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)

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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