From: Time, February 3, 1992
Nicholson Baker explores the nature of arousal in his dazzling and erotic (but not pornographic) novel Vox
By Richard Stengel
Artists who work on a small scale have traditionally been known as miniaturists. The term has a kind of pat-on-the-head condescension about it, a sense that the miniaturist is forever relegated to the artistic minor leagues.
But just as quantum physicists have revealed that the world inside the atom - with its whizzing elementary particles and clouds of electrons - is just as grand as the big, blooming universe outside, artists who construct a magnum opus out of the microscopic have become major-leaguers.
Nicholson Baker is a subatomic physicist of fiction, a quantum suburban Proust. He is a wizard at anatomizing the micromechanics of mental life, at charting the quicksilver zigzags of decision and indecision, a writer who can spin out a mock epic from a pair of broken shoelaces.
His first novel, The Mezzanine, takes place in the time its protagonist ascends an escalator, but it is a dazzlingly dense journey into the mind of a man who meditates on subjects like the delights of perforated paper. His second novel, Room Temperature, occurs during the 20-minute reverie or a young husband feeding his six-month-old daughter, but it explores, in droll, Andy Kaufmanish detail, the history of a marriage. U and I, Baker’s third book, is an extended brooding on a single self-mortifying question: Is John Updike a better writer than I am?
Baker’s new book, Vox (Random House; $15), should vault him out of the anteroom of cult writers. Vox is not a voyage into the deep time of interior thought but a story that takes place in the time it takes to read it. Vox’s 165 pages consist of a single telephone conversation between a man and a woman, strangers who have both called an adult party line and then decided to have a private conversation. We never find out what they do, how old they are or what they look like, but by the end of Baker’s brief novel, the reader knows these two characters inside, if not out.
The sexual encounter in Vox is the very opposite of another contemporary landmark of literary eroticism, the zipless sex of the ‘70s. Erica Jong’s cheesy fiction offered a New Age pardon for the grunting libido of genital-to-genital sex. Zipless meant voiceless. Vox, by contrast, is the ultimate in ‘90s safe sex: voices, not hands, caress each other as Baker teases out a rambling romp of a conversation followed by simultaneous masturbatory climaxes between partners thousands of miles away.
The two interlocutors of Vox - Abby and Jim (the pedestrian names somehow don’t do them justice) - are virtuoso talkers. They are not merely poets of sexuality (an eroticized George and Gracie) but acute lyricists of everyday life. Listen to Abby’s riff on pop songs that end with fade-outs ("this attempt to imply that oh yeah, we’re a bunch of endlessly creative folks who jam all night"); while Jim explains why he doesn’t bother to buy such records ("you really need the feeling of radio luck in listening to pop music").
A just-the-facts-Ma’am summary of their conversation would go like this: she fantasizes about having sex with three house painters, while he tells her how he and an office co-worker sat in his apartment, covered by a blanket, and silently, separately masturbated to a porn film.
But to condense Vox that way is to describe Lolita as the story of a randy professor and a dim-witted 13-year-old girl. It misses the myriad ah-yes analogies, the deadeye humor, the fervent, carnal lyricism of what is not pornography (as some will call it) but an anatomically correct, technology-assisted love story.
Jim is a kind of platonic voyeur. He doesn’t seek to peer into women’s bedrooms but into their brains. He masturbates to the idea of women masturbating. he postulates a sexual Heisenberg’s principle: "A man is a watcher, and a watcher disturbs the purity of the event." Abby is aroused mainly by her ability to arouse. She is a Hall of Fame sexual fantasist. "It’s kind of like getting dressed for a party," she says, "and being unsure of what to wear... and frantically trying on one image after another like clothes."
Baker, 35, lives in a small town in upstate New York with his wife and child. The telephone is the way he communicates with the outside world. "My business life seems to take place over the phone," he says, in a pleasantly reedy voice. "I know all these people and deal with them weeklyon the phone whom I’ve never met." Talking on the phone and reading have a certain kinship: "The nice thing about reading a book is that it is private, like a phone conversation; it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing when you read it."
An astute critic once said that the poet must be as in love with the form of his sonnet as he is with the form of his love. Nicholson Baker is as obsessed with language as he is with sex. Vox is as much about wordplay as it is about foreplay. In a sense Vox illuminates the strange connections of modern life, how people achieve intimacy at a ttechnological distance. Two hundred years ago, Vox would have been titled Lettres and been an epistolary romance. Today people don’t kiss by the book but by telephone wire. The phone affords protection; it literally allows us to save face. Vox proves once again that the brain, as love doctors always tell us, is the sexiest organ.
NOTE: The review contains a picture of Baker seated on a couch, with the caption: "Baker at home: capturing mental life as truly as possible."