Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reading is bad for your social life, kids.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a cab heading to the airport early on a weekday morning, when I heard something on the radio that I think you folks will enjoy. The driver was listening to an FM top 40 station, and their wacky morning crew was on, being, well, wacky (as distinct from, you know, funny). Apparently they have a regular segment where someone calls in to tell them about a date that went wrong, and they then call the other party to get their side; today, the caller was a guy, Dan, who said he'd been on a couple of dates with a woman, Anna, he'd met through work. He'd thought they were getting along well, but then, after an evening when they went back to his place and fooled around a little, she'd abruptly stopped responding to his calls and texts.

As they dialed this poor woman's number, I was, quite frankly, dreading the next ten minutes of the ride. What could this exchange be except deeply awkward at best, crude and mean at worst? Initially, it seemed like my fears were coming true: they got her on the line, explained who they were and why they were calling, and, after establishing that the guy was on the line, she said, "Well, I guess we're doing this live on the radio, then."

This was not a promising opening. But then everything changed:

ANNA: "Do you remember, Dan, when you left the room to go to the bathroom? And you had a book on your bedside table? Do you remember what it was?"

DAN: "No?"

ANNA: "It was called House of Holes."

DAN (and ME, simultaneously): "Oh, no. No, no, no."

For those of you who don't know--and I'm assuming 98% of the radio audience that day fell into that category--House of Holes is a work of pornography. Sort of. See . . . it's by Nicholson Baker, a strange, wonderful, brilliant, sui generis writer who cares as much about words and sentences as anyone I've ever read and who seems determined to make each book he writes completely different from everything that he's written before.

What led him to write a novel about a futuristic, gleefully perverse pleasure resort where, to be crude about it, everyone and everything is DTF? Who knows? But while it's porny AF (might as well stick with the internet abbreviations what brung me), it's also goofy and funny and wide-eyed. It's not a great novel; I'm not even sure it's a successful one. But it's also nothing like the midcentury men's whack books that people like Donald Westlake were hired to write--whereas those tend to be soul-draining, Baker's book is, even if ultimately a bit of a mess, vivifying. I've written about it before--and even had a kindred experience to Dan's, of worrying about someone who didn't understand the book seeing it.

None of which, of course, can be explained on a Top 40 station to a woman and two DJs who are wholly unfamiliar with Baker. After Anna explained, in reasonably family-friendly language, what she'd discovered in flipping through the book, the DJs were cackling and Dan was left sputtering, with evident regret and sadness, "Didn't you notice that I have all kinds of books?"

It didn't work. You could tell he knew it wouldn't as he was saying it. Rarely have I felt such unexpected, powerful sympathy for a total stranger. Careful what you read, kids--or, at least what you leave on your bedside table when you might be sharing your bed.

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