Monday, November 23, 2009

3. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

Have you ever daydreamed that you could pause time and wander around fully conscious and aware while everything and everyone around you was frozen still (like Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell)? What if someone were were opposed to unduly profiting from this gift and had no ambition to exploit it for personal gain but felt there was no harm in using it to freeze time and undress random women on the street and masturbate? Can you imagine this crude adolescent fantasy as the subject of a serious novel?

I have been meaning to read Nicholson Baker for a while now. I'll let Wikipedia provide a brief introduction of his writing style:
"[Baker] often focuses on minute inspection of his characters' and narrators' stream of consciousness, and has written about such provocative topics as voyeurism and planned assassination. His fiction generally de-emphasizes narrative in favor of careful description and characterization. Baker's enthusiasts appreciate his ability to candidly explore the human psyche, while critics have charged that his subject matter is trivial."
Wikipedia does not mean this lightly. His first novel, The Mezzanine, "presents the thoughts and memories of a young office worker as he ascends an escalator to the mezzanine of the office building where he is employed." That's it: simply a stream of ideas, memories, and impressions triggered by a ride up the escalator in 144 pages. His second novel, Room Temperature, is a similar series of random thoughts and observations as a man feeds his infant daughter a bottle one morning (despite the lack of action I assure you the writing can still be interesting). Another novel, Vox, consists entirely of an erotically charged phone conversation between a man and a woman on a phone sex chat line.

Well, based on the sheer audacity of it's premise I decided to start with The Fermata. It is written in the first person as an autobiography by a narrator with the ability to stop time at will. The whole world around him freezes but he can move around and interact with the frozen people (who are completely unaware anything that happened when time resumes provided he puts everything back the way it was). As I mentioned above he does not chose to rob banks, cheat at cards, or try to become a superhero. Instead, his primary use of the ability is to undress random women he encounters for his own personal sexual gratification. He almost never seeks any interaction with them in the real world, content to limit himself to brief sexual experiences while time is stopped. He goes out of his way to explain that he has no intention of hurting anyone, that he loves and admires each woman he does this to (of course he rationalizes that they wouldn't mind being undressed by him since it doesn't harm them in any way, and he is appalled by the idea of rape but justifies his groping and voyeurism as harmless). If nothing else this is a very interesting character to get to know.

The book acknowledges some of the practical implications of this gift, too. He continues to age normally while time is stopped, so if he stays "in the fold" for a few hours he will have a sensation similar to 'jet lag' when he emerges with his body feeling like it is four hours later than it actually is. (Baker doesn't extrapolate the premise as far out as David Foster Wallace does in Brief Interviews with hideous Men: if time stops locally, it must stop for the whole planet, and then also for the whole solar system, and what of the infinite universe?) But the logic of how and why it works and the implications it has on time and space aren't really the point here.

At times this is a fascinating novel. Baker's powers of observation are impressive and some of the insights and descriptions make for very compelling reading. It is also very provocative and sexually explicit. In addition to the primary subject matter being a man who undresses and admires nude women we are also treated to several detailed sexual fantasies and, since he occasionally writes pornography and leaves it for a stranger to find, we get a few chapters of his pornographic stories as well.

I don't read a lot of erotica but I don't think I have ever been more aware of and disrupted by the language used in such scenes (and that's especially an issue with this book where 'those scenes' make up 80% of the novel) The adjectives weren't so bad, it was the nouns that were the problem. I suppose all authors who write about sex have to struggle with it. Some words are too clinical, others too crude, and everyone has their own personal list of words that hey just hate to encounter. It's like a minefield for writers- use the wrong words and you can spoil the scene for your readers. The narrator of this novel is particularly bad at it and frequently makes things even worse by employing hokey euphemisms for body parts, which was especially jarring.

I'm not sure that this wasn't in some ways intentional since the entire story is being told in the voice of a character who is a bit awkward and and a bit weird to begin with. It's entirely possible that Baker is not intending to be titillating and is using the cringeworthy descriptions to disrupt the eroticism and make a larger point about the main character. Or maybe I'm just being too generous, but I'm willing to read another Baker novel to find out. Sometimes his ideas sound like they come from the imagination of a 15-year-old kid (what if the whole story had no plot and was just an elevator ride? What if you could pause time and look at naked chicks) but that's not all he has going on. Except for some of the longwinded fantasy scenes the novel was very interesting. It's a novel of ideas and careful insights about the way we live and the little details of life the frequently get ignored or overlooked. It was funny, thought provoking, shocking, and I think it's impressive that a book like this exists at all.

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