I’ll Have What He’s Having

Breaking bread with Nicholson Baker, America’s foremost writer of literary sex novels.

Also in Slate: Nathan Heller assessed Nicholson Baker’s literary career, and  Katie Roiphe reviewed his new novel, House of Holes. 

Nicholson Baker

If one is expecting Nicholson Baker to be wild or outrageous, 30 seconds in his presence will reveal him to be none of those things. He is tall, gentlemanly, soft-spoken.

Since he lives in a farmhouse in Maine, and I live in New York, we meet in the soothing, grey-and-beige interior of L’Espalier in Boston. He arrives in a straw hat, plaid jacket, sneakers.

Both of us are a little out of place in this restaurant amid the ladies who shop on Newbury Street: him because you can almost smell the salty air and wide open Maine sky on him, and me because I am wearing a black silk romper and a red plastic bangle that, let’s just say, blended in a little better in New York City.

Baker is probably best known for his highbrow dirty books, for books like Vox and The Fermata, as well as his innovative first novel, The Mezzanine, with its artfully and obsessively spun analysis of daily life. The book was based on the years he spent temping, specifically one year as an oil analyst on Wall Street, riding the escalator to go out to lunch and the sublime daydreams that ensued.

All of his novels interest themselves with reproducing the minutiae of inner life, with what Baker calls “the white noise” in our heads, and many of them involve showy technical feats and fireworks. Altogether, he occupies a strange place in the American literary scene: respected but offbeat, a great stylist with controversial or eccentric obsessions.

His new book,  House of Holes  , is an outrageous, surrealist sex fantasy. It’s “out there” as he puts it, even for someone who once wrote an entire literary novel about phone sex. The premise of the novel is that people disappear through portals – a straw, a dryer, a tunnel – into a sexual spa where even the weirdest fantasies are fulfilled, and you can have sex with trees and lakes and headless men, among other things.

The whole time Baker was writing House of Holes he was thinking he would publish it under a pseudonym. Writing under a different name liberated him to explore wilder and stranger fantasies. “The Fermata was about as far as I could go under my own name,” he explains. “It was exciting to feel I was writing in a style that wasn’t Nick Baker’s style.” But when he delivered the manuscript his publisher convinced him that he should publish it under his own name because people would know it was him anyway, and by then he figured the usefulness of the pseudonym had played itself out.

He wrote the novel in the car, at Starbucks, in Friendly’s restaurants, often in the middle of the night, getting up at 3.30am and going to the kitchen table, or outside if it was warm and there was a moon. In the end he had a massive stack of pages of little ­pornographic vignettes, which he whittled down.

I ask him if he is at all worried about the book going out into the world, and he says, “I don’t worry too much. I always have the illusion that it will be fine.”

In a funny way he is more exposed in this book than his others because he is laying bare his fantasies. For some reason, it’s almost more intimate and confessional to write about crazy scenarios you find arousing than a more realistic or straightforward autobiographical novel might be. As he put it, “Things are in this book because I found them arousing. I was excited by writing this book. There is no point in doing it if you are not. You know the worry is, is it too tame? Is it too nice? Is it too weird? Is it too Dr Seuss-y? There is a review that says that. I kind of like that.”

Baker grew up in Rochester, New York, where his father ran a small advertising company in the basement, designing logos for companies like Xerox and Kodak, and his mother was an art teacher. Baker went to a progressive school and somehow began seriously playing the bassoon. As a teenager he thought about becoming a professional musician, but ended up studying English at Haverford, just outside Philadelphia. After graduating he spent years temping and submitting stories to places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. After living for a while in Boston and Berkeley, he ended up in South Berwick, Maine, where he does not socialise with many writers. Is he a shy person?

“I’ve always thought of myself as shy,” he says. “I blush easily. I have difficulty meeting people’s eye, difficulty with public speaking, the normal afflictions of the shy, but not to a paralysing degree. The great thing about novels is that you can be as unshy as you want to be. I’m very polite in person. I don’t want to talk about startling or upsetting things with people. But I want to be a tremendous exhibitionist on the page.”

Altogether, Baker’s life is more settled and ­conventional than you would imagine from his work. As he puts it, most of the more outrageous things in his fiction “take place in my own head”.

Baker talks about his wife the way you talk about someone you are obsessively in love with but have not entirely pinned down: he drops her into conversation, quotes her opinions, loops back to her, weaves her in – the kind of mentions where you are just conjuring the person for the sake of it. He met Margaret Brentano when they were in college and lived in the same hall; they have been together since 1978 and married since 1985. She is an artist who works in cut paper, and they have two children, Elias who is 17 and Alice who is 24.

Baker says that his ideal reader is probably a woman. One of his favourite reviews is from Cosmopolitan: the writer says the book is like Bolero on the printed page, but that she is too “wrung out” to go on. He also confesses to being a little thrilled when it emerged that Monica Lewinksy gave her own battered paperback copy of Vox to President Clinton during their affair.

I say that it sounds like the particular woman reader he is actually writing his books for is his wife. He laughs. “That’s not very exciting, is it?”

