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Fermata by Nicholson Baker

Fermata (original 1994; edition 1995)

by Nicholson Baker

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1,249216,344 (3.56)17
Authors:Nicholson Baker
Info:Vintage/Ebury (a Division of Random (1995), Paperback, 320 pages
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The Fermata by Nicholson Baker (1994)

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Arno Strine can stop time. And when he does, he uses this talent to undress, and sometimes touch, women.

Arno is a complicated character, well drawn by Mr. Baker. He loves women and their imperfections. He doesn't want to harm people. He doesn't have the imagination or moral fortitude to do great things with his time-stopping power. In fact, he hardly thinks about such weighty matters. He's mostly pretty ordinary.

But the interesting character didn't make up for the lack of a plot. I know some have argued that the sex in this book is not pornographic -- some have even said it was funny. But I found the balance between writing about Arno and writing about (mostly imagined) sexual acts was skewed in favour of the latter. On balance, we have a book with very little plot, one basic idea (time stopping) and a interesting main character. ( )
  LynnB | Jul 5, 2012 |
Pornography has a proper place in culture, as does literature. This book is pornography masquerading as literature, and is a failure in both genres. ( )
  evergene | Jun 16, 2012 |
A novel like The Fermata asks some important questions, most important of which is of course: "Does writing literary prose mean your novel about a guy stopping time to perv about is anything other than porn?" And it's a very good question too, one I haven't yet been able to fully answer. On the one hand there's a lot more to Baker's novel than a simple sex story. His protagonist is complex, troubled and off-kilter although he feels himself a paragon of normality in a world that simply does not and would not understand him. And yet there seems to be a definite "let's see how much porn I can write before someone catches on." And when I say porn, I don't mean the sultry covert eroticism sometimes present in novels, but stories in stories about women bouncing to orgasm with dildoes in every hole in the back of UPS trucks. Anyway, this is a story about a dysfunctional human being and as such it fascinates, porn or no porn. I just wish it would decide which way to go: smut story or novel. ( )
  Crayne | Jan 26, 2012 |
Baker's The Fermata tiptoes the line between pornography and, well, a very literary work. That it becomes both genres very well is testament to its quality and the uniqueness of its message.

And that message, put simply, concerns a man who has the ability to stop time. Whether through the snap of his fingers, or the use of a washing machine, he is able to control time and to do as he so wishes therein. As he (named Arno) points out early on, he is aware that he could, if he wished, use this power to snoop on government secrets, or even to better the world. Yet he opts for the voyeuristic act of undressing women. Women that he loves (and he admits that he falls in love easily and frequently).

This is an uncomfortable book; it shouldn't not be, as throughout it Baker -as I said- tiptoes that line between aesthetics and straight obscenity. Some reviews that I have read, however, berate him unfairly; they say that this is simply pornography (!), or that it is ridiculous that Arno does not choose to save the world with his spectacular temporal powers.

That he does not save the world, however, is the most interesting thing about The Fermata.

Arno, like other of Baker's characters, is both thoughtful and mediocre; he is a product of the modern world, of the reproduction of capital and cafes, noodle restaurants and law firms. His wry, carefully modulated narration is a retrospective on the world, and Arno really believes that he acts in an ethical manner. He claims to love women. Yet he also degrades them. Arno is pathetic and considerate, he is dangerous an he is pleasant. We wonder how normal he really is. We never really receive an answer to where this ability to stop time comes from, but that isn't really ever a flaw to the work.

Baker has written a study in obsession, an essay on the realisation of desire. Set against the backdrop of that same, capital driven world (the world where we are told that mere money will grant us whatever we so wish!), Arno's pleasure seems actually quite banal and ridiculous. He is the logical extension of Modern Man. He has embodied, literally, the power to control the world through a simple, exchangeable currency -the power to halt time.

Within Baker's novel are two interpolated texts. These are two works of 'straight' pornography written by Arno in order to gift to other readers. He delights in watching them read his smutty works.

This device, of the text within the text, is old as Cervante's Don Quixote, isn't it? And there, Cervantes lovingly reproduces and satires the Romance novel. Baker, too, is lovingly reproducing and satirising the pornographic novel.

The device is even more intriguing when we realise what the text within the text does. Arno writes one such work and buries it in the sand next to a beach sun bather. The bather finds it in the sand and reads. Arno watches, becoming more excited as he studies her reaction. I found this moment to be the most powerful in the text, as the very next chapter features that interpolated text itself; we, the reader, replace the bathing woman, reading the text, and our knowledge that Arno watches her makes us aware that he is actually watching us. We become the subject of the author, the repository of his sexual fantasies and expectations. Reading, external subject becomes reading, internal object. And so, as we read the text, we study our own reactions to it.

