Picks and Pans Review: Vox
by Nicholson Baker
There's really only one question to ask about this novel, which is one long phone conversation between strangers, culminating in telephonic sex. Is it "literature" about pornography or is it merely pornography with literary pretentions? Anyone's answer will depend, to some extent, on which passages he chooses as evidence. Like the author's previous novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, it is a free-associating rumination on modern life, garnished with sly cultural references and piercing observations. But it also includes long sections in which the participants relate sexual exploits and fantasies so detailed yet unbelievable that they might have been lifted from the pages of Penthouse.
Abby and Jim are two 30ish professionals who live in two unnamed large cities on either coast. Meeting via an Adult Party Line, they like each others' voices and are switched to a private "back room" line. Then, for 165 pages (which translates into many hours of conversation) they tease, flirt and get to know one another; meanwhile, of course, they're also exposing themselves, figuratively and literally. By the time they get around to mutual masturbation, we're supposed to believe this is not an anonymous encounter: The two actually like each other. "You are smart and funny and aroused and delightful," Jim says. "We're actually talking...you get it, you understand, you have a complicated response to things."
But the subtleties that make this book exceptional—Baker's perception of the different levels of intimacy expressed by "Bye" and "Goodbye" (19), for example—are drowned by the aggressive erotica. Less a study of pornography than an example of it, Vox is not what the author does best. It's as if Baker—whose earlier books garnered critical acclaim but scant sales—has turned cynical. This novel is being talked about, all right, but as trash, not literature. Like his characters, Baker is looking for love in all the wrong places. (Random House, $15)
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