I should put an R18, "sexual content may offend" warning on this post.
I first became aware of Mr Baker's work when he published Mezzanine, a novel recounting someone's lunch hour. Then I read the Fermata, a novel in which the main character is (a) extremely pre-occupied with attractive women, (b) has the ability to stop time for everyone but himself and (c) has no moral qualms preventing him from taking advantage of the situation. It is a few years since I read that - the dominant memory I have of the book is of the main character taking advantage of the fermata he can create to insert vibrators into unsuspecting (at least at first, they become grateful) women. Very much a male fantasy novel, at least until the tables were turned.
Vox had its 15 minutes in the sun when it was revealed to be the reading matter relied upon by President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky to assist them in their affair. The entire 170 pages are simply a conversation between a man and a woman who have met on a phone chatline (Vox2) and are speaking to each other at $2 a minute. They do worry at one stage about how much its costing: she suggests she should phone his home number, but he is worried that she won't, or will write his number down wrong, or will mis-dial, or some other thing will happen to prevent them continuing their conversation. So, they keep talking.
Their pre-occupation is with sex - the book starts with what must be a classic in this sort of conversation: "what are you wearing?". Within a page, she (we don't learn until the very last page that her name is Abby) has told him (Jim) of a chemise she wore while having sex that had become so stained as a result that she had to take it to a dry-cleaners: it came back with more stains than it went in with.
So, they talk to each other about sex - no matter what else they might talk about, and they do talk about a whole bunch of things (such as lingerie catalogues, the technology used to operate drive in movies, paint colours) the central motif of every conversation is sex. But it is a very particular sort of sex, as they talk about the things in their lives and in their fantasies that lead them to come. I don't recall any accounts where either of them have sex with a partner - the closest is the night that Jim and a workmate, one he's been lusting after for ever but who, in turn, has her eye on another fellow, watch some porn. They sit side by side on his sofa, watching the movie she picked, under the frilled blanket she specified: as the movie progresses, they get more and more aroused and then, seperately, masturbate. Every step, starting with Jim's request of his workmate to write him a personal's ad that will lead to a woman sitting under a blanket watching porn with him, is minutely documented.
So too are their fantasies, as they tell each other about them. Poor Jim can't even go into a bookshop without having a bit of a problem:
"I went into this used bookstore one time, just to browse around. But it wasn't really the kind of place I thought it was going to be, it had hardly any old books, what it had was recently published pre-enjoyed books. Shelf after shelf of these things, big thick historical romances, super neatly shelved, sometimes five or six copies of the same book side by side ... but even though there were multiple copies of these books, they weren't identical, because every one of them had been read. They looked handled. All of their pages were turned. And turned by whom? Turned by women. My heart started going. I had entered this enchanted glade. I took a historical romance off the shelf, and I felt as if I were lifting a towel that was still damp from a woman's shower. The intimacy of it! ... hundreds of female orgasms could be inferred from the books themselves - you didn't need to invade anybody's privacy, you could just hold any copy and think of a woman holding it open with one hand. It was all there in the pliability and the thumbed-ness of the book itself - it practically shouted at you 'I have been near a clit as it underwent two orgasms.'"This thought gets Jim off. He's weird! But so is Abby.
But, at the same time, there is a particular form of restraint. As they tell each other these stories, they do themselves get aroused but they hold off, they don't actually do anything sexual, they even keep their clothes on for the most part. So, there is this control at work, until right near the end. Abby says:
"... I heard your voice and liked it."There's a kind of dignity to all this - because now their fantasies merge, they fantasise him finding her and them having sex, still documented in minute detail. And it is this dignity and the masterful way in which Baker writes that stops this novella ever simply being a piece of dirty writing, or even erotica. They both acknowledge the others who had phoned in just to talk dirty and how that was sad, and that they have met in each other someone in whom they can confide and have real conversation - because they have both found someone of genuine interest to the other. This book celebrates that - so what if they want to talk about sex? Time went so far as to say "Nicholson Baker is a subatomic physicist of fiction, a quantum suburban Proust".
"Thank you. Yours is nice, too, you know. Very smooth."
"Thanks. I just had it waxed yesterday. Shall we, do you think, should we perhaps come soon?"
"Yes. You're absolutely right. Are you naked?"...