In his new novel, Nicholson Baker turns his full attention to the lonely art, the art of masturbation. The narrator, Arno Strine, possesses a strange gift: he can stop time, halting the world around him. “I first stopped time because I liked my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Dobzhansky, and wanted to see her with fewer clothes on,” he says, but adds that it was not lust that impelled him. Sitting in the back of the room, he simply desired to see more clearly, to examine. His teacher stalls midsentence in front of the black-board, a piece of chalk in her hand; the class is stilled; Arno strips off his own clothes and stands before her.
In the cottony silence of the idled universe, I undid two buttons: My fingers trembled, of course. Even now, twenty-five years later, my fingers sometimes tremble when I watch them at work undoing a row of a woman’s shirt buttons, especially when her shirt is loose, so that once you have finished unbuttoning it no more is revealed to you than when you began, and, as a separate deliberate act, you have to part the still over-lapping sides of the shirt with the backs of your hands like a set of curtains. I peered into the oval world I had just created. What I could see of her bra was very interesting. It had little X’s sewn along the borders of the two side pieces that attached to the round bosom-holding parts, and the bosom-holding parts had perfectly sewn seams running diagonally up over their curves, like a napping cat’s closed eyes.
Now a graduate-school drop-out earning his living as an office “temp,” Arno has decided to use the Fold, as he calls his time-outs, to write his auto-biography. He will create a pause in order to write about all the other pauses he has created. At the bank where he’s working as a typist, he begins his memoir. He “drops into the fold” and rolls his chair over to a woman he admires. She is frozen; she is unconscious; she will remember nothing of this hiatus. He pulls her dress up, her panty hose down. Then he types.
Her pocketbook is still over her shoulder. Her pubic hair is very black and nice to look at—there is lots and lots of it. If I didn’t already know her name, I would probably now open her purse and find out her name, because it helps to know the name of a woman I undress. There is moreover something very exciting, almost moving, about taking a peek at a woman’s driver’s license without her knowing—studying the picture and wondering whether it was one that pleased her or made her unhappy when she was first given it at the DMV.
This description is typical of much of the book’s bizarrely mixed tone: one part exquisite sensitivity to feeling, to the ways people experience the small moments of their lives; and two parts blank insensitivity to how people hope to experience their lives. The Fermata is not concerned with human dignity, or even the loss of it. And as Arno’s story, continues, this unsettling concoction of gentle observation and moral indifference is served, politely, over and over again to the reader. The lyrical innocence of Arno’s first exploration of the world inside Miss Dobzhansky’s white blouse is left far behind.
In The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990), his first two novels, Baker stopped time, too, though only metaphorically. The Mezzanine is a coming-of-age novel that takes place on a two-minute escalator ride. Room Temperature, whose sole action consists of the narrator feeding his baby a bottle, is a tender meditation on intimacy, one of the gentlest treatments of marriage I have read. Intricate descriptions of nose picking or the squeak of a felt-tipped pen are offered so gracefully and with such warmth that this little book becomes a joyful reminder of the privilege of consciousness and the sweet burden of sharing the world with other conscious beings. Both books are brilliant stunts in which the formal limitations provide an opening to play. They can be as moving, as full of recognition, as a secret, shared glance.
The Fermata, in contrast, winks insinuatingly at the reader. For twenty-five years, Arno has undressed women without their knowledge, fondling them, then jacking off. Finished, he tidies up his mess and continues on his anonymous way. This has been his life, and The Fermata, his autobiography, chronicles a variety of methods of undressing women frozen in time, fondling them, etc. Sometimes Arno brings them to life for a moment, a fermata interruptus, but never long enough for them to quite figure out what’s happening to them. After work one day, Arno sees a woman in the library and decides to grace her with a new butterfly-shaped dildo he happens to be carrying with him. “What I want to do,” Arno muses later, “and what I in fact end up doing, in the Fold is to live out my perennial wish to insert some novelty into the lives of women.” More accurately, Arno is consumed by a wish to insert some novelty into the lives of women—and then watch. It is his own life into which Arno is attempting to insert novelty—as well as novelties, for he is an aficionado of the sex toy.
