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                         Main Entry: erot·ic
                         Pronunciation: i-'rä-tik
                         Variant(s): also erot·i·cal /-ti-k&l/
                         Function: adjective
                         Etymology: Greek erOtikos, from erOt-, erOs
                         Date: 1651
                         1 : of, devoted to, or tending to arouse sexual love or desire <erotic art>
                         2 : strongly marked or affected by sexual desire
                         - erotic noun
                         - erot·i·cal·ly /-ti-k(&-)lE/ adverb

This was already a major cult novel when it exploded into the national consciousness during the recent Impeachment unpleasantness.  You'll recall that this is the book that investigators were trying to prove that Monica had purchased for the President at a local bookstore, Kramerbooks.    The book especially interested investigators because it is a tale of phone sex, which Lewinsky and the President were said to have engaged in frequently.  This background merely serves to add another layer of pity to this technically accomplished and quite funny but genuinely sad story of dysfunctional disaffected souls.

Jim, who lives on the West Coast, and  Abby, who lives somewhere in the East, have both called a phone sex service and as the novel opens, they have moved to a one-to-one private line.  Baker's technical achievement lies in the fact that the entire novel consists of one phone conversation between the two.  The comedy lies in the situation itself, the ridiculous fantasies that the two spin and the numerous quirky asides and observations that the two come up with.  But the whole thing is a terrible sad statement about the participants in this conversation in particular, people like them on a more general level and a society that seems to be producing more and more citizens like them. Because these people are not forming any kind of relationship here, in fact, they are not even really listening to one another.  Each is merely a prop in the others warped sexual dream world.

Alan Turing, the renowned British codebreaker and one of the fathers of Artificial Intelligence theory, proposed a test for when we could consider the computer to have achieved actual intelligence: when a human could not tell whether he was communicating with another human or with a machine, that machine would have to be considered intelligent.  It is disconcerting to eavesdrop on the conversation between Jim and Abby, because: 1) it is just barely conversation and more like competing monologues; 2)  it is impossible to know whether either or both of them are serious, they could equally likely be paid employees of the sex service; and 3) they are so selfish and disconnected from one another that either or both could be a machine, preprogrammed to spew forth stock scenarios.  Additionally, the two voices bleed into one another and it becomes difficult to tell, which is speaking because they never emerge as individuals with unique personas.  In fact, Baker said of the novel:

    The idea was to have one character fizzle out with a story and yet have someone else there who'd
    take it up, turn it, and maybe even twist it away from the intention of the person who started. It
    becomes antiphonal. The characters were competing with each other in a way, showing off. And
    of course they're both really me. Or I'd ask my wife questions, that's the sort of thing writers do.
    The sordid truth is you walk out of your office and say, "Well, what would you say if I said this or
    that?" and your wife says, "No, I wouldn't say that." Then I tell her, "Thank you," and walk back
    into my office.

He may have started out with a novel about two people at least trying to share a sexual experience, however masturbatory.  But he ended up delivering a much more personal fantasia and it certainly seems that the two characters are simply different aspects of his own psyche.

The cover blurbs, of course, declare this to be a ground breaking, breath taking, erotic experience (see the definition of erotic above), but there is definitely no love present here, except a profoundly damaged kind of self-love.  Nor is there any real desire; each character has all that they desire in the palm of their hand.  And it is hard to see how readers would be aroused by the intensely individualistic fantasy lives described. Rather than an erotic novel, it is a clinical description of a rather pathetic pathology and the thought that the President of the United States engaged in this kind of thing is fairly frightening.


Grade: (C)


See also:

General Literature
Nicholson Baker Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Nicholson Baker

Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: Lifting Up the Madonna (Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: (Book Ends)
    -American Newspaper Repository (President, Nicholson Baker)
    -PROFILE : Save the front page  (Susannah Herbert, 5 November 2000, Daily Telegraph uk)
    -REVIEW: Reach Out and Don't Touch Someone (Randall Short, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: A Telephone Novel Based on an Adult Party Line (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Secret Histories (Robert Towers, NY Review of Books)
    -Nicholson Baker Fan Page (great links to reviews, interviews, articles)
    -REVIEW : of Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Double Fold by Nicholson Baker (Julian Dibbell, VLS)
    -REVIEW : of Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Elizabeth Manus, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of Nicholson Baker: The Everlasting Story of Nory  (Ed Park, Boston Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Paper saviour : The U.S. writer never expected to run to the rescue of printed history single-handed, he tells IAN BROWN,  but no one else cared to stop libraries from trashing their archives (IAN BROWN, April 21, 2001Globe & Mail)
    -BOOK CLUB : This week, Slate's Book Clubbers examine Nicholson Baker's charges against libraries in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper By Nicholson Baker (STEPHEN SMITH , April 21, 2001, Globe & Mail)