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The Fermata

Current Status:
In Season
Nicholson Baker

We gave it a D

Submitted for your approval, one Arno Strine, a bookish loner with a talent for stopping time at a snap of his fingers. While everyone else in the world remains paused in mid-moment, Arno is ”alive and ambulatory and thinking and looking.” Thirty years ago, Rod Serling would’ve sent this guy marching straight off into The Twilight Zone for some moral reckoning, or at the very least for a nasty jolt of irony. But it’s 1994, and Nicholson Baker (Vox) has quite a different agenda in mind for Arno-no life lessons, no ethical crises. Just sex. Framed as an autobiography-in-progress, THE FERMATA (Random House, $21)-the title refers to a musical notation denoting an indefinite pause- chronicles nerdy Arno Strine’s single-minded pursuit of his favorite pastime: undressing and fondling women-turned-mannequins. Here he is as a fourth-grade schoolboy braking the universe to unbutton his teacher’s blouse and explore the intricate filigrees of her bra; and here he is as a 35-year-old temp shucking down a bank officer’s panty hose; here he is stripping the saleswomen in The Gap. With lunatic glee, profligate detail, and not a pang of conscience, Arno recounts his ”recreational and masturbatory” adventures in stop time. If there were just the slightest clue that Baker intended his novel to be satirical, you might be inclined, a little, to give him the benefit of a doubt. And if there were the least bit of fictional values evident-some conflict, perhaps, or some crediblecharacterization-you might also, sporadically, be entertained. But Baker assumes that his million-dollar vocabulary and fine-tuned prose are more than enough to warrant our attention. Got news for him. The letters in Penthouse have more energy, wit, and erotic spark than anything he’s dreamed up here. The saddest part of this whole misbegotten effort is that Baker seems to believe that his book is funny. Tedious, yes. Puerile, definitely. Insulting to both men and women? For darn sure. But funny? Anything that can cheerfully and rhetorically ask ”What else was there in the world beside masturbation?” is just too dizzily solipsistic to qualify even as folly. The Fermata is nothing more, and nothing less, than high-gloss drivel. D -Tom De Haven ;