Arno follows the woman from the library. He stops time to try the dildo on himself (“placing a Handi Wipe between the pleasure-nubbins of the machine and my scrotum…I stepped into its straps and pulled it snugly in place”), then again to get into the subway car before she does, and again to strap the vibrator onto her. He restarts the universe long enough to smile meaningfully at the woman as she looks around in aroused confusion, but he must continue to stop time every now and then to adjust the dildo; and when she reaches down to see what’s there, he must switch off existence to remove the vibrating plastic from between her legs. All of this near-sadistic attenuation of arousal moves along with Baker’s friendly precision, but the cheerfulness and the fussy care (both Arno’s and the author’s) seem increasingly sordid. For articulate, well-read, and kind as Arno may be (qualities which he keeps assuring us he has in abundance), the reader cannot help but notice that he is an articulate, well-read, kindly stalker, and the only pleasure bestowed is a stalker’s pleasure, a voyeur’s anonymous gaze made active.
Nicholson Baker’s adventure in pornography is not entirely surprising. By literally objectifying women, he courts contemporary disapproval, but he is also partaking of a centuries-long tradition of serious writers trying their hand at a stroker. And there is something in the internal logic of Baker’s talent, his genuine lyrical gift for microscopic and obsessional observation of the mundane, that must have made the challenge of a dirty book irresistible. “Literary” pornography is a challenge, though, one that has defeated plenty of authors before Baker.
Arno Strine is also drawn to pornography. Standing around in a bookstore, Arno composes little obscene notes in the margins of books, waiting to see a woman’s expression when she reads them. And if notes, why not stories as well? At the beach he stops time long enough to sit on a prone, bikinied woman, type out a dirty story, bury it beneath her hand, and then, having started the world again, watch as she digs it up, reads it, and goes home to drag a dildo out of a drawer and masturbate with it in the bath. “You ready to fuck this nice clean cunt?” she asks the dildo, and Arno, hiding in the laundry basket stops time again.
I licked her knuckles. I tapped my dick against her breasts to see how they quivered; I straddled the tub just as she was straddling it, facing her, and beat my richard savagely until I was almost there. When I was ready, I stood and said, “Let me be there with you, honey, you’re so sexy, please let me come on your face,” in a strange almost singsong pleading voice, and without waiting for an answer from her I let all of my burning bechamel jump out onto her tightly closed eyes, unable to resist doing so even though I knew that I would probably regret it afterward—not least because it would be so much trouble to get all of it off her eyelashes and eyebrows.
Despite the burning bechamel and other felicities, passages like these are not too different from Arno’s own dirty stories, which he leaves where women will find and, he hopes, enjoy them (as he watches); stories that he refers to proudly as “rot,” short for erotica. There is, for instance, this typically baroque fantasy sequence:
Marian unbent her knees and sat flatly down on the Van Dilden with her legs extended in front of her. This had the effect of pushing the Royal Welsh Fusilier deeper into her ass. It was like a fleshy tail. “I’ve got toys up my cunt and up my ass,” she moaned. The truck started bumping and jostling. She pulled the length of the Fusilier up against her tailbone and bent it around her hip, and found that, as she had hoped, the other end easily reached her clit. She pulled back its “foreskin” and held the slick second head against herself. “Oh fuck,” she said, feeling all of her circuits starting to get busy.
Marian the librarian, the UPS man delivering dildoes, the ride-on power mower—Arno writes slightly comic variations of the staples of conventional porn. There is humor in The Fermata. Baker’s euphemisms for female genitalia (Marianas Trench, dripping flowerbox, open boat, natcho, nug, and, my favorite, Georgia O’Keeffe) are jolly, friendly. He describes one dildo as “my fellow American.” Of course, conventional pornography is itself frequently full of comic variations, including the arch and whimsical tone, the funny names for sexual organs and acts. And reading this novel, deftly written and intelligent as it is, one is struck over and over again by how little Baker’s skill and insight matter once they enter the land of what Steven Marcus once called Pornotopia. “More than most utopias,” Marcus wrote in The Other Victorians, “pornography takes the injunction of its etymology literally—it may be said largely to exist at no place, and to take place in nowhere…. Time in pornotopia is determined by the time it takes to run out a series of combinations.”
