For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It’s hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they’ve already read. So, for this year’s list, we’ve tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that’s a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated.
1. An Excellent Reading Chair.
Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure.
2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw.
You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift.
When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You’re Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: “There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don’t want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie — for others it’s a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting.” Of course, it’s hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you’re mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity.
For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there’s always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books.
4. Curated Book Subscription.
I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112.
5. Small Press Book Subscription.
Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world.
6. Books About Reading.
For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago.
7. A Wearable Book.
It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read.
8. Special Editions of Treasured Books.
At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions.
9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore.
Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them.
10. Time to Read.
How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours — with dinner.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
(The following is an imaginary symposium. The dialogue (except for the goofy shit) is adapted directly from these books: On Writing (2000) by Stephen King, On Directing Film (1991) by David Mamet, This Year You Write Your Novel (2007) by Walter Moseley, Reading Like a Writer (2006) by Francine Prose, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) by Jane Smiley, and How Fiction Works (2008) by James Wood. Apologies to all. Enjoy.)
Everybody, shut up. Just be quiet. Now, I realize that a group of writers like yourselves would jump all over the chance to point out the irony of me beginning a symposium on dialogue by telling everyone to shut up, but I don’t want to hear it, okay? Spare me. Let’s just get this over with. Jane Smiley, let’s begin with you.
Thank you, Moderator. To dare to write about many different characters, and to keep them straight without the help of actors, is in many ways a bold endeavor. It imposes several duties upon the author.
Like what, for instance?
Well, each time a character speaks, he is likely to speak in a way that differs from every other character and also from the narrator because distinctiveness is one of the main methods an author has to organize his characters so the reader can keep them straight.
Interesting. A very practical observation. Dialogue helps differentiate characters. Good.
I have mentioned order, in the sense that the readers don’t want to get the characters mixed up, but there is also the progress of the plot. Characters in dialogue are required to more or less move the story along. If they are just sitting around chatting meaninglessly, then the novel comes to be about the meaninglessness the characters are demonstrating.
Excuse me, I completely object.
Jesus. Of course.
To what do you object, Mr. Mamet?
You don’t have to narrate with dialogue. The only reason people speak is to get what they want.
I wasn’t finished, Mr. Mamet. First of all, I said “more or less move the story along.” I understand that dialogue isn’t how you tell a story. But certainly dialogue must in some way pertain to the narrative, even if they aren’t speaking of the literal plot. Depending on his role in the novel, though, a character is also required to have something interesting to say that simultaneously deepens the reader’s knowledge of him, deepens the reader’s knowledge of other characters, deepens the reader’s understanding of the story, and best of all, deepens the reader’s knowledge in general.
No, no, no. The purpose of dialogue is not to carry information about the “character.” In the first place, there is no such thing as character other than habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago. It just doesn’t exist.
Wait one minute! Why are we letting David Mamet in here? Are we all aware that he’s talking about films, not novels?
Yes, but I’ve written novels.
Yeah, like two. The Village and The Old Religion.
And Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources.
Okay. Whatever, we’ll call it three. But either way, I think your view of dialogue is greatly skewed by playwriting and filmmaking. So let me please interject a bit. We’re talking about the use of dialogue. That alright?
Sure, do whatever you want. See if I care.
First, I agree with Dave over there that dialogue shouldn’t be used for exposition. Many new writers use dialogue to communicate information such as “My name is Frank. I come from California.” This is the simplest use of dialogue. It’s okay for a job interview or a chance meeting in a bar, but in a novel, dialogue is meant to be working overtime.
But I also agree with Jane about the many uses of dialogue. Every time characters in your novel speak, they should be: (1) telling us something about themselves; (2) conveying information that may well advance the story line and/or plot; (3) adding to the music or the mood of the scene, story, or novel; (4) giving us a scene from a different POV (especially if the character who is speaking is not connected directly to the narrative voice); and/or (5) giving the novel a pedestrian feel.
Pedestrian? Why pedestrian?
Thought you didn’t care, Moderator?
Don’t push your luck.
To answer your question: Absolutely. Making the dialogue seem pedestrian might seem counterproductive to the passionate writer. Here you are, telling us a story of profound feeling in which the main characters are going to experience deeply felt transitions, and I’m asking you for ordinary and prosaic dialogue. If you can get the reader to identify with the everydayness of the lives of the characters and then bring them — both reader and character — to these rapturous moments, you will have fulfilled the promise of fiction. The reader is always looking for two things in the novel: themselves and transcendence. Dialogue is an essential tool to bring them there.
