Date finished: February 9, 2019

Rating: ★★★★

Vox, Nicholson Baker

I appreciated this short novel much more than I was expecting. Baker offers commentary on modern sexuality (published originally in 1992) in the form of an anonymous phone call between a man and a woman from opposite ends of the country. The result is memorable, often witty, and leaves you thinking long after the book is closed.

Jim and Abby are compelling characters with abstract thoughts on sex, masturbation, sexual fantasies, pornography, and sexual encounters. They meet (fatefully, as Jim reports) when they both call in to a paid phone line they discovered in a pornographic magazine. What ensues is an hours-long conversation about everything and nothing with some truly memorably tidbits:

“…an orgasm in an intelligent woman is like a volcano in a mountain with a city built on the slope — you feel the alternative opportunity cost of her orgasm, you feel the force of all the other perceptive things she could be thinking at that moment and is not thinking because she is coming, and they enrich it.”

“…that’s the song, and as you get towards the end of it, a change takes place in the way you hear it, which is that the knowledge that the song is going to end starts to be more important than the specific ups and downs of the melody, and even though the singer is singing just as loud as ever, in fact she’s really pouring it on now, she’s fighting to be heard,… and even as she goes for one last high note, full of daring and hope and passionateness and everything worthwhile, she’s lost, she’s sinking down.”

Jim and Abby both ramble incessantly, and the text is compiled of run-on sentences, side notes, anecdotes, and random thoughts and actions. What makes this so enjoyable, in my opinion, is its reflection of real life. Very rarely do two people have a conversation (especially on the phone) that’s not filled with only-mildly-related ideas and asides. The pair share a connection, and they banter with skill and wit.

It’s difficult to determine whether Jim is creepy, but it’s unlikely that Abby will ever speak to him again or ever meet him in person, so it doesn’t muddy the enjoyment of the text. He may not be the most reputable of characters, but he amuses Abby for the duration of their call, makes her think, and — to put it bluntly — helps her to orgasm, which was likely the motivation for her call to begin with.

Baker is a skilled writer, and I’ll be picking up more of his work soon.

Photo courtesy @esbethune (Instagram)

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