Timely twist makes novel intriguing

Monday Book Review

July 18, 1994|By Dave Edelman

THE FERMATA. By Nicholson Baker. Random House. 303 pages. $21.

ARNO STRINE works as a temporary worker in Boston, and he has an unusual ability that makes his life dissimilar to those around him: with the snap of his fingers, Arno can make time stop.

Yet rather than becoming a super spy or an unstoppable thief or a learned scholar, Arno has a much more personal use for his extraordinary powers. He likes to surreptitiously enrich the sexual lives of women, and in the process, expand his own.

This is the premise that drives "The Fermata," the fifth book by one of America's most dazzling creative imaginations, Nicholson Baker. Primarily known for the controversial bestseller, "Vox," a steamy novel consisting entirely of a conversation on an adult party line, Mr. Baker has also written "The Mezzanine," which details the thoughts of a man riding up an escalator; "Room Temperature," about a father feeding his daughter a bottle; and "U & I," a tribute to and reminiscence about John Updike from a man who's read less than half of his works.

"The Fermata" pretends to be the autobiography of Arno Strine, written mostly during periods of suspended time (or, as the narrator calls it, "in the Fold"). In his narrative, Mr. Strine details the miscellaneous sexual hijinks he conducts with the help of his supernatural powers. He takes women's clothes off and fantasizes about their nude bodies. He plants sexual toys on women in public places. He writes dirty magazine stories and places them where women will find them and read them.

Those who have read "Vox" might expect "The Fermata" to be filled with sexual details of the most intimate and embarrassing nature, and they won't be disappointed. Mr. Baker makes little effort to daintify the dirty deeds of his narrator; the sexuality he portrays has more to do with airport bookstore porn novels than with Harlequin romances. Indeed, so intent is the author on getting to the bottom of our petty hang-ups about sex, he delves into subjects that only occupy the darkest corners of our imaginations: masturbation, voyeurism and bathroom activities.

So what keeps "The Fermata"above the level of pure smut and degradation? Why should women not be up in arms about Mr. Strine's casually taking advantage of them?

According to Mr. Strine, the difference is attitude. Mr. Baker's protagonist spends many pages ruminating on the morality of his actions, and he justifies them by claiming that they're all done in the spirit of mutual pleasure and good will. While this is strictly true -- Mr. Strine never takes advantage of anyone or performs destructive or malicious acts -- it's not an entirely convincing argument.

But "The Fermata" doesn't stumble for its lack of a moral foothold. Mr. Strine's world is one of simple ethics where the plumbing and wiring of sexuality is to be cherished and enjoyed, rather than used as a battleground to divide people. Mr. Baker puts the same hyperkinetic imagination -- which has previously led to celebrations of the plastic straw and shoelaces -- and applied it to the minutiae of sexuality. Who else but Mr. Baker could so lovingly and meticulously describe the way a woman's breasts would look in an invisible brassiere?

Strangely enough, with its 12-year-old boy's fantasy premise, Mr. Baker's novel brings an innocence and playfulness back to sexuality that's rarely shown in public discourse. Like all of Mr. Baker's efforts, "The Fermata" is a novel of wonderment and joy, a world that's become needlessly clouded with male malignity ++ and female distrust.

Dave Edelman writes from Baltimore.

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