Okay, okay. Let’s get another voice in here. Francine Prose, you’ve been sitting over there quietly. What about you? Do you think dialogue should be pedestrian?
Thank you, Moderator. In one sense, yes, I do think that. Among the things I remember hearing when I was beginning to write was the following rule: you shouldn’t, and actually can’t, make fiction dialogue sound like actual speech. The repetitions, meaningless expressions, stammers, and nonsensical monosyllables with which we express hesitation, along with the clichés and banalities that constitute so much of everyday conversation, cannot and should not be used when our characters are talking. Rather, they should speak more fluently than we do, with greater economy and certitude. Unlike us, they should say what they mean, get to the point, avoid circumlocution and digression. The idea, presumable, is that fictional dialogue should be an “improved,” cleaned-up and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. Better than “real” dialogue.
Then why is so much written dialogue less colorful and interesting than what we can overhear daily in the Internet café, the mall, and on the subway? Many people have a gift for language that flows when they are talking and dries up when they are confronted with the blank page, or when they are trying to make the characters on it speak.
And you also agree that dialogue shouldn’t be used for exposition?
Well, in extreme cases, yes I think I would warn against inventing those stiff, unlikely, artificial conversations in which facts are being transmitted from one character to another mainly for the benefit of the reader:
“Nice to see you again, Sally.”
“What have you been doing, Joe?”
“Well, Sally, as you know, I’m an insurance investigator. I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for twelve years. I’m unmarried and very lonely. I come to this bar twice a week on average, but so far have failed to meet anyone I particularly like.”
And so forth.
But even when novice writers avoid this sort of dialogue, what they do write often serves a single purpose — that is, to advance the plot — rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish. To see how much dialogue can achieve, it’s instructive to look at the novels of Henry Green, in which many of the important plot developments are conveyed through conversation.
Oh, wonderful! Finally, some examples! I’ve been waiting for over a thousand words for this.
Throughout Green’s work, dialogue provides both text and subtext, allowing us to observe the wide range of emotions that his characters feel and display, the ways in which they say and don’t say what they mean, attempt to manipulate their spouses, lovers, friends, and children, stake emotional claims, demonstrate sexual interest or unavailability, confess and conceal their hopes and fears. And it all passes by us in such a bright, engaging splash of chatter that only slowly do we realize how widely Green has cast his net, how deeply he has penetrated.
Yes, okay. Here it is:
“Did your father happen to mention that he’d taken me out the other afternoon?” she inquired.
“No,” the boy said in an uninterested voice. “Should he?”
“We ran across each other in the street. I’m afraid I can’t afford anything like the gorgeous meal he provided.”
“But curry’s my favorite,” Peter claimed. “I wish I had it every day. Decent of you to ask me.”
“No, because I do truly enjoy seeing you. It takes me out of myself. And you’ve little idea how few there are I could say that of. Though, d’you know, it could be true about your father. He’s so terribly handsome, Peter.”
The boy broke into mocking laughter, with his mouth full.
“Look out for the curry,” she warned. “You’ll blow it all over me and the table.”
When he had composed himself he said, “Well I once ate a green fig looked exactly like Dad’s face.”
Then, after a brief pause to discuss a mutual friend:
“Are your parents still in love?” she asked.
“My mother and father? God, I suppose so. Are yours?”
“Not a bit. No.”
Peter went on eating.
“They don’t even share a room.”
A little later:
“How long have they been married?”
“Lord, don’t ask me. I wouldn’t know.”
“All in all, I imagine they were still very much in love,” she suggested.
“I expect so,” he said.
“You won’t tell them I mentioned this, will you?”
In this passage from his final novel, Doting, nineteen-year-old Annabel Payton has invited Peter Middleton, a student two years younger than herself, to have lunch at an inexpensive Indian restaurant near her office. Annabel has a crush on Peter’s father — as the awkward, somewhat thick-headed Peter may or may not be aware — and is attempting to extract information about Peter’s parents from her lunch companion. Word by word, the dialogue captures the rhythm of someone trying to discover something without disclosing something else, of an interlocutor who cannot stop pushing until she finds what she is seeking. It’s a model of social inquisition carried out by someone who doesn’t much care about the person she is interrogating, except that she would like to keep him from forming a low opinion of her and from figuring out what she is doing.
At the end of the scene, Annabel asks Peter if he thinks his mother is beautiful:
“Yes,” he said, rather gruff. “As a matter of fact.”
