It was a stroke of genius. A book of genius, in fact. In January, the reviewers' copies arrived: slim volumes wrapped in very plain, Woolworth's-type brown paper wrappers with a large black "X" stamped on the lower right-hand corner. Stacked high at Dalton's in such a manner, the effect would be hilarious (the actual book jacket is black, with a blacker "X" stamped on the front). One would not open a cover like this even if one were all alone on the bus without inviting the taint of perversion. It was truly racy.
On the back of the plain brown wrapper, another few letters appeared, spelling out "Random House." And here the publisher's real wit showed, because can you imagine Random House printing 50,000 copies of a porno novel? What a hoot! But it is not a hoot--it is Faux Porn.
Faux Porn is about to become very, very big. The label "erotica" is so vague as to try one's patience, and the title "pornography" is as criminalized as ever. But this new genre, called "sexual candor" in the most polished circles, is about to reach deep inside your ding-a-ling and make a reader out of you.
All the serious young literati are in on it. When I read that author Naomi Wolf, of the feminist fashion expose, The Beauty Myth, had received a $500,000 advance for her upcoming book, a somewhat autobiographical Lolita-like tale of "sexual candor," I nearly croaked. You see, I have not had the pleasure of being called "sexually candid." "Trash," "perverted," and "obscene" have all been attributed to my books (in one case, women's erotic short stories, and in the other, lesbian sex-filled essays). My work is banned in South Africa, New Zealand, and Madison, Wisconsin. What is all the fuss about? Obviously it is just bad marketing. The wrong publisher and not the right connections. I am jealous. I am steaming.
So as an apple-pie pornographer with nothing to hide, I blistered when Nicholson Baker, the author of VOX, was interviewed in Vanity Fair. He said that he always wanted to be a pornographer when he grew up. What a little charmer! This was right after Vanity Fair said he was the best writer of our generation and threw in Hemingway's name for good measure. I was pissed. Nicholson Baker was trifling with a serious issue here. I resolved to call Mr. Next Big Thing and put him to the test.
Nick Baker is so nice on the phone that it took all my triple X-rated strength to maintain a moral fury. "I don't believe that you would really like to be a pornographer," I told him. "If you were a porno writer, no one would know who you were. Your work would be published under a pseudonym or anonymously. If exposed, you could be tried in any court and found guilty of the mysterious crime of obscenity. You would be put in jail; your house seized. Your children would be taken away from you."
"I don't believe you want to be a pornographer," I choked, "because you have no idea what it means to be ostracized for your sexual beliefs."
"Well, that's a legitimate outrage," Baker replied. "I do think there was a tad of smirkiness about it. But on the other hand, it did work; people's interest was piqued."
His graceful concession led me to press him further. Here is a man who not only has the packaging phenomenon of the year, he also has written a book which consists entirely of a phone sex conversation between a man and a woman on opposite coasts. They find each other through commercial phone sex party lines and switch over to a private conversation.
But what follows is not a beat-the-clock jack-off contest between the two. They discuss their erotic fantasies and experiences patiently, even shyly sometimes. Baker's style is famous for artful digression. His most well known book before this was Mezzanine, a hundred-page ditty that consists entirely of a man taking an office break to buy a pair of shoelaces. True to form, his phone sex characters get distracted at the drop of a hat, away from their erotic momentum and into what they ate for lunch.
"You're a terrible tease," I told Baker. "You brought me wobbling to the brink several times, and..."
"No payoff, huh?" he interrupted.
"Exactly: the classic prick-tease in book form. Here, here's the worst example..." I thumbed to the scene that made me throw the book down on the floor. "Page 146!" I announced, "Let me read it to you":
"And it was exactly what I wanted, and it started to feel so good, and I said so, and suddenly he started stroking himself incredibly fast, it was this blur, like a sewing machine, and he produced this major jet of sperm at a diagonal right into the circular spray of water, so that it fought against all the drops and was sort of torn apart by them, and he was clamping my leg, my smooth leg, extremely tight with those perfectly water groomed thighs, and I shifted adroitly so that the poached sperm and hot-water run off wouldn't pour directly into me and possibly cause trouble, but so that it still poured over me. And then he took the showerhead again, and still holding his cock, and still clamping my knee very tight, he sprayed slowly across my hand and my thighs very close with the water until I closed my eyes and came, imaging I was in front of a circus audience. So that was nice."
"God of mercy, I am so jealous!"
"Don't be," she said. "I think my offhand talk of yeast unnerved him..."
I paused dramatically. I wondered if Baker had heard his own Faux Porn read back to him. "I can't believe you blew off the end of that fantasy to bring up a YEAST INFECTION!" I yelled. "Who wants an orgasm that ends with 'So that was nice'?!"
