Baker’s 1991 fanboy book about John Updike, U and I, is a case in point. U and I is unusual as a literary study, because—to name just one thing—Baker confesses early on to having read “most or all of” only eight Updike books. (There were 30 at the time.) He decided not to fill in the gaps, he says, for fear of losing track of why he was writing about Updike in the first place. Instead, dowsing for his true passion, he made a list of favorite scenes and lines in Updike’s work. It turned out he had misremembered some. The list went in the book anyway. Baker later explained:

[I]f we want to know how we think about a writer without the artifice of preparation, how we think about Updike in particular only when we discover ourselves thinking about him, when some feature of the world or of our own thoughts spontaneously recalls a tone or tick or glimpse of his work, or even merely brings up the image of his face in a particular photo (like the Poorhouse Fair shot of him sitting on a bench in which my mother thought he looked too pleased with himself) or the memory of some fifth-hand story one has heard or read about him—if we want that sort of elusive knowledge, even rereading a paragraph or a line while our meditation was in progress would be fatal.

This is, depending on your perspective, either a crackbrained way to write a literary study or an ultra-nuanced, “accidents of light and shade” insight about reading. It’s a theme his nonfiction often returns to. In the title essay of his collection The Size of Thoughts, Baker wrote in praise of “lovely, brief insights” we encounter while reading that ultimately “leave us filled with large, calm truths.” The implication was that these small and private revelations—maybe more than what is actually argued or narrated on the page—give authors purchase on their readers’ hearts and minds. In fact, the content of the text itself is often oddly incidental to Baker’s ideas about reading. In Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, an eloquent case against microfilming and jettisoning old newspapers and other print media, his esteem for physical newspapers comes down partly to the experience of browsing them, of “circling around the opened double-page spread.” In The New Yorker two years ago, he described reading a passage from Love Conquers All both on the Kindle and in print and finding only the book version funny, because it “wasn’t the same in Kindle gray.” Data points like these can make Baker seem like a dandruff-on-bifocals Luddite. But he’s also spoken passionately about his great nostalgia for the long-lost websites of the early blogosphere, about the pleasure that reading them used to offer. His guiding light is, rather, a romantic interest in the sensual and personal experience of reading, the little extra-textual ecstasies by which writing conjures joy and electrifies its message.

There’s huge charm in the immediacy of this approach: To read Baker on Updike is to encounter an unrehearsed, come-as-you-are enthusiast swarming in your direction like some winsome stranger at a cocktail party. (Or an egghead going off-script: The Anthologist, Baker’s popular 2009 novel about a procrastinating poet who waxes eloquent on the mysteries of the craft, was written largely out loud; Baker recorded himself explaining things and transcribed the result, trying to capture the lucidity and spontaneity of passing speech.) But this approach also gives his work a glancing, transient, and unambitious-seeming quality that can undercut its creative innovations. In Human Smoke,Baker’s wartime history, he questioned the conflict’s causality narrative, and the good faith of Churchill and Roosevelt, through a series of short and spare dispatches: Here was narration in secondhand shards, as if to conjure the experience of coming onto the war in messy real time, rather than as smooth, argued historical narrative. (Historians “cook everything up and soften the edges,” he said.) The book got daggers from some critics—not just for its compromised motives (Baker ended up a pacifist, which is an awkward thing for a historian of wartime leadership to be) but for its method of cobbling together information without vetting it. Wordsworth once wrote that the imagination visits “when the light of sense/ Goes out.” It turned out that the glimmer of little epiphanies wasn’t enough to guide readers through the dark tunnels of World War II.

Misfires like these have only burnished Baker’s reputation as a vaguely unserious writer, a guy who dribbles his attention like a flavoring sauce on light topics and undercooked endeavors. It’s an unfair characterization. Baker’s goal of trapping flights of ecstasy and revelation in a changing landscape is deeply ambitious in its way, and the forms he’s used to capture these flickerings of consciousness are totally his own. They’re powerful forms, too. House of Holes looks like an over-the-top sex romp—it is an over-the-top sex romp—but there’s also something startlingly new about the canvas this project takes up, a thrilling sense that Baker is perhaps only now truly coming into his own. It’s a sexy book, and a blazingly funny book, and in this sense it has two points of mainline access to the entertainment-hungry center of the culture. Yet it’s also a continuation of his career-long project, a way of using ecstatic fantasy to capture the life of the mind lost in the cracks of everyday convention. One of House of Holesthemes is the thrill of stumbling on the secret passageway, the point of entry. But it may be Baker himself who has finally discovered a way in.