Thursday, February 10, 2011

the last book I read

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker.

Arno Strine is a 35-year-old office temp. So he's not made as much of his life as he might have done, you'd say. Well, not a bit of it - Arno has a unique talent: he can stop time in its tracks (for everyone but him). And what does he do during these stolen moments? Well, only what anyone else would do in his position: undress women, sneak into their apartments to spy on them and occasionally perform discreet sex acts on them (clearing up afterwards before restarting time, naturally).

Arno's ability to drop into The Fold, as he calls it, comes and goes and sometimes requires a trigger to set it off: flicking a switch, fiddling with his glasses, snapping his fingers, something like that. Each visit lasts anything from a few seconds to several hours: two of the lengthier encounters described here allow enough time for Arno to pen some 15-20 pages of amateur pornography and leave it where it can be easily found by the object of his lust.

Arno has some dim intimations of guilt about his behaviour, but rationalises it to himself by insisting he's doing it out of love and respect for women of all shapes and sizes, as well as the more obvious excuse that, well, no-one knows anything about it, so where's the harm? Just when it seems that Arno's Fold adventures are becoming more real than his time spent in the real world, he falls in love with Joyce, a woman from the office he works in. The trouble is, having decided to ask her out, and then subsequently on a campaign of total honesty, he finds himself having to explain a) his abilities (easy enough to prove) and b) that he's already seen Joyce naked during an office-bound trip to the Fold. Luckily Joyce turns out to be a broad-minded sort of girl, so all Arno has to do now is find a way of including her in his trips out of time. Wait - what if we try and fool whatever higher power is controlling all this by being, you know, inside each other when the moment is triggered.....?

Baker first came to literary prominence in the the 1980s with novels like Mezzanine, whose action mirrors that of The Fermata on a smaller scale, i.e. it's compressed into the space of an afternoon with much exhaustive description of seemingly irrelevant minutiae. The critics loved that one, but by the time he'd delivered the extended phone-sex fantasy Vox and then The Fermata in 1994 a few of them had decided that all this explicit sex stuff really wasn't quite the thing after all. Victoria Glendinning's hilariously po-faced reaction, as reported in this 2003 Guardian profile, sums the attitude up:
It is a moral challenge to be faced, or it is simply meant as outrageous comedy, or as material for the sex-war, or as a portrait of a literary psychopath. Or it is an expression of male resentment of female autonomy. Whatever was intended, it is a repellent book. Goodbye Nicholson Baker, goodbye for ever.
To which I say: tish and pish. Most of the uncomplimentary reviews affect to have alternately found the book boring and offensive and/or disgusting, which sounds very much like trying to have your cake and eat it to me. I found it to be neither of those things, for all that it does sag narratively in the middle a bit, mainly while Arno is delivering his two pornographic short stories (reproduced in full) to their intended recipients, and indulging in an extended fantasy of what he will do with the recipient of the second one once she listens to it (this one is delivered via the medium of a cassette inserted in her in-car stereo while Arno has paused time in the act of overtaking her on the freeway), a fantasy which never comes to fruition as the ungrateful recipient tosses the tape out of the car window shortly afterwards.

Oddly, it's a book soaked in sex during which very little orthodox sex actually happens; the only non-masturbatory sex acts which occur are during the second of Arno's sex fantasy narratives - an absurdly over-the-top porn fantasy involving a number of amusingly named sex toys including the Arno Van Dilden Heavydick, the Royal Welsh Fusilier and the Armande Klockhammer Signature Model - and right at the end as Arno and Joyce discover a way of entering The Fold together. In that respect it's very like The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr. Hoffman, though without the horse rape bits. It's also like Never Let Me Go in that it's ostensibly built on a science-fiction base - the whole stopping time thing - but hand-waves away most of the questions that might be asked about such an arrangement.

Anyway, it's gloriously and joyously filthy and pornographic, and unless you imagine that that's in some way a bad thing I recommend it, even though not a great deal actually happens; but, you know, I gather the same thing could be said about Proust as well. Incidentally it is alleged that Monica Lewinsky gave Bill Clinton a copy of Vox during their mid-1990s affair, the dirty bitch.

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