I interviewed Baker when VOX debuted and subsequently excerpted excerpts from two of his novels for Best American Erotica (1995 and 1993)— he's one of the most sensitive and electric authors I've ever published.
Today Nicholson lives in Maine, and our visits are infrequent— but luckily, he is madly prolific and I always feel like it's a special party for me every time he completes a new manuscript.
His latest is House of Holes, which is hilarious, utopian, and arousing on... every single page... how does he do it? Why can't we live this way? Where is this laundrymat he speaks of where I may climb in the fourth dryer from the end and enter his Holeish Den of Sexpots? My filthy lace and shoelaces are ready.
I asked Nick if I could show you the opening to his "Holes," since I think once you start, it's impossible to leave it alone.
"Shandee Finds Dave’s Arm,"
the opening to Nicholson Baker's novel, House of Holes
"Shandee’s sister gave her all her makeup because she was going off to Guatemala. That night Shandee spent about two hours trying on lipstick. Then, the next morning, she went to a quarry with her Geology 101 class. The quarry was called the “Rock of Ages.” It was vast and they dug granite there, mostly for tombstones.
The tour guide was kind of cute although his hair wasn’t good—he was maybe twenty-seven. Pretty drastically cute, though, she thought. They were standing on the brink of a space that looked like something from another planet, and he said, “There’s enough granite here to last us four thousand five hundred years.” My gracious goodness, thought Shandee, that’s a lot of tombstones. She turned away from the edge, and that’s when she saw a hand poking out from behind a rock.
While the others listened to the tour guide, she went over to the hand. The hand was attached to its forearm, and there was a clean torn cloth wrapped around the end that would have been attached to the rest of his arm. There was no blood on the cloth.
Shandee picked it up and felt it. It was warm; the fingers moved a little. The hand pointed urgently at her bag, so she stuffed it inside and went back to the group and listened to the rest of the tour.
When she got home she pulled the forearm out and laid it on her bed. It was strong, with sensitive fingers and a blue vein traveling up along the muscle on the underside. She lifted it and whispered, “Arm, can you hear me?”
In answer the arm caressed her cheek with two fingers. It had a gentle touch.
Shandee said, “Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?” The arm made a handwriting gesture. Shandee found a pen and handed it over. The hand wrote, “Please unwrap the rag and feed me some mashed-up fish food in an electrolyte solution.”
“Where?” Shandee asked.
“Funnel it into the little hole with the green rim,” the arm wrote. And then: “I’m glad you found me.”
She unwrapped the towel and saw that the arm was capped with a sort of power pack made of black rubber. There looked to be a place for a battery and a place for waste to be discharged, and a place for nutrients to enter.
She had an intuition. “Are you Italian?”
“Half Italian, half Welsh,” the arm wrote. “I’m known as Dave’s arm.”
“Well, Dave’s arm, I’m very pleased to meet you.” They shook. Then she noticed the clock. “Oh dear. Can you sit tight here for an hour?” she said. “I promised someone I’d go to his party and I can’t bear to hurt his feelings.”
Dave’s arm scribbled something rapidly. “Sure, but—let me put on the lipstick for you,” he wrote.
“Okay, you can try.” Shandee grasped the arm firmly and held him so that his hand was in front of her mouth. He touched all the way around her lips, feeling the exact shape, and then, with very fine almost vibrating movements, he applied the lipstick. It was extremely red, a color called Terranova.
“Good job,” said Shandee. “You’re good. And this color is great.” Her lips looked really luscious. “Thank you, Dave’s arm.”
He made a little nod with his hand and then, lifting the pen, reminded her that he needed to have some of the fish-food mash and to be relieved of his chemical wastes. She took him to the toilet and popped open a little vent on his cap. A tiny trickle of gray water dripped out. Then she fed him some fish-food gruel, and he seemed quite revived.
He asked her to place him on the windowsill, because he had a solar panel for energy. She did, and then she went to the party and danced and had a wonderful time, but she came home early because she felt she had a new friend that she had to take care of.
When she got back her roommate Rianne was there. Rianne’s lips were very red—she’d been sampling the new lipsticks, probably—and she was holding on to Dave’s arm. The hand end was in her shirt, obviously doing something tender with one of her breasts. Rianne hurriedly drew him out. There was a pad of paper with lots of hasty writing scrawled on it next to where she was lounging on her bed.
“So, you’ve discovered my arm,” Shandee said, with an edge.
Rianne nodded. “He has a lovely touch.”
“That he does,” Shandee agreed.
Rianne said that she’d found out quite a bit about the arm and where it came from. “It belongs to someone named Dave,” she said.
“I knew that,” Shandee snapped.
“He went to a place called the House of Holes. There Dave had requested a larger thicker penis. Apparently you can do that. But at a price. The director, this woman named Lila, said to him: ‘Would you be willing to give your right arm for a larger penis?’ Dave said no at first, because his right arm was necessary for his work. But Lila said that it was only temporary—only till someone found the arm and took it back and stuck it on him.
Dave said, ‘Oh, if it’s temporary, sure.’ So he underwent a voluntary amputation right near the elbow, and his arm had the self-contained life-support pack grafted on.”
“You sure did find out a lot,” said Shandee.
“I must say his touch is extremely sensitive,” Rianne went on. She threw herself back on the bed and laid the arm on her chest.
Shandee watched the hand push aside the sides of Rianne’s shirt and find her breast again.
“Hmm,” Shandee said. “I don’t know about this. I found him, not you.” She felt finger-snappings of jealousy.
Rianne’s lips parted. “Oh my gosh, his fingers know what to do,” she said, flushing. The hand was gently rolling her nipple like a tender round pea. And then it surrounded her whole breast and shook it once. After that it turned and began crawling over her belly toward her pajama pants.
“Are you just going to let that happen?” Shandee said, riveted.
“Um, yes,” she said. “Could you dim the light?”
Shandee turned off the overhead light and watched the arm undo the knot of Rianne’s pajama bottoms. It disappeared. Rianne went “Shooo.”
Shandee turned away. “He’s found it,” Rianne said, “and, boy, he’s got the touch of a master.” Then her voice changed and she said, “Oh my god, two fingers. Haw. Haw.” Shandee glanced at her. Rianne’s knees had fallen apart and her eyes were slitted closed. “He seems to want to make me come, oh god, oh shit.” Then: “Ham, ham, oo, oo, oo, oo, oo, oo, ham, ham, HAW!”
She lay still and held up the arm. He made an 'O' with his fingers, which glittered with her sex juices.
“You want me to go with you?” Rianne said. “Okay, I’ll go. Bye, Shandee, I’m going!” With that, her face and body began to blur, and she swooshed into a long thin shape that went through the finger-O of Dave’s hand.
She was gone. The hand lay on the bed. It began crawling toward Shandee...
(Continue with the rest here!)