The Fetish of The Fermata (1994)

fermata – a symbol in music denoting the elongation of a note, a stretching out

I am currently on page 185 of my second readthrough of The Fermata by Nicholson Baker, a book that my friends affectionately refer to as the “time freeze-rape book”. Not only was I revisiting one of my favorite all-time books, but I had to see what might remain now that the titillation of a first read was gone, i.e. is this “literature”? I’m happy to say that unlike most erotica, this book has substance.

The Fermata centers around a temp in his mid-thirties, Arno Strine, and his escapades in The Fold, or The Fermata, a time stasis where the he is still in motion while the rest of the world takes a breather. What does the man use his powers to do? To fondle and undress women who are complete strangers, of course.

I’m sure there are some of you out there right now who are actually not reading this, and I wouldn’t blame you. Bias: I am a pervert. Another bias: I enjoy good literature. The Fermata covers both of these bases. I knew that I’d have to reread what is arguably the hottest book I’ve ever read. What makes it so hot is not only that it’s seriously raunchy, but that Arno Strine is also a very sensitive guy with a streak of the romantic.

Perversion: (taken from Arno’s own erotica writings) “Keep pumping the brake and watchi this hot little cunt come!”

Poetry: (while talking about a former girlfriend) “Nineteenth-century novels were all-important to her. It wasn’t a question of hr liking them; they were a neurological necessity, like sleep. One Mrs. Humphrey Ward, or a Reade, or a Trollope per week supplied her with some kind of critical con-enzyme, she said, that allowed 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.

Poetry AND Perversion: “Kneeling by the edge of the tub, I spotted something dark in the water near her feet. Her toes were curled around it. When I put my head very close to the surface of the lavishly chlorinated water, steadying myself on one of her knees, I determined that the object was, as I had of course hoped but hadn’t really allowed myself to expect,a large black realistic rubber dildo. She was bathing with her rubber dildo–oh poetry!”

What I’m realizing during this latest read-through is that this is no gimmick. The book is still hilarious and hot, but it also contains revelations, observations, and insights about everyday life and love. It’s like an erotica novel as written by Virginia Woolf. Sex is simply the force by which the realities of the mundane world are made significant and elevated to magic.

He also writes about relationships and loneliness: “I don’t think loneliness is necessarily a bad or unconstructive condition. My own skill at jamming time may actually be dependent on some fluid mixture of emotions, among them curiosity, sexual desire, and love, all suspended in a solvent of medium loneliness…Loneliness makes you consider other people’s lives, makes you more polite to those you deal with in passing, dampens irony and cynicism.”

If you can stomach the ambiguity that goes into Arno’s fantasies and time-freeze escapades, you’ll get a lot out of this book. If you’re turned off by the premise, this post, or the first few pages of the book, it’s understandable. Even Nicholson Baker admits that for all of his loneliness, intelligence, and sensitivity, the guy is a creep (which is maybe why I love him so much)

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V-Day Couplet Day 1

They don’t display time on the train between tunnels
which lets me look long on you, beautiful stranger.

Beirut @ North Side Festival, Williamsburg – June 17, 2011

The rain was foreboding. Only hours ago, we’d been on the 20th floors of our jobs, watching the New York storm come in, strike with thunder and lightning, and completely envelope the buildings and cover our windows. Then in front of the stage, the Bandito Collective, along with a host of other concert-goers, stood huddled as the downpour came again. Most of us had our yellow galoshes and rain coats, ponchos and umbrellas for some. Then the clouds started to pass. Some of us were already standing under cleared-out pieces of the sky, while others were still getting wet. Then the double rainbow. Then, the opening act. This damn near magical opening before the opening was a sign of good things to come.

The girl with the cleft palette who stood next to us knew all the words to all the songs. At one point, the Bandito Collective was at a loss to a song title, as most of us had never heard Beirut’s music before this night. Hearing our outspoken query, the cleft-palette girl indirectly answered our question by leaning over into her date’s ear (neither of whom were with us), who had no idea what was going on, and said, “Do you know what the name of this song is? My Night with the Prostitute from Marseilles.” Provocative, to say the least.

Although The Bandito Collective had been warned about such cheeky titles, the music throughout was accessible, palatable, and just damn dance-able. Again, we’d never heard a single note coming from this band called Beirut, led by the precisely understated Zach Condon. When he wasn’t crooning at the microphone or blowing into that addictive flugelhorn, his voice quelling our eager hearts and the horn(s) inciting every limb to dance, he threw his hand in a long vertical downbeat. Was he leading the music or being led by it?

During the two competent and sometimes compelling openers, Yellow Ostrich and Sharon Van Etten, certain members of the Collective turned to each other, wondering whether the music was going to follow the likes of these two. Theirs was evocative, sometimes meloncholy, oh-so-earnestly trying to express something deeper and yearning. Again, competent and sometimes compelling. But as the accordion, which kept the beat as much as the percussion and drums, was accompanied by Zach Condon’s voice, then one trumpet, then another, then suddenly a chorus of trumpets in perfectly harmonized union, these Collective ears, untried to the sounds of Beirut opened. Hearts swelled. Feet danced. And the lyrics, that we could only catch glimpses of, seemed to tell some story. Certain phrases would jump out at us, but never to be outdone by the story told in the music.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that some members of the group were under the influence. That, of course, doesn’t detract from the fact that the band was glorious. We all knew that we were hearing something that arrived from that place between familiar and strange. While the music was perfectly evocative and moody, full of haunting harmonies and sadly defeatist lyrics – Elephant Gun, (the hit!) goes, “As did I, we drink to die, we drink tonight.” – yet it all kept one uplifted. Floating. The band was in perfect control of their instruments and movements, and so they had us. Just as one was about to sink into the ground, heavy with the weight of drugs or drink, the Bandito Collective would suddenly feel the swell of the horns – again, with a perfect arrival time – and it was all ecstasy again.

Often, the Bandito Collective goes to hear music that we’re already familiar with. (Did you know Bob Dylan still sells shows out? And that guy is 70-years-old.) We remember Pearl Jam concerts and being able to sing every lyric to every damn song. The familiar was what we aimed to experience, and we were disappointed when the changed riff or added instrument or slower tempo threw us into the discomfort of the strange. Here, the Bandito Collective, unfamiliar with the music was delightfully pleased to be caught in the strange only to realize by the end that we’d heard this music before. Was it Paris? Was it Mexico? We didn’t know. But we loved what we were hearing, and we wanted to hear it again.

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