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Reading "House of Holes"
Published on June 13, 2013 by Sara Foss

I decided to read the 2011 Nicholson Baker novel "House of Holes" out of curiosity.

Baker is a well-regarded writer, which is why "House of Holes" was widely reviewed and discussed, despite being an explicitly sexual, pornographic work. People who wouldn't be caught dead reading "50 Shades of Grey" felt comfortable reading "House of Holes," because it is a work of literature. How do I know this? Because I'm one of those people.

Anyway, I've never read anything like "House of Holes." It's surreal and fanciful and very, very dirty. The plot concerns the House of Holes, a sort of sexual spa where guests can indulge their every fantasy and desire, as long as they abide by arbitrary rules that are enforced by the woman who runs the place, Lila. The book is more of a series of vignettes than a cohesive story, which might explain with the book is enjoyable, but never quite seems to build into a meaningful whole. When I started reading "House of Holes," I thought it was hilarious and brilliant, but even at a trim 260-plus pages it felt long: Perhaps my appetite for sexual explicit, loosely connected vignettes just isn't that vast. "House of Holes" is never boring, but the novelty does wear off.

The book's other flaw, in my mind, is its relentlessly male point of view, even when female characters are the focus. I felt that Baker had a pretty good handle on the sorts of fantasies the male guests of House of Holes might entertain, but that he didn't fully understand what women might find appealing. Also, for a book that celebrates and describes such a wide variety of sexual encounters and fetishes and yearings, "House of Holes" is surprisingly unadventurous when it comes to human relationships: The characters are all heterosexual, and there seems to be little alternative to traditional male-female coupling. Sure, the methods might be slightly unusual - a woman finds herself serviced by a pair of conductors, for example - but there's little about the various hook-ups and pairings that's actually radical or thought-provoking.

Like me, Boston Globe reviewer Steve Almond enjoyed the book, but found it lacking in substance and genuine provocation. He writes:

"There’s no question, given its sheer magnitude of smut, that “House of Holes’’ will be widely discussed. But this discussion probably won’t take into account the simple fact that Baker isn’t writing about sex as it exists in the real world. He’s writing about sex as men wish it existed - at least socially liberal heterosexual men.

I found the book to be a genuine turn-on. But my hunch is that women and gay people will have a harder time buying into its vision of instant, unconditional, regret-free hetero coupling."

This seems about right. "House of Holes" is intriguing and fun, but it could have been so much better.

 

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