“Me too,” she echoed, but in a wan little voice. “She has everything. Hair, teeth, skin, those wide-apart eyes. By any standard your father’s a very lucky man.”
“To have such a wife of course. Would you say she liked me, Peter?”
“Fairly, yes. No reason not to, is there?”
“Oh none,” she agreed casually.
Let’s get technical for a second. Why is that scene so suggestive of things without spelling them out? What makes Green’s use of dialogue so effective?
Can I step in here for a moment?
Oh, I didn’t realize we had critics here, too.
Well, I’m also a novelist. The Book Against God. Anyone? Anyone?
We haven’t read it. But go on. Maybe a critic’s opinion will be useful here.
Wonderful. In 1950, Henry Green gave a little talk on BBC radio about dialogue in fiction. Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalizes his characters’ thoughts, hardly ever explains a character’s motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to readers (“she said, grandiloquently”). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with readers, and that nothing kills “life” so much as “explanation.”
So you think the excerpt that Francine presented is effective because of the lack of “explanation”?
Yes, information is communicated silently, slowly, through careful accumulation of a character’s actions, their words.
Here’s a working example. Green imagined a husband and wife, long married, sitting at home one evening. At 9:30, the husband says he is going across the road to the pub. Green noted that the wife’s first response, “Will you be long?,” could be rendered in scores of different ways (“Back soon?” “When will you be back?” “Off for long?” “How long will it be before you are back?”), each one capable of a distinct resonance of meaning. The crucial thing, maintained Green, was not to hedge the dialogue with explanation, as in:
“How soon d’you suppose they’ll chuck you out?”
Olga, as she asked her husband this question, wore the look of a wounded animal, her lips were curled back from the teeth in a grimace and the tone of voice she used betrayed all those years a woman can give by proxy to the sawdust, the mirrors and the stale smell of beer of public bars.
Green felt strongly that such kind of authorial “assistance” was overbearing, because in life we don’t really know what people are like. “We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?”
Do you agree with all of that? It seems a bit strict, doesn’t it? Almost overbearing?
Yes, you’re quite right. Green, counseling against being overbearing, is laying down a fair amount of prescription himself, and we do not need to take his doctrine scripturally. Notice that when Green does his parody of explanation, he also falls into a deliberately breathy, second-rate style (“wore the look of a wounded animal”), whereas we can imagine something more continent, less offensive: “Olga knew what time he would come home, and in what state, stinking of beer and tobacco. Ten years of this, ten years.” Fulsome explainers like George Eliot, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth and many others would all have to retire themselves in Green’s universe.
Okay, okay. Let’s take a pause for a moment. What have we learned here so far? Anything? It seems that every rule you try to make about dialogue has many contingencies, many exceptions, ways around it. Characters shouldn’t speak in blatant exposition but subtle forms of expository information are allowed. They should sound like “real” people but not exactly like real people, as normal conversation consists of ums and ers and likes and, truthfully, uninteresting filler. Writers should let the characters’ speech say more about them than the narrator, though we have numerous successful examples of writers who break this rule. Finally, dialogue should always be performing multiple tasks at once. Is there anything else? Anything practical? Anything at all like a rule?
Yes, I have something to add.
Adverbs. I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that writers use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to maker sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:
“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.
In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:
“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.
The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. Contemptuously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous.
Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:
“Put the gun down, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.
Don’t do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.
Okay, good. A rule of sorts. I like it. Yes, Mr. Mamet?
To get what they want! That’s why people talk!
So what do you want, Mr. Mamet? Why are you talking right now?
I want future generations to make great art! I’m trying to help.
Help us now by being quiet. What was the point of this symposium? Have we really learned anything? Let’s get the writer in here.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
What was the point of this? What, could you not think of something to say yourself?
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Well, kind of. I realized that I didn’t have anything new to add about dialogue. All the observations I could make I’d first heard articulated in these books. What could I add?
That’s laziness disguised as modesty, Mr. Clark. I’m not buying it.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Well, the other thing was that none of these writers had anything definitive to say. Everything they said had some qualification to it. Or, if they were more stringent, I could think of a great counter example. So I thought that if I put a bunch of voices together and showed how difficult dialogue is to even talk about, I’d maybe contribute something useful.
Let me spoil it for you: you didn’t.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Can I go now? I’ve got a long flight.
Me, too. Plus I’m hungry. The invite said there would be snacks. I don’t see any snacks.
Everyone up for a bite to eat?
I could eat.
Not you, David.
(DAVID MAMET exits, pursued by a bear.)
