Book Review: Vox By Nicholson Baker.

Book Review: Vox By Nicholson Baker.

. 4 min read

Reviewed by Christian Pan

Gateway Porn. Published in 1992, this is the story of an extended, rambling phone sex conversation that repeatedly comes back to one person asking the other for further details on what they want, sexually. It deliciously depicts live sexual improv talk in the days before sexting, and can be seen as a precursor to sexting. In his review Christian Pan, an erotic fiction writer at Christian Pan Erotica, asks whether this novel (a Dish favorite), once considered groundbreaking, still captivates.

I don´t recall reading Nicholson Baker´s novella Vox when it first appeared in the early ´90s. I think it was a few years later, in 1998, during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, that it first appeared on my radar: when Special Prosecutor Ken Starr had subpoenaed the book purchases of Monica Lewinsky, concluding that the intern had purchased the book as a gift for the former President.

More than 20 years later, that detail hangs over my re-reading of the book today, in 2021. What passages did Monica or Bill like the most?

Reading the novella again in 2021, Vox feels almost like a period piece, an erotic story whose setting is suspended in amber. The story is a time-capsule for a way adults could hook up that was established or prevalent then, but which is practically non-existent today--at least in this specific form. For example, Vox takes place during the course of a single phone conversation between two strangers, a man and a woman, who meet on a phone sex line for singles to meet. A phone sex line for singles!? Do those even exist anymore? One of the characters got the number from an ad he saw in Juggs, a pornographic magazine which ceased publishing in 2013. Later, there's a passage in there where they talk about buying women's lingerie from a catalogue, and dialing the company directly to place the order. They even talk about the furtive nature of going to a video store to rent a dirty movie. Which you take home to watch on a VCR.

These and other details make the story slightly quaint, as so much erotic content today (written as well as visual) is far more explicit, as well as so much more easily available.

During the course of Baker´s story, the two exchange a number of fantasies with one another. Of them, the woman seems far more adventurous in her sexual imagination: she imagines a gangbang with the three men hired to paint her house; while his greatest fantasy seems to involve watching all of the women in the United States masturbate, from an aerial view verging along the rim of space. When sharing about actual sexual experiences, the man seems a bit prudish: he talks about a “dreaded lesbo scene” during a European pornographic movie he watched with a co-worker once, an encounter where they both masturbated beneath a blanket, their nakedness hidden from view. He later tells the stranger on the other end of the phone line that this was “the greatest sexual experience of his life.”

The strength of Vox comes from the simplicity and directness of its conceit: namely, that this is a continuous phone sex conversation between two people, sharing their fantasies with humor and sensitivity. All we know of these characters are from they way they talk on the phone, and perhaps they seem relatively tame by the standards of some writers today. However,  I think many will still identify with them thirty years later. Many of the fantasies they describe are engaging, but a few seem a bit too absurd (for my taste).  To identify with the book´s characters, readers may feel a bit embarrassed about watching pornography, and prefer making up cute words for "breasts" and "cock", and other erogenous zones of the body (there is quite a bit of talk in the book about inventing alternate words for these beautiful parts of the body, for some reason).

Baker seeks to achieve something humorous, a little silly, even a little adolescent, with this kind of erotica. Maybe Vox is a contrast to all of the other erotic stories out there whose characters seem innately confident, strong, and adventurous? I´m not really sure. Maybe Vox is good "gateway porn" to get readers started, allow their imaginations to settle in a little bit, before being ready to tackle stories with people who don´t giggle every time they talk about cocks and tits? The story is more sweet than smutty, less sexy and more cute.

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