Sarah Smith's Reviews > The Fermata

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
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's review
Apr 18, 2011

really liked it
Read in April, 2011

This book is so smutty that I should have thought better of reading it at work on a slow day. Some passages – especially those in which Arno, the protagonist, freezes time so he can write a dirty story tailored to one momentary subject of his infatuation or another and hide it within reach so that she will find it when he unfreezes time – test the limits of what one could consider public reading material. The rest of the book considers Arno's unusual abilities from a charmed philosophical distance, but there's no doubt that when this book gets dirty it gets real durty.

Like many of Baker's other novels, "The Fermata" makes use of an unconventional narrative pace, but what could read as foppish or annoyingly smarmy is instead character-driven, and better yet, driven by a very intelligent, observant character. I guess that's the source of the charm, which is why I consider the outré turns "smutty" rather than "filthy" – because really, smut is a non-threatening grade of human vagary motivated by humility rather than gonzo boners (or at least it seems so to me).

I know others have voiced concerns about the book's lackadaisical morals regarding undressing and examining women who are frozen in time, and if my grad school punch-card hasn't already been revoked, saying that I find those moral quandaries to be ultimately less than crucial here would certainly do the trick. Still, I think the problem most germane to this kind of story isn't what a man does with the power to stop time but how he rationalizes its presence in his life. Arno is a terminal temp, living comfortably but without the garnishes we usually expect to accompany a nearly middle-aged life, but more crucially, he is alienated by the skill he can't share and the attitudes it grants him. Though these particular details are fantastical, in practice they really aren't so different from how so many of us (or myself, anyway) approach adulthood.

And yet, and yet. Such an elegant metaphor could turn nihilistic. The story takes a fairly conventional romantic narrative arc in its last act, one that's reaffirming but not wholly convincing. I found it a little rushed and dissatisfying, but I was still glad Baker didn't turn this effervescent novel into a time-altering update of "The Trial."

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Ben (new)

Ben Killer review... I think you're dead on with the smutty v. filthy distinction.

Mick Same! Well said on all counts.

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