"I wasn't actively trying to frustrate the reader," Nick said. "I wanted a realistic conversational texture. I wanted the characters to entertain each other, by teasing, dropping the thread provocatively. The most graphic moments are not necessarily in your private loops. It's some other moment. It's out of order, and especially as you get close to orgasm, the dishevelment, the memories get shuffled. I tried to capture that."
Memories and dishevelment are fine, I told him, leaving your reader with a case of blue balls or an aching clit is not. At a certain point, he has to drop the self-consciousness, get down on the floor, and grind like anyone else.
I flipped to the end of the book where our two lovers finally do get off. "This was the most boring scene of all," I said. "After the fantasy with the painters? The Victoria's Secret warehouse? The olive oil scene?"
"I got such different Nielson numbers for the different scenes," Baker said. "Some people thought the best was the last."
"The last scene could have made it if you hadn't inserted your little 'Johnny on the thesaurus' touches," I railed. "Now look at this paragraph here:"
"I'd take one last lick on your pussy and then I'd straighten up, and I'd still be cupping your ass in my hands, and you'd be completely visible by now, wide open, and sopping wet, and I'd take my cock in one hand and kind of vibrate it over your clit, and you'd slide your hands down and hold your lips apart with your fingers, and then I'd push my cock down and I'd feel how hot you were and I'd have to slide myself slowly all the way in, and out again and slide in, into that nice nasturtium..."
"Now Nick, why would I want to hear about 'nice nasturtiums' at a time like this?" I said.
"I love that word!" Nick cried. "I am more proud of that word than anything else in the scene!"
"I know it's lovely," I said."It's lyrical. But it interrupted my path of arousal, my identification with the speaker, and reminded me of you, the author, sticking his precious "best writer of our generation" vocabulary in. When I'm heading down the final ramp at the orgasm factory, there are no nasturtiums, Nick. There are only pistons."
"But they are down there," Nick said. "They are, they're like a bolt from heaven. The vocabulary illuminates the guy's conversation, it jostles what is happening...It was a moment of triumph!"
Clearly, this novel is a love child. And as if I were Linus on the eve of Halloween, I concluded that the author is a sincere pumpkin, and despite his timidity, a bit of a risk taker. Baker is quite right that his book gives many different readings on the arouse-o-meter. I passed my copy around to five friends and got wildly varied reviews from each of them. Women gave it higher ratings.
Ironically, VOX is the most overtly feminist sex novel that anyone has attempted in years. I say feminist because the female character is on par with her male partner erotically. She is articulate, lusty, supplied with the normal female caution but, just as normally, feminine curiosity and desire.
The characters also portray to a T the feminist ambivalence concerning sexual taboos, violence, and power quotients. Compared, let's say, to Anne Rice's erotic novels, published under her pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure (The Punishment of Beauty, etc.), Baker is more style-conscious and wholesome. But Rice's gender-blender S/M fantasia will burn out your vibrator faster.
When I read the ad copy on the back cover of VOX--"The most sexually provocative novel of our time!"--I thought, not. Nevertheless, Baker is the first male erotic novelist whose ancestors are the pioneers of the women's erotic movement. This book could not have been written before them. This is an important marker. Especially coming as it does from a major publisher. It's not a bodice-ripper or a Palm Beach expose, not a Dworkin-esque tract against porn that really is pornographic, but a genuine erotic story for grown-ups. I don't think it goes far enough--I warned Baker he would only get a "half-erect" rating from me--but at least it's in the ballpark.
"What are you wearing?" the male character asks his phone date in the first line of the book.
"A white shirt," she says, "with little white stars, green and black stars, and black pants, and socks the color of the green stars, and a pair of black sneakers I got for nine dollars."
If nothing else, Baker has demystified phone sex. I found myself asking the same question, "what are you wearing?" to every phone call I took for a week. Usually I got the nine-dollar-sneaker-type answers, although some disheveled surprises leapt out over the receiver when I least expected it.
"So what are you wearing right now?" I asked Nicholson Baker.
He changes the subject.
"Thank you for complicating my life so gracefully," he said. "It's probably good for me to have one critic attacking me from the left."
"I'm not kidding, Nick," I said. "I won't hang up until you tell me what you're wearing." A VOX-like silence hung over our phone line.
"Well," he finally replied, "I have a Smith and Hawkins Santa Rosa Plum-colored cap on my knee...and that's all I'm going to tell you."
What did I tell you about this guy? A tease. When he comes to your town on tour to sign his oeuvre but refuses to read or talk dirty, don't let him get away with it. Sexual candor, and even Faux Porn, demands nothing less.
VOX by Nicholson Baker, Random House, $15.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Chuck Nitti.