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Or you, Jonathan. None of us even know who you are.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Plus you only put us all together because ours were the books you happen to have on your shelf.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
But at least that means I bought all your books!
Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man.
(Everyone exits except for MODERATOR and JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK.)
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Looks like it’s just you and me.
We’re the exact same person. So, basically, you’re by yourself in your room.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
And you’re talking to yourself.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Yeah. Funny. In a symposium about dialogue I end up alone, talking to myself.
And what does that tell you?
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
That dialogue is a conversation a writer has with himself, a conversation he has with his characters and a conversation between characters. That it’s all three. That, ultimately, the art of dialogue lies within the writer, determined by how he perceives people, human interaction, motivation. That dialogue, as much as it speaks to a character’s identity, speaks to the writer’s as well. That rules are almost impossible. That a writer has to engage with dialogue, be in conversation with it, so to speak.
I was going to say that you need some real human friends. I mean, listen to yourself: you’re talking to yourself about fake characters talking to each other. Pretty sad.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
You know what’s worse? To me, it isn’t sad at all. If the only dialogue I have in my life is the dialogue of great writers, I don’t have a whole lot to complain about. They’re great conversationalists, at least.
Yeah. At least you’ve got that. Come on. Save the document and be done with this.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Are people losing interest in fiction that “offers more questions than answers?” In her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley suggested that modern readers have little taste for uncertainty. At The Rumpus, Rob Roberge asks how much this contributes to popular disinterest in literature.
Maybe the best way to approach House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s new smorgasbord of ribaldry, is to sample its delectable language. So here’s a glossary of Baker-isms for the various human body parts, fluids, and functions that play starring roles in a novel that is aptly subtitled “A Book of Raunch”:
PENIS: bulldog, thundertube, ham steak, wanger, truncheon, mandingo, spunkspewer, purple cameroon, tuber, charley horse, fleshbone, pack mule, hellhound, manjig, stonker, putz, seedstick, babymaker, and, a bit more personally, Pollock, Malcolm Gladwell, and Lincoln Stiffins.
VAGINA: stash, train station, slobbering kitty, chickenshack, snatch patch, slutslot, cameltoe, tooter, stovepipe, and lettuce patch.
SEMEN: manstarch, silly string, cockslurp, sweet salty hotness, sackshot, blookie, doddle-goo, and ham juice.
BREASTS: hangers, jerries, britneys, cookies, and jaybirds.
Buttocks are “wonderloaves,” testicles are “hot young stones” or “jacksons,” a clitoris is a “lemondrop” or “Monsieur Twinklestump.” To ejaculate is to “pop the oyster.” And here are a few of the verbal volcanoes that erupt when various characters reach climax: “He seems to want to make me come, oh god, oh shit. Ham, ham, oo, oo, oo, oo, oo,oo, ham, ham, HAW!”; “Mgonna come, mgonna, come. Nnnnnnggggggggaaaaaaaw!”; and “I’m almost there, I’m almost there! I’m there, ah, ah, AAAAAH, hoof hoof hoof.” There are also some non-sexual grace notes, as when an English accent is “wuffly,” a sigh is “murfling,” and a character “had a great contentment bubbling inside her like the little bubbles that you see when you shake up a bottle of salad dressing.”
By now you’re probably guessing that House of Holes is both very frank and very funny, and you would not be guessing wrong. For better and for worse this novel will inevitably be linked to Baker’s two previous sex romps, Vox, which consists of a long phone-sex conversation, and The Fermata, the story of an office temp and libertine named Arno Strine who has the power to create something called “the Fold,” when time and motion freeze and he’s free to do anything he wants to do – which usually amounts to undressing his female co-workers and masturbating to their immobile bodies.
These earlier novels divided readers into two warring camps, and House of Holes is not likely to bring about detente. People tended to love these novels or loathe them. (Monica Lewinsky loved Vox so much she gave her personal copy to Bill Clinton.) The books strike me as a couple of one-trick ponies, attempts to tease a pair of thin premises into full-blown novels that are only partially successful.
