All the Right Buttons : VOX, <i> By Nicholson Baker, (Random House: $15; 165 pp.)</i>
Reader, would you pick up the phone? Thank you.
Nicholson Baker’s novel “Vox” is cast in the form of a telephone conversation. I thought that we ought to discuss it the same way, except that our chat will be cheaper. In the book, Jim and Abby meet on an adult party line, VOX2, with a $2-per-minute charge.
Their conversation is explicit, often funny and, above all, erotic. Talk about “reach out and touch someone.” It’s difficult to discuss the book in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, though. Only last week, Queen Victoria was on the cover. Believe me, “Vox” couldn’t be more of a departure, although Abby does have a taste for Victorian pornography. In fact, Baker’s creation will you remind you of that old Q&A;, “Is sex dirty?” “It is if you do it right.”
Beginning with Jim’s question, “What are you wearing?,” he and Abby feed each other’s fantasies, describe their intimate histories, and finally, reach simultaneous climax. You’d think that the thought of what this call is costing would cool their ardor somewhat (I almost wrote “put a damper on things,” but I’m determined to avoid the double-entendre). Not so; while you can’t describe theirs as a love match, the two are instantly compatible. Jim’s never made a better investment, he tells Abby. “Really I think two dollars a minute is cheap for this. I need this. I’d spend twenty dollars a minute for this.”
And there you have it, the ‘90s version of “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles.” Or as Abby wryly puts it, earlier in the conversation, “The things we do for love.” She then tells Jim about a sexual technique called a Valsalva, “which is where you take a breath and you clamp your throat shut and push hard , and if you do it right, you’re supposed to have a mind-blowing orgasm--tingling extremities, tingling roots of your hair, tingling teeth, I don’t know, the whole business.”
For the record, I don’t know, either. Tingling teeth? And to think that some people don’t read fiction because they think it gives you no practical information.
Excuse me for a minute. I’ll put you on hold--may I?--while I turn down the thermostat. There. That’s better.
Anyway, Jim found the ad for VOX2 in a magazine called Juggs and Abby found it in Forum. You get the feeling that he does this kind of thing often, while she cleaned her apartment that afternoon and is giving herself a reward. At first, before we got to listen in, there were other callers on the line. Then Jim and Abby went off to an electronic “back room” where they could stretch out on their beds and converse “one-on-one.” It’s early evening, and in Jim’s part of the country, just beginning to get dark.
He lives somewhere in the west. She lives in an eastern city. Gradually, through the steam of their sex talk, their personalities emerge, although never their physical descriptions. Neither wants a concrete image of the person on the other end of the line, except that Abby wants the specs on what she calls Jim’s Delgado, in homage to a high school boyfriend, and he likes to imagine her Frans, one of his words for breasts (another is Kleins ) . It’s the anonymous voice that’s the turn-on, the empty screen on which each can project his or her X-rated movie.
Their sexual tastes are similar in that they’re both voyeurs and avid do-it-yourselfers. And listen, don’t tell me you don’t want to hear this; nobody’s holding you down with a foot on your collarbone, are they? You’re talking to the wrong reviewer anyway. I liked Jim and Abby. I also envy their total lack of self-consciousness.
You just know that Jim is a secure personality. How else could he admit that he finds Tinkerbell sexy in the Disney version of “Peter Pan”? Abby is equally self-possessed, one of those confident talkers who assume that anything they say is worth saying. Here she is on the subject of her stereo system. “I bought it from someone who was buying an even fancier system. It was true insanity. I had a crush on this person. He liked the Thompson Twins and the S.O.S. Band, and, gee, what were the other groups he liked so much? . . . All of the songs he liked faded out, or most of them did. And so I became a connoisseur of fade-outs. I bought cassettes. I used to turn them up very loud--with the headphones on--and listen very closely, trying to catch that precise moment when the person in the recording studio had begun to turn my volume dial down, or whatever it was he did.”
And so on, for another page. Fade-out, except to mention, in fairness to Nicholson Baker, that this monologue ends on a comic note. “Oh! Don’t cry!” Jim begs Abby when she finally shuts up. “I’m not equipped . . . I mean my comforting skills don’t have that kind of range.”
The better anecdotist of the pair, Jim takes Abby’s mention of a damaged silver fork, one that got caught in the dishwasher, and spins out a lengthy sexual reverie in which she’s a jeweler who, at the request of a male customer, models bare-breasted a necklace that she’s made. The tale is an erotically charged, skewed version of “Cinderella.”
In another story, Jim recalls scanning a shelf full of romance novels in a used book shop--"Love’s Hurry,” “Love’s Eager Trial,” “Love’s Tender Fender Bender"--and realizing giddily that “They looked handled! All of their pages were turned. And turned by whom? Turned by women. . . . I took a historical romance off the shelf, and I felt as if I were lifting a towel that was still damp from a woman’s shower. The intimacy of it!”
Baker’s first novel was about a man who goes to buy shoelaces. Somehow I think that “Vox” will reach a wider audience than that highly praised book “The Mezzanine,” or his last one, “U and I,” a meditation on his relationship with John Updike (he has none). Baker specializes in the risky and playful, but sex is more interesting than shoelaces . . . What’s that? You want to know what I’m wearing?