Author: Nicholson Baker
Genre: Erotica, 1992
Plot Summary: "What are you wearing?" So begins the tale of two horny young strangers living on opposite sides of the US coast: Jim and Abby who share a spontaneous moment of connection via a telephone sex chatline. The novel is their hours long phone sex conversation.
I picked up this book because I was on the hunt for literary erotica. I write and read smutty fanfics but smutfic prose is rarely lyrical, elegant, or erudite the way poetry or literary fiction is. I wanted to find high-brow erotica, something that was arm-flailingly hot, but also crafted by a master prose stylist.
There are erotic literary classics like The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty or The Story of O, but I dismissed them because those fantasies are all rooted in the idea of a woman's self-annihilation. Which has never been one of my kinks. A coworker recommended Nicholson Baker. Settled on Vox, which is probably Baker's best known novel. It was highly publicized after the Starr Report detailed that Monica Lewinsky gave President Clinton a copy of Vox as a lover's gift (aside: in return, he gave her Whitman's Leaves of Grass - which he had also given to Hillary :-/ )
I was pretty nervous picking up this erotic novel because the author is a man and I have a prejudice about men writing smut. Why you ask? Sometime during my sex-free adolescence, I got frustrated with rereading Captain Wentworth's swoothworthy letter in Jane Austen's Persuasion and was determined to find more prurient stuff. This was the '90's at the dawn of internet age - there was no fanfic. Somehow, I stumbled upon Henry Miller and his sex writing in Tropic of Cancer.
Not only was it lolarious (who boasts that his big dick is 6"?):
- At night when I look at Boris’ goatee lying on the pillow I get hysterical. O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame your cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces….
But I was appalled by the demeaning depersonalization of women:
- You can forgive a young cunt anything. A young cunt doesn't have to have brains. They're better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she's brilliant, even if she's the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss. All they can do for you is buy you things. But that doesn't put meat on their arms or juice between their legs.
I read other male smutty writers after Henry Miller - Charles Bukowski, Philip Roth - but again the same depersonalization of women! I actually tolerate those guys to a limited extent. (Roth's Portnoy's Complaint resonated with me - the experience of growing up Jewish was similar to the experience of growing up Asian, but I would rather clean my toilet than read it again, narrator was deeply unlikeable.) However, I was repelled by the arousal I felt when reading the smut sections of their novels. The proto-feminist in me couldn't really pinpoint the reason at the time. Though later I was able to diagnose the root of my unease after reading this passage from John Berger's Ways of Seeing: "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female." Given the rampant misogyny of the male smut writers I encountered, it was a better bet to dismiss them in general than to spend my precious leisure time wading through that manfiction muck.
So does Nicholson Baker commit the same crimes as that "big prick" Henry Miller? No, at least not in Vox. The male protagonist - Jim - is a mensch. His sexual fantasies revolve around the experience of female sexual desire, especially the masturbatory kind. I was pretty charmed by the story of his ecstatic reaction to walking into a used bookstore whose stock was made up of romance novels:
- Shelf after shelf of these things, big thick historical romances, super neatly shelved, sometimes five or six copies of the same book side by side, Love's Hurry, Loves Eager Trial, Loves Tender Fender Bender, all that kind of material, but even though there were multiple copies of these books, they weren't identical, because every one of them had been read. They looked handled. All of their pages were turned. And turned by whom? Turned by women. My heart started going, I had entered this enchanted glade...hundreds of female orgasms could be inferred from the books themselves ... you could just hold any copy and think of a woman holding it open with one hand, with her thumb and little finger. It was all there in the pliability and the thumbed-ness of the book itself - it practically shouted at you, "I have been near a clit as it underwent two orgasms."
One thing I appreciated about this novel is its sunniness. This is not one of those dark nights of the soul type romance scenarios, there's no angst that either character discloses to signal character depth. No doubt this was the author's agenda as Jim explicitly states that he can't stand serious dirty films, "full of the grimness that films get into when they try to make art out of porn, so uncheerful ..."
However, this novel is not a tour-de-force, there are serious flaws. The major criticism I have of the novel is that the voices of Abby and Jim are so similar. There's very little dialogue attribution through the novel and the Kindle version was riddled with missing quotation marks and spelling errors. All these things made it hard to follow who was actually speaking, especially as Abby and Jim would complete each other's roleplaying fantasy stories. It reminded me of watching a Tarantino movie - how the dialogue, no matter who was speaking it, all sounded like it came from the same febrile brain. I was expecting someone of Baker's talent to be able to create unique voices, to be able to write in a variety of vernaculars, not just create avatars of himself. What a disappointment! Also the lightning speed of the conversation, all this crackling, electric wit was unrealistic, the way Sorkinverse dialogue is unrealistic. And it was distractingly writerly. This is annoyingly apparent with Abby's quirk of seeing strange images at the point of orgasm:
- the actual images that I have when I'm coming are things like, I don't know, elephant seals dozing on rocks, a carousel selection of greeting cards, a painting tightly wrapped in canvas, porch furniture...
[Spoiler (click to open)]
Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
What? Does any woman have this same quirk? I don't know, I haven't taken a survey, but it just seems contrived. Personally speaking, my thoughts are utterly conventional at the moment of climax.
So was it good smut? I think its too cerebral to be a one-handed read, but YMMV. It reminded me of those Richard Linklater movies- Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I was charmed by it, but it wont end up creased and thumbed like Love's Tender Fender Bender.
Addendum: One charm I want to stress is Baker's ability to identify and cogently expound on the oddities of life - thoughts, sensations, actions that are trivial, even inexplicable, yet universal. I found myself nodding in agreement at the passage in the book where Jim and Abby discuss why its so pleasurable to hear a song on the radio that you like, even though you already own the song and can listen to it whenever you want.
After I read the book, in the spirit of the novel's themes, I found myself asking this totally random question to my husband:
What is the most pleasurable physical sensation that a person can experience that is strictly non-sexual?
Our consensus: Running your hands through a 20lb bag of raw rice grains.