House of Holes is a pony with a much bigger bag of tricks, but it’s still a pony, a carefully constructed contrivance, a vehicle for exploring a fantasy that could exist only in a country that’s both obsessed with sex and deeply conflicted about it. The fantasy is simple: imagine an alternate reality where everyone is attractive, having sex is as natural as breathing, nothing is forbidden, everyone’s doing everything with everyone and enjoying it, and for good measure there are no unwanted pregnancies, no sexually transmitted diseases, no guilt, and only an occasional flare-up of jealousy. People enter the House of Holes through any number of round apertures: a cocktail straw, a clothes dryer door, a golf hole, an earlobe piercing, a woman’s purse (blackest of black holes!). Once there, they can get an “ass-grabber’s license” or swap genitals with someone of either gender, there’s a “clothes-dissolving wind,” a man can temporarily sacrifice an arm in order to get a bigger penis. In short, it’s every pubescent boy’s wet dream. But is it good fiction?
The only way to arrive at an answer is to try to divine Baker’s motives for writing so obsessively and fluorescently about sex. Right off he should be absolved of the charge that he’s exploiting that tired credo of the retail crowd: sex sells. He’s after something much bigger than cheap thrills or quick cash. Baker’s appeal, in his eclectic fiction and non-fiction, is the way his imagination zeroes in on minutiae that most people, including most novelists, don’t bother to consider. His books are not painted or drawn; they’re etched. His preferred tools are the magnifying glass, the zoom lens, the X-acto knife, and acid. Trivial and mundane things are hugely important to him, including staplers, shoelaces, matches, nail clippers, bathroom towel dispensers, the perforations that make paper towels easy to tear. Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, consists of a 133-page ride on an escalator. He followed it with Room Temperature, which takes place in the 20 minutes a man needs to feed his baby daughter her bottle. It includes the speculation that “with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.” In keeping with Henry James’s dictum, Baker is one of the people on whom nothing is lost. For him, everything is worth noticing. Including, obviously, sex.
To rephrase the earlier question: Is it enough for a novelist to be a great noticer? The answer, unfortunately, is no. For all its many virtues – its attention to detail, its imaginative brio, its lavish language and sense of humor – House of Holes turns out to be a surprisingly flat performance. Though there is some sort of scorching, rococo sex act on virtually every page, Baker’s style is intentionally neutral, lukewarm, almost clinical. A key to this fantasy, and to much of the humor, is that the people living the fantasy find it utterly ordinary. Here’s a typical exchange between a willing young man named Cardell and a reluctant married woman named Betsy:
“You seem rich.”
“I’m not poor. My husband’s father was rich. He was supposedly a
ruthless businessman, but he was always nice to me.” She smiled.
“I’d love to see you come,” Cardell said thickly.
She laughed. “Ah, but I’m married, as you know. I don’t cheat. Much.”
“Does your husband have a friendly sex organ that treats you well?”
“He does,” she said, in a distant voice. “It’s got a knobby end that fits me just right. But I suppose that’s private information.”
Cardell looked out at the ocean. “I wish I had a cold iced tea right now.”
Much of the novel is like that, careening between the sexually charged and the grindingly mundane like a drunk on a four-day bender. The novel has no plot, unless you consider careening a plot. After a while this careening becomes routine, which I believe is Baker’s intention, because he has set out to create a very un-American world where sex is treated without hang-ups or fanfare. But eventually the routine becomes monotonous, which may or may not have been Baker’s intention. Either way, he winds up getting sabotaged by the success of his invention.
While Baker has endured some blistering reviews in the past, he has also been given the serious critical treatment. In Understanding Nicholson Baker, Arthur Saltzman wrote that Baker’s achievement has been “to depict the private and the perverse so ingeniously, to bring out the universal fascination within unheralded or even vulgar habits so convincingly, as to purge them of indecency.” Jack Murnighan’s The Naughty Bits: The Steamiest and the Most Scandalous Sex Scenes from the World’s Great Books lumps Baker with the usual bad boys, including Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Rabelais, among others. But perhaps it was Jane Smiley who got closest to what Baker is up to. Vox is one of the 100 novels Smiley includes in her dissection of the writing process, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. “Baker’s style is always plain and clear,” she writes. “It is also sometimes even tedious and dreary – intentionally so, since fidelity to the conversation of average people sometimes requires that they seem tedious and dreary in order to seem average.” Later she adds:
Baker’s strong suit as a novelist is that he is intriguing…. When we read his books, we are in part reading them for themselves – that is, as individual narratives. What we are also reading for is just to find out what Nicholson Baker has been thinking about lately.
Here’s the current answer: Nicholson Baker has been thinking about rigid stonkers and prime Angus cockbriskets spewing hot loads of silly string into various slutslots and lettuce patches. That, plus cold iced tea, and the little bubbles that you see when you shake up a bottle of salad dressing. Baker’s many fans are sure to lap it up. The rest of us will be slightly amused but ultimately bored. The war continues.