Baker's (or Arno's) The Fermata is a study in fantasy and, importantly, it is a study of the fantasising subject. Those readers who dismiss Baker for smuttiness are not really dismissing the book at all -they are actually playing to it. They are the bather who rejects the book with a disgusted look. If we like the book, we play a role in Baker's game, and we open up the idea of fantasy and repression that is central to his poetic world.

As a novelist, Baker is extreme and brilliant at drawing the reader into that world.

There are problems with the text; perhaps it is a bit clunky at times, or even repetitive, yet the overall impression of discomfort and fantasy is especially interesting and powerful. Baker doesn't want us to say, "oh, pornography is equal to the best of literature", but he does want us to have a meaningful reaction to it. ( )
  DuneSherban | Sep 20, 2011 |
What would you do if you had the ability to stop time in a way that still allowed you—and only you—to move around at will? Some of us would think of how to change history in an attempt to make the world a better place, while others would be content to increase their own wealth in “real time” (e.g., steal, alter the outcome of gambling or sporting events) or take the opportunity to exact revenge on enemies and former lovers. However, to the extent that any of us actually do day-dream about such things, I suspect that we dwell on ultimate outcomes and not on the myriad details involved in exercising that power.

Arno Strine, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata, has this time-stopping ability, but he also has extremely modest ambitions when it comes to using that gift. Instead of acquiring financial riches, Arno is content to simply remove the clothes of women—both those he knows and total strangers—and look at their naked bodies. Although a pathological voyeur, Arno does have rigid set of ethics that keeps him from committing more severe violations when he has “Dropped” into the Fermata, as he calls it. He gradually increases the extent of his intrusions, setting up elaborate schemes to find a soul-mate that he hopes will come to fruition when he turns real time back on. By the end of the novel, Arno finds that one of these schemes does come true, but with surprising and unanticipated results.

I had a decidedly mixed reaction to this book. On one hand, Baker delivers a richly (and minutely) imagined alternative reality. If nothing else, the author has clearly thought very deeply about what Dropping would really be like and many of his detailed observations are fascinating and occasionally very funny. Additionally, Baker does not shy away from the obvious moral ramifications of the story he tells; Arno is conflicted about the effect that his abilities has on others and, when not in self-denial, he adheres to a complex set of behavioral standards. Conversely, there are two extended sections in the novel that can only be described as pure pornography (think of some of the better-written Penthouse Letters submissions you might have read). The problem with these passages is not the subject matter per se (although the scatological nature of them was unexpected and off-putting), but the fact that they are gratuitous and completely unnecessary to the main plot line.

So, how do you rate a book like this? Do you give it four stars for its creativity and imagination or just two stars for its excessively prurient character? For me, splitting the difference seemed to be about right. ( )
1 vote browner56 | Sep 18, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
The Fermata is not concerned with human dignity, or even the loss of it [...] this unsettling concoction of gentle observation and moral indifference is served, politely, over and over again to the reader.

By literally objectifying women, he courts contemporary disapproval, but he is also partaking of a centuries-long tradition of serious writers trying their hand at a stroker [...] The Fermata is not really about Arno Strine. It’s a long, dreary, dirty note scrawled in the margins of Nicholson Baker’s work.
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I am going to call my autobiography The Fermata, even though "fermata" is only one of the many names I have for the Fold.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679759336, Paperback)

The Fermata is the most risky of Nicholson Baker's emotional histories. His narrator, Arno Strine, is a 35-year-old office temp who is writing his autobiography. "It's harder than I thought!" he admits. His "Fold-powers" are easier; he can stop the world and use it as his own pleasure ground. Arno uses this gift not for evil or material gain (he would feel guilty about stealing), though he does undress a good number of women and momentarily place them in compromising positions--always, in his view, with respect and love. Anyone who can stop time and refer in self-delight to his "chronanisms" can't be all bad! Like Baker's other books, The Fermata gains little from synopsis. The pleasure is literally in the text. What's memorable is less the sex and the sex toys (including the "Monasticon," in the shape of a monk holding a vibrating manuscript) than Arno's wistful recollections of intimacy: the noise, for instance, of his ex-girlfriend's nail clipper, "which I listened to in bed as some listen to real birdsong."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:15 -0400)

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Arno Strine explains, in his autobiography, about the fermata (or fold) and how he stops time and takes women's clothes off.

(summary from another edition)

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