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House of the unholy; Literary extremist Nicholson Baker outdoes himself in raunchy, hilarious new novel

The biggest problem of Nicholson Baker is that he has no Nicholson Baker of his own to defend him.

And not only from his enemies, either, but from his friends.

When, in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, old hand Charles McGrath wrote a rather good interview with Baker, its headline was "the Mad Scientist of Smut."

Cute. And good, no doubt, for luring readers. And not entirely inappropriate for suggesting the quality of Baker's newest and most outrageous novel, "House of Holes," candidly (and accurately) subtitled "A Book of Raunch."

Indeed Baker's new novel is all of that. If one were to make a contest out of the Dirtiest Book Ever to Come From a Mainstream Publishing House, "House of Holes" would certainly be a viable contestant. Baker's earlier offerings in the field, "Vox" and "The Fermata," pale next to this baby.

Nor will any other major novel by an American writer likely come close to its 250-page menu of baroque sexual fantasy.

But it simply won't do -- even in our egregiously dumbed-down soundbite era -- to slap a "Mad Scientist of Smut" label on the man who may be the most profound and audacious literary extremist of our time.

Baker is so much more than the sum total of "Vox," "The Fermata," and "House of Holes," which is why he needs a writer as bold, intemperate and gifted as he is to come to an adequate defense.

He won't find one. There is only one Nicholson Baker.

In a digital era, where there are lines of gleeful demolitionists dancing around over the disappearance of novelists-as-royalty, the implosion of literature and the odds against survival of books themselves, here is a writer who constantly races to the outer perimeters with the following questions: Still think novelists can't shock? Still think writers don't matter? Still think all literature is incompetent to deal with the age of Twitter?

No other living American writer has come up with such a FULL SLATE of wild, brilliant and extraordinary answers:

1) In "Human Smoke," he created a pacifist history of World War II -- the "last good war" -- and laid it as much on documentable English anti-Semite Winston Churchill as Adolf Hitler.

2) In "Double Fold," he raged against libraries racing to phase out books and newspapers in their collections. He put his money where his outrage was, purchasing old newspapers from those in a hurry to junk them.

3) In "U and I," he wrote a novel/memoir about his idolatry of John Updike that came so close to literary stalking that it has as much to say about our era's celebrity dysfunctions as it does about literary influence.

4) In "The Anthologist," he created a post-modern novel that, with typical extremism and belligerence, defends not only poetry but rhyme in poetry. At the same time, the book, from a purely literary point of view, is one of the precious few to be an almost direct outgrowth of the novel that may be the greatest post-modern masterwork, Nabokov's "Pale Fire."

5) In "A Box of Matches," Baker created what could be the first work of American literature for our Twitter universe, where every micro-observation seems tweetably pertinent.

6) With "Vox," he wrote an erotic novel that was recommended to Bill Clinton by Monica Lewinsky. Is there any other American novelist who can claim to be part of impeachment proceedings against a sitting president?

"The Mad Scientist of Smut?" Hardly. It's a little like calling Thomas Jefferson "the famous Virginia Slave Owner" and nothing else. Or Martin Luther King "famous rumored adulterer" and leaving out the rest of his life.

For those who desperately need to slap Nicholson Baker around with one word, there actually is one useful one.

Nicholson Baker is trouble. Big trouble.

Personified.

As Elvis Presley might have put it, "if you're looking for trouble, you came to the right place" if it involves Nicholson Baker and words, especially those between covers.

And yes, the uproariously and hilariously raunchy "House of Holes" is the latest example of how Nicholson Baker is able to prove that all those digital propagandists are, at the very least, moronically premature if not totally wrong in consigning literature and books themselves to history's rubbish heap.

Even in a world where people have become quite expert in depriving the worthy of suitable attention, it seems to me the world couldn't ignore "House of Holes" if it tried.

The book is a fantasy about an all-enabling resort that stands at the ready to fulfill its guests' every sexual fantasy.

We are introduced to the place with one of the damnedest Chapter Ones ever encountered -- Franz Kafka Meets Terry Southern Meets Philip Roth.

It's titled "Shandee Finds Dave's Arm," in which Shandee finds a severed arm in a rock quarry that eats, excretes, communicates through writing and "had a gentle touch." Its owner, David, went to the House of Holes in search of more ample manhood and offered his right arm to achieve it.

Now separated from an amplified Dave, that right arm is adopted by Shandee, who finds that it fulfills desires of her own, even though her curiosity about the House of Holes has been piqued, too.

What follows is intermittently filthy, hilarious and a permanent tribute to both the idiocy and surreal inventiveness of sexual desire.

If you have ever been the kind of person who, upon hearing dirty jokes in adolescence, wondered (after laughing, of course) who on earth makes this stuff up, wonder no more. Here is Nicholson Baker -- former Eastman School of Music student, bassoonist, literary extremist and harrowingly civilized enemy of literary gentility -- to give you a piece of the bold imagination that invented the crazy, surreal dirty jokes you've been laughing at all your life.
Women lay eggs. Men get to the House of Holes by disappearing through their own bodily apertures. The place is run by a woman in her mid-50s named Lila who's a sort of White Goddess of Baker's carnival of the carnal.

In its ability to offend between covers, it's infinitely beyond the scabrous Boho poetics of Henry Miller or the quasi-genteel realism of his idol Updike. It's wildly funny and utterly absurd.

When the former Eastman student enlists -- early on, no less -- the private parts of Russian composers Alexander Borodin and Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov in his insane sex fantasies, you have entered an antic erotic imagination unlike any other widely known.

You know what the catches are, of course -- the merry juvenility of the project can, and does, descend sometimes into the fatiguingly puerile. And the specter of monotony, even tedium, is unavoidable. It's the abyss that awaits all sexual writing.

But the trouble Baker is creating is the indispensable answer to the trouble being made for literary civilization by a partnership of technology and capitalism run amok.

Attention must be paid. And laughter must ensue -- and rather a lot of it, too.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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House of Holes

By Nicholson Baker

Simon and Schuster

262 pages, $25.

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