Image: Happy War © Kii Arens
I WAS BORN IN 1957, the Year of the Fire Cock in Chinese astrology. Cocks (or Roosters as we're sometimes called) are considered keen observers and dreamers, so I guess it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that 1957 produced a bumper crop of writers: Lionel Shriver, Richard Powers, Nick Hornby, Frank Miller, Anchee Min and Lorrie Moore to name a few, as well as artists as diverse as Spike Lee, Sid Vicious, Boy George, and Ai Weiwei. 1957 was the year the Dodgers played their last game in Brooklyn, Wham-O introduced the Frisbee, and Sputnik orbited the earth: can it be it a coincidence that the Year of the Fire Cock is the same year that the Soviets successfully penetrated the stratosphere with a massive phallus filled with rocket fuel?
A few years ago I began to read books by other writers born in '57 and I discovered surprising, although subtle, similarities. There is a shared iconoclasm, an aesthetic of transgression, and a playfulness in the work of my fellow Fire Cocks. These writers all possess an open-mindedness about the transformative power of desire, and a willingness to write bawdy, sometimes raunchy sex scenes. It doesn't seem to matter what language they write in or what country or culture they come from. Fire Cockiness is evident in the down-and-dirty cocaine-fueled reptile orgy in Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moyas's Dance with Snakes; in the urbane, playful study of desire in Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building; and in the whack-a-doodle mayhem in the novels of Christopher Moore. But for me, the writer who stands out, who is unafraid to explore the heave and ho of sex, the real Cock-of-the-Walk is Nicholson Baker.
Because he was born in January 1957, Baker is technically a Fire Monkey, but my acupuncturist explained that astrological influences don't begin and end on exact dates — some overlap occurs — , which means that Baker is a unique combination of Monkey under the influence of Fire Cock. Baker was, without a doubt, monkeying around in his early sexcapade romps Vox and The Fermata. But with his new book, House of Holes, he seemingly comes under the direct influence of the Fire Cock and cranks the fantasy and explicit sex to a level rarely seen in what we typically call "literary fiction."
The novel — or "book of raunch" — doesn't follow a traditional plot; no narrative structure or protagonist on a heroic journey pulls us through the story. Instead, Baker serves up a collection of magical realist fables, a series of saucy, hyper-sexual sci-fi-tinged vignettes that tap into that part of the brain where our nastiest fantasies and most pungent desires reside. Think Gabriel Garcia Márquez directed by the Mitchell Brothers.
The book is so unrelentingly erotic and explicit that it could, if you're not careful, cause chafing. In fact, if you're a heterosexual male and don't have a boner by page 40, I would recommend you visit a urologist and get checked out. Seriously. Female readers might find the prose more moist than purple.
The novel begins when a young woman named Shandee — all the characters seem to have names most commonly found on the NASCAR circuit — finds a severed arm in a quarry. The arm has surprisingly good handwriting and tells Shandee in a note that he belongs to a man named Dave who traded his arm temporarily for an extra large penis. A casual observer might find this a reasonable enough exchange, but this is no ordinary arm, these are the digits of a clitoral maestro, and after Dave's arm services both Shandee and her roommate Rianne, he invites them to the House of Holes.
The House of Holes turns out to be a heterosexual pleasure palace that exists in a magic squirm hole of time and space. It is accessible by passing through portals both supernatural and banal; people arrive after being sucked through a golf hole, a straw, a dryer in a laundromat, a freeway exit. On one notable occasion, a man named Wade travels though the hole at the end of his penis: "It was kind of an odd, juicy, self-referential experience."
Once arrived through their various mechanisms, all of these characters look to engage their sexual fantasies to the fullest. In a nod to real-world dangers of unprotected sex — only screwdrivers and microphones seem to wear condoms at the House of Holes — guests are screened for "at least nineteen diseases, plus any tendency toward thieving, scamming, or violent behavior." The screening process also reveals a guest's fantasies. Once vetted, guests undergo an intake interview.
"What's your ideal sexual encounter?"
"Oh, touching, kissing, caressing," Rhumpa said, at a loss.
"It says here that you favor having three Italian airplane pilots in uniform shoot their comeloads onto your belly while you cup your clitoris with a wooden spoon."
"They don't necessarily have to be Italian."
Despite all this hot and horny action, the House of Holes is a decidedly wholesome place. There's no dark impulse towards S&M, no kink or role playing, and even though one character has sex with a tree, no real fetish of any kind emerges; not even casual shrimping. It's a missed opportunity, because the novel is a celebration of sex and sensuality and being kinky is, I think, a necessarily interesting dynamic of the human sexual experience.
Almost all of the fantasies explored in the novel are from the female character's point of view, yet they are written by a heterosexual male. Are these really female fantasies or are they the fantasies that men want women to have? Or is it safe to say that humans have sexual imaginations and these are equal opportunity desires? Ultimately, the fuck stops at Nicholson Baker; they are his characters and so I think it's safe to assume that these are his fantasies. To his credit, he has no problem owning them.
Baker's last novel, The Anthologist, was a study of the poet Paul Chowder's struggle to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. That book was a brilliant meditation on the poetic obsession with words and wordplay; in House of Holes Baker fully indulges his monkey nature in an orgy of portmanteau. Some of my favorites are "slutslot," "cockbrisket," "thundertube," and "cockfuckedfullness." And he restocks the English language with fresh raunchiness; jizz, spunk, cream, and precum foam spurts, erupts, blurts, blasts, and prisms out of innumerable cockpoles, dicks, spunk pipes, big hunks of badness, and in one instance, a throbbing "Malcolm Gladwell." There is a "hot clot of a busted nutload of jizzling twizzerling sperm," and the classic first date icebreaker, "Fill my mouth with the manly warmth of your nutbag."
To say the pages virtually drip with freshly ejaculated bodily fluids would be an understatement. When the character Rhumpa goes in for extreme Bukkake, she shouts, "Jerk it out! Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry!" The novel climaxes with an Agatha Christie ending as Baker gathers all the primary characters to witness Shandee reattaching Dave's arm and then performing the "crotchal transfer" that returns Dave's borrowed "massive rude cockitude" to its rightful owner.
Reading House of Holes can be intense — it is certainly not for the faint of heart — but this is a funny, frisky novel that brings sexy back in a way that Justin Timberlake never dreamed. And in an age where almost all pornography is audio/visual, it's heartening to see that loins can still be stirred by text alone. I'm looking forward to reports of wine-sipping book groups erupting into orgies, and news of a modest uptick in sales of personal lubricant.
But what I like the most about House of Holes is seeing a writer at the peak of his powers, just fucking around. The spirit of playfulness in this novel is irresistible, and reminds me of the freewheeling, sexually anarchic prose that someone born in 1957 would've read during their formative, teenage years: books like Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America or Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins. It's not hard to see this book as a direct descendant of those earlier works, although Baker's writing — and brio — surpasses them. With House of Holes, Baker is trying to shake us up, unzipping his imagination and jacking a hot blast of raunch into the face of what passes for literary fiction in our overly earnest and stodgified culture. He reminds us that books can be fun and sexy, that literature can have just as much raw energy and liberating chaos as a good fuck.