Thursday, December 6, 2012

Nicholson Baker Scraps All Sexual Taboos in "The Fermata"

A note for sensitive readers: This is a review of a Nicholson Baker novel, which, by definition, will be fucking explicit.

I read most of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Fermata while I was on a plane from Washington, DC, to Phoenix. A young, attractive woman sat next to me during the flight, reading a magazine and dozing off. I was glad to see she was tired because I was scared she’d talk to me. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to her, rather I feared that any conversation between us would lead to her noticing my book and asking me, innocently enough: “What’s the book about?” I feared this question because it had a simple, crass answer: “It’s about a guy who stops time and goes around touching women’s boobs.”

Seriously, that’s the premise of the book. Baker takes this fantasy, near universal among grade school boys, and runs with it for 200-plus pages. (Do girls have similar fantasies? I’m not so sure.) Arnold Strine, protagonist and breast-lover extraordinaire, is 35 as he narrates his story but he’s got the nerve and curiosity of kid perpetually stuck at 13. He’s a “career temp”with crappy seduction skills and terrible luck talking to ladies. But what he lacks in charm and money he makes up for by entering “The Fold.” That’s what he calls the time-stopped world he operates in. See, Arnold can turn time on and off by clicking a pen, adjusting his glasses or a range of other small movements. Once he enters The Fold, everyone and everything else stops. Arold is in complete control of the world, and can move within The Fold as he sees fit. And he sees fit to touch a lot of tits.

A drop quote on the back cover of my paperback edition claims that this is the most sexually explicit novel ever to be published by a mainstream publisher. Well, that’s quite a claim. One worth investigating. After reading this book, I can say that it is difficult to come up with a more sexually explosive novel, unless you were delving into straight-up porn. Actually, even when compared to a lot of lit-erotica, The Fermata could be considered risqué. (The only comparably explicit novel I can think of is Henry Millers Under the Roofs of Paris.)

So, who would read this book? Only perverts, right? C’mon. This book is much more than imaginative smut (not that there’s anything wrong with imaginative smut). It’s about the limits of human consciousness, the subconscious male mind, the mystery of time, our doomed attempts to control the world around us. It’s not just big tits but big themes we’re dealing with here.

Also, Baker is simply an artist with the English language. His writing is frequently playful and always acerbic. (He refers to the vagina as the “vadge” the “juice box” and, my personal favorite, the “big fat Georgia O’Keefe.”) He constructs his scenes with surgical precision. Each word does exactly what Baker tells it to do. His language is pure of all clichés and gimmicks. The Fermata also throws out a lot of the traditional structural elements of the novel. There’s hardly any rising action, no real antagonist, and while there are many orgasms in this novel, there’s no real “climax,” at least in any traditional sense.

Baker took a ton of risks with this novel, that’s for sure. But with big risk comes the possibility of a big payoff. And The Fermata pays dividends.

If you’re open-minded about sex, and you don’t blush easily, you might get a kick out of this book. But if you’re on a plane, make sure no one’s reading over your shoulder.

No comments:

Post a Comment