In his first two novels, The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990), Nicholson Baker perfected a humorous style based on the meticulous description of the most banal details. In Baker’s world, merely breaking a shoelace was enough to inspire an urgently beautiful comic epiphany that lasted for pages.
The Mezzanine was about a man ruminating during his lunch hour, and Room Temperature described the thoughts of a man feeding his infant daughter a bottle of milk. But Nicholson’s new one, Vox, is about s-e-x, and the book is being pumped up as a billowing literary scandal — ”The most sexually provocative novel of our time,” according to his publisher — because of its premise: It’s a novel in the form of a telephone conversation between a man and a woman whose voices meet on one of those sexy-talk ”party lines.” The two chat for the length of this book about turn-ons, orgasm, and the eroticism of Tinkerbell in the Walt Disney version of Peter Pan: ”She’s got quite small breasts but quite large little hips, and large little thighs, and she’s wearing this tiny little outfit that’s torn or jaggedly cut and barely covers her, and she looks down at herself, a lovely little pouty face, and she puts her hands on her hips as if to measure them…Oh that got me hot! This tiny sprite with big hips.”
Vox is a brilliant idea, really, for a book in 1992: a piece of safe-sex pornography with high-art aspirations (i.e., even though its protagonists get off, you won’t). Vox is foxy; Vox has moxie. And because Vox is hotsy, Baker has already been: profiled in Vanity Fair, parodied in The Washington Post, and chastised in Publishers Weekly. When Baker tours to give readings, some rattled bookstores will reportedly ask him to read from his earlier, supposedly safer novels. And because his previous work has been so wonderful and so poor-selling — I didn’t even mention his terrific lemme-tell-ya-about- John Updike book of psycho-litcrit, U&I (1991) — it’s impossible to begrudge Baker his 15 minutes of Vox fame. But, speaking as a major fan, I am obliged to point out that Vox is a flop-a stylistic flop, which is deeply disappointing, because the style was what Baker had previously mastered with such grand wit. In the past, he has made his self-indulgence a riot.
In Vox, however, he reduces style to a stunt. The novel’s funniest details are the innumerable euphemisms Baker has invented for the male sex organ (”sperm-dowel,” ”bobolink,” and ”Werner Heisenberg” are typical). But Vox‘s overriding problem is this: There are two people in this book, Jim and Abby, yet Vox has only one voice — a dry, nattering tone shared by both the man and the woman. In a book that’s all dialogue, you have to keep stopping to figure out who’s saying what — the ”he said”s and ”she said”s are fairly few. The result is tedious and even annoying, as if Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett had written an endless letter to Penthouse Forum.
This crucial flaw is so obvious, one can only assume that it occurred to the novelist, and he reassured himself that he had avoided it. But he didn’t. By all means, rush out and read everything else this man has written. Vox, however, is what no Nicholson Baker book has been before, even when he was spending hundreds of words mulling over the relative merits of plastic versus paper drinking-straws: It’s boring. C-