“What are you wearing?”

I last stumbled into a Nicholson Baker novel two years ago, and admired The Mezzanine for its ability to hold together a clever and engaging narrative, despite the entire story taking place on one escalator journey. I don’t know if Baker picks small moments for all his stories, but he has done it again here. This time, we’re spending the entire novel in one phone call.

Two strangers are among the people who have called a sex chat line and, liking the sound of one another’s voices, they switch to a private chat line to get to know one another better. There, instead of launching into phone sex, they find themselves opening up, talking about past sexual experiences but also leading into conversations about wallpaper, circuses, tights, car washes, spontaneous human combustion and what to do with a fork when it gets damaged in the dishwasher. As their conversation becomes more and more intimate, it becomes more exciting, and it seems soon that they’ve both found something unexpected.

So, it’s obviously all about people on a sex line, and so I was expecting something sexy. Mostly though, it didn’t happen. I wasn’t seeking out a thrill from the book, but I thought it might be a bit full on. The characters talk openly about masturbation, sex and people they’ve had sex with, as well as describing in great detail several fantasies they have. There’s actually something oddly innocent about the whole thing. Towards the end though, it becomes incredibly explicit and phone sex is in full flow, which suddenly came as a surprise after so long.

Our strangers are engaging people though, both perhaps a little unused to these phone lines, or particularly meeting someone on them they have a genuine connection with. Baker’s command of the dialogue – and the book is mostly dialogue with only a couple of “he said”/”she said” tags – is wonderful and it feels very realistic, with them restarting sentences, repeating themselves, and stringing their thoughts together in long, pauseless streams, providing the reader with sentences sometimes a page or more long.

Did it turn me on? Actually, yes, a bit. No, I’m not going anymore specific than that, but it’s a really quite remarkable novella with in unusual form. There’s no real story, nothing much happens, but you grow to feel for the characters fairly quickly and it moves you in a way I can’t precisely put words to. Definitely one to check out.

As a final fun fact, it’s a book that gained notoriety after Bill Clinton received a copy while he was President from a young, up-and-coming intern called Monica. I wonder what happened to her…