I'm so glad to be an adult. I control many aspects of my life: how I eat, where I live, what I do with my free time. I'm done with the World of Required Schooling … actually, I liked school, it's the World of Standardized Testing that I'm happy to have abandoned. I can enjoy R-rated films without supervision. Better still, I can enjoy R-rated books without supervision, or NC-17 books for that matter. Enter Nicholson Baker, whom I dismissed in one review, who I forgave in another, and who I now fully praise after reading and loving his 1992 novel Vox.
Its plot is succinct and provocative: the whole novel takes place during a phone conversation between a man and a woman on a sex hotline. Except for one or two specks of narration, and a battalion of He-Said-She-Said's, it is all straight dialogue. The eroticism is impressive: after all, a well-written sex scene is a beautiful thing and is by no means easy to achieve. But it isn't just book porn, it has exciting language, naked philosophy, a slick, saucy sense of humor, and two very well-developed characters. (Puns all intended.)
What blew me away (sorry) was how Baker composed such an essentially sexual story without changing his narrative voice or writing style at all. The same elements of his writing are present: detailed description, elaborate asides, and a tendency toward quirkiness. In Vox, however, these qualities are sexually enhanced. “Detailed description” turns into “acute sexual detail.” “Elaborate asides” are now “page-long paragraphs of pornographic fantasy.” And as for the “quirkiness” … gosh, you ought to see it. Oh, it's there, all right. It's as if, in true Darwinian fashion, some of the sentences from his past books were separated from the flock, wound up on a sexy desert island, and gradually evolved into Vox.
While the sexuality is fun and all, the real thing that sets Vox apart from Baker's previous books is the use of third person. Before, his writing voice was so intense and self-contained as to induce claustrophobia – every few paragraphs, I'd take a break for fresh air. By switching to third-person in Vox, the reader doesn't feel trapped within a single character's brain. Instead, we get to enjoy the story from a distance, listening in without getting sucked in … unless, of course, we want to be.
Looking over this review, I can imagine some readers drawing comparisons to the currently-popular 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Nothing could be sillier. Yes, both describe sexual acts and address sexuality explicitly. Yes, both have somewhat scandalous reputations – allegedly Monica Lewinski gave a copy of Vox to President Bill Clinton. But while James does little more than bump Barbie and Ken dolls in moody lighting, Baker describes and entwines two full humans using nothing more than voices on a telephone. After finishing Vox, I felt as though I witnessed something breathtaking – not with the naughtiness of voyeur, but with the rapt attention of a well-pleased audience. Sadly, curious reader, I cannot tell you what the end of 50 Shades of Grey feels like. I don't play with Barbie dolls, especially not in the dark.
Vox is a real delight of a novel: unforgettable, unique, and the best union of silly, smart, and sexy. At 163 pages, it isn't a long read – I finished it in a day. But if you let it charm you with its enthusiasm, its spontaneity, and its sophistication, it will claim a place in your heart. Who knows, you may find yourself opening it again later, returning to parts that you found … significant.