Anyone who has actually had to read a complete volume of the celebrated Marquis knows how leaden and uniform even his inventive perversions quickly become, like a child’s IQ test, square pegs slid automatically into square holes. Every pornographic narrative huffs and puffs to the same inexorable conclusion; tab A being fitted breathlessly into slot B, at first a titillating diversion, is repeated in one variation or another until it becomes mechanical and predictable. No literary genre can match pornography for initial excitement and fast-arriving boredom. However ornate the preparation, the outcome is inevitable. It is the nature of this iron-lawed, obsessional, and repetitive form to take over and make conform to it whatever commentary or satire or reflection it attracts. The genre refuses to be transcended.
Pornography relies on formula as much as a circus dog doing somersaults. The Fermata is no exception, and the endless loop-de-loops, exciting at first, become tedious very quickly. Tedium has always been a special danger with Baker. Ostentatiously undramatic, his compulsively inclusive style is exhausting. But most of his books are short. They run out of gas before (or just after) the reader does. The Fermata, on the other hand, Baker’s longest novel by far, seems to be running on Duracell batteries.
In The Mezzanine, admiring in memory a green truck he once saw, Baker writes:
Right when I suddenly had more blue sky in front of me than green truck, I remembered that when I was little I used to be very interested in the fact that anything, no matter how rough, rusted, dirty, or otherwise discredited it was, looked good if you set it down on a stretch of white cloth, or any kind of clean background…This clean-background trick, which I had come upon when I was eight or so, applied not only to things I owned, such as a group of fossil brachiopods I set against a white shirt cardboard, but also to things in museums: curators arranged geodes, early American eyeglasses, and boot scrapers against black or gray velvet backgrounds because any time you set some detail of the world off that way, it was able to take on its true stature as an object of attention.
With this democratic yet privileged view of the clutter of life, in which every object exists as a potential object of attention, Baker did not have far to go from his earlier episodic, obsessive novels to this one. The commercial success of Vox, a phone-sex dialogue, might have further encouraged him to make a record of onanism (although The Fermata is too earnest and authentically unpleasant to have been motivated solely by best-seller lust). And Vox, while describing the theory of masturbation with meticulous elegance, is not about masturbation, or even sex. A far more human book than The Fermata, it is the story of a courtship, a romance, of sorts, between a man and woman, a verbal give and take, a conversation that leads to a kind of intimacy.
In The Fermata, Baker has taken the author, once a curator, and collared him as a voyeur. It is the artist, not his audience, who sees the world as a series of objects to be stared at. A selfconscious and formal novelist, he appears to suggest that stopping time by describing the world is a kind of literary masturbation. Baker flirts with the nature of art, often throwing in names of visual artists. But rather than expose art as a kind of voyeurism, The Fermata seems to expose only The Fermata as a kind of voyeurism. In the past, obsession was Baker’s method; in The Fermata it has become not only his subject—it seems to have taken over completely. Even Baker’s prose loses its originality and comes to resemble the expert droning jocularity of a dedicated hobbyist in a magazine like Car and Driver.*
“My sense of sight is infinitely and lovingly promiscuous,” Arno writes. In Baker’s aesthetic, shoelaces, dildoes, a woman’s anus are equal. Stylistically, Baker’s promiscuous curiosity can be thrilling. Generous and eager, he is a miniaturist rather than a minimalist. But the exhilaration one felt in his earlier books, the way the world expanded as Baker revealed ordinary objects in all their formal grandeur, has disappeared from The Fermata. Passion does not exist in this book about sex. Baker has taken the wonder of the human body and revealed it as a grinding collection of gadgets.
With so many climaxes, there can be no climax. So Baker contrives an exit. In order to get off the circular track he’s laid down for himself, Baker drifts to a conventional narrative ending: Arno finds real love and returns to graduate school. He loses his power, first sharing it with then accidentally transferring it to his girlfriend (Joyce, the one in the bank with the pubic hair). His puerile existence as a “temp” is over. The fermata is finished. He has grown into a man and his real life can begin. It’s not a convincing conclusion, but, then, The Fermata is not really about Arno Strine. It’s a long, dreary, dirty note scrawled in the margins of Nicholson Baker’s work.
April 7, 1994
“We never did warm to SLP’s composite hood—it has huge twin air-intake slits that could accept whole Spiegel catalogs but we were reminded of the near religious transformation of GM’s F-bodies into comfortable road-erasers, a revelation that the SLP modifications do little to disturb.” (Car and Driver, April 1994, p. 135.) ↩