Stop the World, I Want to Get Off

The Fermata

by Nicholson Baker
Random House, 303 pp., $21.00

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…

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