The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

The Fermata (Vintage, 330 pages). This erotic or “rot” (as the intellectual hero who can stop time by pushing up his glasses likes to call it) work by Nicholson Baker (author of the earlier Vox, about phone sex) is a wonderful literary experiment–a blend of wordplay, and slightly self-conscious and deliciously quasi-guilty fantasies come true (at least in the literary frame) due to the protagonist’s ability to dip into what he calls the Fold, or the Drop–the time-stopped world where women can not only be undressed, playing with their bodies, but also subliminally seduced–by stopping time and arranging things along the periphery of their vision–or along their Mons veneris. In an acrobatic bit of literary legerdemain Baker straddles, if that’s the right word, the vapid world of what used to be called (before the advent of videotape) “one-handed books,” that is of paperback smut, and the effete, elite world of imaginative literature. The result is an original blend that tweaks the neurons as well as the spermato- and oo-systems. Although Fermata unflinchingly uses proper and slang terms for genitalia, there are some exciting and spoofy coinages such as “richard” for the male organ, and “vadge” and “Jamaica” for women’s respective concave and convex accoutrements. And despite the book’s lush invention and wicked detail, not to mention potent irony and delectation in minor violations, there is a continuous concern with–respect is the word–for women’s wishes. In some passages Baker seems to sport a more thorough knowledge of female anatomy than some women may have of themselves. And Baker himself, no less than his writer-protagonist (there is the “rot” written by Arno Strine within the erotica written by Nicholson Baker), is fond of describing encounters of women with their own bodies, suitably supplemented by a wide range of amusingly named dilda, dildi (both plurals are used), and associated machines. The creativity-sexuality connection extends beyond the stopped time of this schoolboy masturbatory conceit made literary to a recently separated woman pleasuring herself while wildly mowing her already well-mowed lawn, to the protagonist’s girlfriend’s concocting clever contraptions of avocados and electric toothbrushes, and to a Cape Cod beach reader digging her hand in the sand to discover one of Strine’s own erotic stories. So there is much fun going on here and, despite the occasional unflinching embrace of straight gutter talk, make no mistake, some extraordinary writing. There is also the literary approach to science fiction, with some fine passages on time (Strine is a temp), as well as the metafictional correspondence of stopped time and private one-way seduction to the time of reading. The inescapable conclusion is that the women lightly violated in the book are modeled on the “real” female reading audience Baker would like to “reach.” But his morality and delicate sensibility–not to mention the reality of his distance–force him to stop short of the literary equivalent of full penetration. So we have ultimately a very nice metaphysic, a metafictional metaphysic, of the impossibility of fully satisfying the urge to merge. The situation is reminiscent of Slavoj Ziaek’s interpretation of cybersex as fulfilling French psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan’s dictum that “there is no sexual relationship [liaison.]” The only criticism I could see one making (apart from the lack of a story per se) is that the emotional palette of the characters remains, for all its subtle intelligence, rather blandly collegiate. All-in-all a most amusing fiction and a highly accomplished literary experiment.

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).


I am going to call my autobiography The Fermata, even though “fermata” is one of the many names I have for the Fold. “Fold” is, obviously, another. Every so often, usually in the fall (perhaps mundanely because my hormone-flows are at their highest then), I discover that I have the power to drop into the Fold. A Fold-drop is a period of time of variable length during which I am alive and ambulatory and thinking and looking, while the rest of the world is stopped, or paused. Over the years, I have had to come up with various techniques to trigger the pause, some of which have made use of rocker-switches, rubber bands, sewing needles, fingernail clippers, and other hardware, some of which have not. The power seems ultimately to come from within me, grandiose as that sounds, but as I invoke it I have to believe that it is external for it to work properly. I don’t inquire into origins very often, fearing that too close a scrutiny will damage whatever interior states have given rise to it, since it is the most important ongoing adventure of my life.

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