100 Novels: Let’s Get Sort of Physical With Nicholson Baker’s Vox

Nicholson Baker’s Vox (Vintage Contemporaries, 1993) made me want to cook. I finished reading the novel and felt the urge, the desire, the need to do something physical, something with my hands.

Cooking came to mind — my one specialty, lemon-oregano roast chicken. Images filled my thoughts: plunging my hand  deep inside a whole chicken’s gutted cavity to pluck out the giblets; mixing the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, minced garlic, basil, salt and pepper to douse over the bird; feeling the heat of an oven at 350 degrees; tasting the first succulent slice of breast, juicetrickling as I bite into it.

If you know Baker’s novel, you know it has almost nothig to do with cooking. Although there is that scene on pages 132-133 of the trade paperback edition, an incident with Stouffer’s creamed chipped beef and pasta noodles . . .

You know the novel is about Abby and Jim, who have dialed a phone sex line for mutual arousal. Their conversations, however, go beyond basic arousal into digressions that lead them to learn much about each other — they seem compatible, but live on opposite coasts — and the nature of the erotic, although, as Jane Smiley notes in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Vox never projects itself as pornographic (though it often uses the language of porn) but “comments on the artificially lurid quality of pornography.”

Artificiality seems the word that stands out here. Very little is physical in this phone line affair.

The two protagonists have voice and image to guide them. No evidence exists, despite the couple’s seeming compatible imaginations, the two ever connect, or that they will somehow meet and have a relationship.

Vox peeks into the nature of the erotic and the role imagination and fantasy have in our sex lives. The novel also explores the distancing and dehumanizing effects of technology.

Even when Jim and Abby describe dates they’ve gone on, they seem to prefer masturbatory experiences over intercourse. Jim, for instance, describes one encounter in which he and a woman from his office watch an X-rated video together: both become aroused, and the experience is sexually satisfying, but afterward Jim realizes he prefers going solo to actual sex. The physicality of sex is distracting to him.

An neither Jim nor Abby, as they close their call, seem able to imagine meeting. The novel ends with the simple line “They hung up,” the two callers retiring to their separate corners of the world.

As for me, well, last Sunday I cooked: the chicken dish, of course, though not a whole chicken, only breasts, and some substitutions were made with key ingredients. But still, it turned out tender and delightful.


2 thoughts on “100 Novels: Let’s Get Sort of Physical With Nicholson Baker’s Vox

  1. Interesting review! Have you read other Baker novels? I’ve read this one, and I found it interesting, but it’s not my favorite — definitely The Mezzanine and U&I are at the top of my list.

    • Thanks for the comment–it is kind of a tongue-in-cheek review.

      I’ve read The Fermata. I like Baker’s mind. He seems able to take one subject and dwell on it for pages without being tedious.

      I also enjoyed his pieces a few years back in the New Yorker on preserving old newspapers.

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