Book Review: The Fermata by Nicholson Baker (1994)

Only a book this original could contain a passage like this: “Nineteenth-century novels were all-important to [Rhody]. It wasn’t a question of her liking them; they were a neurological necessity, like sleep. One Mrs. Humphry Ward, or a Reade, or a Trollope per week supplied her with some kind of critical co-enzyme, she said, that allowerd her to organize social sense experience. It was nice if the novel was good, but even a very mediocre one would do; without a daily shot of Victorian fiction she couldn’t quite remember how to talk to people and to understand what they said. I miss her.”

…and a sentence like this: “I need to pop my nuts on a pair of small sexy tits right this second!!”

But if I wanted to give any potential reader the best representational sentence for the book, it would be this one.

“She was bathing with her rubber dildo –oh poetry!”

Indeed, this book is pure, filthy, sensitive, sensible, insightful, lewd, and downright hot, poetry.

The Fermata is the fictitious autobiography of Arnie Steiner, a self-proclaimed career temp, who transcribes tapes and has the special ability to freeze time, or as he calls it, enter the Fold. What does he do with this special ability? Well, he undresses women, of course. Not only that, but he straps vibrating butterfly sex toys onto unknowing women. He gathers secret information from women he’s interested in (and he’s interested in almost all of them. “…it is much more surprising to me when a woman fails to attract me than when she does attract me.”)

After reading the premise of the book, it will be easy to label this guy and his story as a creep and creepy, of no redeemable value. This book must be smut, right? Well, no. The book is lewd and too, too funny. (And hot. Did I mention, hot?) What really makes the book a work of art, and yes poetry, is that Arnie is quite a sensitive individual. He doesn’t use his powers to steal. He’d feel far too guilty to do that. When he postulates a power like he has to others, he’s horrified to know that a man would just rape women. He does nothing to (truly) harm these women, and he often walks that fine balance between titillation and transgression, which is one of the most fascinating sources of conflict in the book. He admits that all he wants to do is give these women a little bit of novelty and pleasure in their basically humdrum lives, but also readily admits that many of the things he does are morally reprehensible.

Along the way, we’re given some serious thought on the implications and dangers of time-travel, insight into human desire, interaction, and intimacy, as well as romance. So much of our everyday world and life is eroticised, and thus elevated, in a book with such deftly produced prose. There’s nothing obvious or cliched in this book. Those who come (pun-intended) for the little spank material won’t be disappointed, but they’ll find a lot more under that surface. Those coming for artful and serious literature will find plenty of intellectualism here with plenty of humor, fun, and sexiness, as well.


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