But to me it is a little surprising or exotic that America’s foremost writer of literary sex novels is writing for his wife, whom he has been happily living with for 30 years. If he were cheating and flirting and running around bars listening to the sound of his own voice, or charming editorial assistants, that would not be very exciting. The drama and wildness are in his head.

I ask if the explicitness of his writing ever bothers his wife, but apparently it doesn’t. She doesn’t want the characters to overlap with her own life; in some cases there were details of things she liked to eat, or quirks of her personality in his characters that she wanted him to change, which of course he did. “She is not an exhibitionist,” he explains. “She does not want to be on display via my books. She just wants normal life.”

But otherwise, he says, “she’s the first reader of my stuff. If it doesn’t work for her it doesn’t get finished.” One time she told him: “I want to be seduced by this book.”

She did object to The Fermata, about three-quarters of the way through, because some of the sexual things that happened weren’t exactly consensual, and she thought the character should be punished somehow, which Baker thinks is a fair criticism. He says of the new book: “I want to know what parts of it are most exciting to her, and she won’t actually tell me.”

One of the things that distinguishes Baker from other male writers of sex novels is that he appears to uncomplicatedly and unambivalently like women. He is not interested in writing only, or even mostly, from a male point of view, and his female characters are just as adventurous, questing and sex-obsessed as his men.

“You are trying to create a mental state in which all kinds of impossible things are possible, and in that state aren’t women just as eager and adventurous?” he says. “My experience as a happily married man is that women have lots of crazy and wild thoughts.”

In fact, the most exciting part of writing for him is often putting himself in the woman’s point of view, “because I’m tired of my thoughts. I know my own sexual thoughts. They’ve been jostling around my head since I was nine, or whenever. But the idea of making up or intuiting what a woman would be thinking still feels like new territory. More exciting, somehow.”

We stop talking when a cup of something unpronounceable arrives at our table. He says: “You know, when I become bewildered by words, I start to think that really what you should do is just give yourself up to the experience, and this is absolutely, incredibly tasty.” Here one thinks of his constant playfulness with language, the bravura riffs in novels like  The Anthologist, where the music of the words take over.

What’s remarkable about this latest book is his boundless innovation, his invention of an entire exuberant new argot for sexual acts. There are pitch-black “groanrooms” where couples wear glowing wristbands and anklebands; or “ass-squeezer licenses”, which permit the license-holder to grope. If a girl refuses: “Then the magical clothes-dissolving wind comes up, which is a special warm breeze that comes sweeping down the middle of O Street. It dissolves her clothes to a fine dust.”

But I wonder if it’s difficult to write about sex without falling into the usual trite language. “It’s something beyond language,” he says. “It’s impossible for any language to do justice to something that’s this good. So you just keep doing some kind of crazy impasto application of thicker daubs of paint, in order to keep up with the basic miracle of just people without their clothes on.”

Baker felt that sex-infused books by a slightly older generation of writers like Norman Mailer, John Updike and Saul Bellow, which alternated real life with what he called “these swampy bits”, didn’t work terribly well. Which is why he decided in Vox to make the entire book one extended phone-sex scene.

He doesn’t want to use metaphor the way Updike does, which appears to him too civilised, too genteel, too cagey in its relation to sex. Unlike Updike, who uses metaphor to distance his writing from pornography, Baker uses metaphor to further its pornography; his improvised slang actually makes his writing dirtier. “I think with literary novelists, metaphor was reassuring. Yes, you are reading a sex scene, but it’s OK because I am going to compare it to a ballet slipper or something,” he says. “But I don’t want that. I want to say: it might even be better for you reading this than if you were in the sex scene. Well…that’s the whole problem. Why bother to read a whole book about sex instead of just having sex?

“Also, why would you want to read when you can watch? The book is in competition with a free infinitude of porn on the internet. That’s what House of Holes is up against. An abundance, an amazing oversurplusage of sex, but I think sex is such an exciting, fascinating part of life that we need to go at it from all angles. And the interiorness of verbal description is slower and more enveloping; in spite of the amazing intensity of visual images, they don’t really do justice to sex.”

After the publication of U and I, Baker’s tour de force on his fraught admiration of Updike, the older writer contacted him and the two struck up a friendly correspondence. Baker was a speaker at Updike’s memorial service, and says he is still working out what Updike means to him. At one point, Updike inscribed one of his novels “To Nicholson Baker who made me famous.” “Isn’t that absolutely, incredibly charming?” Baker says.

On the train home, looking out at the water and the boats, I am worrying about the reviews of House of Holes. But even Baker is not worried about the reviews, so why am I? Sometimes you meet ­someone and feel instantly protective of them, and I wish I could protect Baker from the snide reviewers I am afraid might be lurking in wait for him. I think of him in his straw hat, plaid jacket, sweet smile, a little flustered as he entered the expensive beigeness of the restaurant. In my experience, the ­universe offers up very few opportunities to have lunch with someone as decent and thoughtful and gentlemanly as Nicholson Baker. In fact, I kind of forgot while we were eating our beet and raspberry salads with Vermont chèvre, that I was in the ­presence of one of the great pornographic ­imaginations of our time.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.