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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

It had to happen. The confluence of concern about acquired immune deficiency syndrome and increasing popularity of at-home entertainment made the explosion of phone-sex services inevitable. Equally inevitable was that someone, eventually, would write a book about this safest form of safe sex.

VOX is Nicholson Baker’s variation on the theme of boy-meets-girl in this new age of interpersonal relationships. As the novel opens, Abby and Jim, two callers to VOX2, a phone-sex party line, have cut themselves off electronically from other callers. They begin a one-on-one conversation that leads to places neither of them could have imagined. “What are you wearing?” Jim asks, somewhat predictably.

The rest of their conversation, which fills the entire book, is far less predictable. Baker attempts to generalize their shared experience, not even giving them names until well into the book. Abby and Jim reveal details indicating that they are both middle class or higher, but their conversation could have come from any couple. Some of the things they talk about are peculiar—the lights on a stereo receiver, for example—but that is part of the message of VOX. Phone-sex callers, or any group defined by one characteristic, truly are individuals with their own personalities. As in Abby and Jim’s case, sometimes those personalities mesh.

Both Abby and Jim have called VOX with base intentions, but both are open enough to their emotions to let their relationship develop. It would stretch credulity if neither brought up the fact that it is developing at a cost of ninety-five cents a half minute. They decide to continue their conversation anyway, rather than exchanging telephone numbers and calling back outside VOX2, so that the magic of the moment is not lost. VOX is more than a transcript of Abby and Jim’s subtly obscene extended telephone call: It is the story of how magic moments and magic people can be found in unlikely places.