How appropriate a difficulty to befall Nicholson Baker: His car will not — cannot — move. The author best known for his best-selling 1992 novel about phone sex, Vox, had planned to take Entertainment Weekly on a jolly little tour of Berkeley, Calif., where he lives and writes exceptional prose distinguished by descriptions of things you never thought anyone would take the time to describe (”When I pull a sock on, I no longer pre-bunch, that is, I don’t gather the sock up into telescoped folds over my thumbs and then position the resultant donut over my toes ”: The Mezzanine, 1988).
Baker’s new novel, The Fermata, is about a guy-Arno Strine, ”a 35-year-old male temp who has achieved nothing in his life” but possesses the power to stop time at will. Everything in the world freezes for as long as Arno likes (fermata is a musical term for an endless pause) — except Arno himself. And what does Arno do with this extraordinary power? Well, mostly he walks around undressing attractive, immobile women. They are unaware of what he’s doing. He kisses them, fondles them, makes various forms of love to them. He leaves them letters filled with ”rot” — Arno’s term for raunchy erotica. Battery-operated sexual aids make cameo appearances. So does a certain melancholy: ”My own skill at jamming time,” says Arno, ”may actually be dependent on some fluid mixture of emotions, among them curiosity, sexual desire, and love, all suspended in a solvent medium of loneliness.”
But now time is standing still for Baker’s car. ”My daughter left the door open all night — the battery must be dead,” he says. And so, as he waits for a bib-overalled representative of the American Automobile Association to arrive and jump-start his big blue shoebox of a family van (he is married, with two children), Baker sits in a wicker chair on the sidewalk in front of his small, tree-shaded house. Even folded into a chair, the 37-year-old writer is awfully tall, as well as amiably lanky and — given the angle as one stands over him — charmingly bald, with a mere score of squiggly, sun-bleached hairs scattered across his pink pate. He peels a pale-green apple with a big black knife, and ponders the fix into which The Fermata — advance printing of more than 100,000 copies — seems to be getting him.
Early reviews have accused Baker’s creation of having ”too many sex scenes” (Mirabella), of ”throw[ing] a hand grenade over the barricades of the gender war” (Esquire). Could it be that the same novel the Random House ads tout as a ”brilliant new masterpiece” is also the book that a female colleague of mine — a self-described Nicholson Baker fan — calls ”just icky”? And that another usually sympathetic Baker reader says is ”the literary equivalent of someone rubbing against you in the subway — which wouldn’t be bad if the book was supposed to be unpleasant”?
”It’s not as if I don’t know what the problem is,” says Baker. ”Compared to Fermata, Vox is a mere bagatelle, a walk in the park. Vox was about two people who never met, but who talk on the phone and say, ‘Yes, I’d like to be taking my clothes off with you.’ But in this one, none of these women are saying yes. That’s where some readers are going to be troubled.”
Oh, yes indeedy. To say that The Fermata is incorrect in its sexual politics is like saying that the Menendez brothers are mischievous scamps. ”If you don’t think it’s a funny or entertaining book, then the idea of going around taking off women’s clothes isn’t very appealing,” says Baker. ”As soon as a book is finished, it becomes part of an exchange with the outside world, and politeness and civility and all the rules I normally live by become attached to it.
”But my feelings of shame about writing (Fermata) are entirely based on whom I’m talking to. If I’m with someone who’s offended, I just want to say I’m sorry, it was a lapse, I was in a strange, overcharged mood and you know how those moods occur every October — that sort of thing. But if I’m with someone who’s basically receptive to it, I can get huffy and proud and say I’m not going to justify my art to anyone!” He sighs. ”Still, there are a number of people — some friends, some people I respect — whom I think of as reading The Fermata and not wanting to know me anymore.”
Well before Vox propelled sales and publicity, the New York City-born Baker worked for about a year on Wall Street (”I sold some stock to my uncle and my music teacher, and that was about it, so I quit and read a lot and was rejected by Harvard as a philosophy graduate student”). Married in 1985, he and wife Margaret had their first child in 1987, and the next year Baker published The Mezzanine, an intricate, comic account of one man’s lunch hour. It was followed by Room Temperature (1990), an underappreciated tale of new parenthood, and U and I (1991), Baker’s quirkily personal study of John Updike’s fiction. Vox and Fermata have put Baker on the defensive as a dirty-book writer, but what’s lost in all the tut-tutting is the fact that The Fermata contains some of his most precise and sweetly funny writing to date. No man capable of observing this can be fairly accused of misogyny: ”Women are much more in touch with the backs of themselves than men are: they can reach higher up on their back, and do so daily to unfasten bras; they can clip and braid their hair; they can keep their rearward blouse-tails smoothly tucked into their skirts. They give thought to how the edges of their underpants look through their pocketless pants from the back. (‘Panties’ is a word to be avoided, I feel.)”
Still, one cannot help but ask how much, er, research Baker did in devising The Fermata, what with its extensive citations of real and imagined pornographic publications and sexual devices. It is pointed out that Baker’s reference to Juggs magazine, for instance, seems particularly authoritative. ”Oh, that’s beautifully put,” he says dryly. ”Well, I did spend a small fortune on skin magazines. I got on some recherché mailing lists because I wanted to see what the junk-mail porn universe was like. I ordered a few toys and tried to keep up with the latest developments. I’m certainly familiar with a real-world dildo.
”I hate it when I read an interview where a writer says, ‘My wife and I had such fun researching this project.’ Well, my wife isn’t as interested in hand-held technical resources as I am — or as my narrator is, shall we say.”
Ah, there, in that hasty little conversational correction — now we get to the crux of it: If even Baker himself slides back and forth between identifying with and distancing himself from Arno Strine, what’s a poor reader to do in wondering where first-person narrator Arno leaves off and Baker begins? For his previous efforts, Baker has gone on book tours, giving readings; but of Fermata he says, ”I really don’t want to read from this book, about this heinous little man.”
After what seems like a fermata itself, the mechanic arrives with jumper cables, and the Baker-mobile is given a jolt of power as its owner offers a final defense of his naughty book. ”I wrote Fermata listening to Suzanne Vega, particularly her album 99.9 F. It affected my mood in just the right way. I found a kind of maniacal intensity in her music that helped me as I typed. So if Fermata is attacked, maybe I can say I’m not responsible because I was under the spell of Suzanne Vega.”