Esmeralda Greene's Reviews > The Fermata

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
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Aug 28, 11

Read from August 23 to 28, 2011

Nicholson Baker has gotten a lot of attention with his latest book "House of Holes," with a host of highfalutin sources extolling its both its literary merit and its over-the-top eroticism. The New York Times, for example, calls it a “glorious filthfest,” and "as funny as it is filthy."

As someone with an interest both in erotica/pornography (I write the stuff) and works of high literary aspiration (um, I read the stuff), I naturally felt I had to check this dude out.

I tried the Kindle sample-snippet of "House of Holes" first, but it didn't really grab me. It felt too easy, too facile and light-weight. As I read, a voice in the back of my head was muttering "yeah, yeah, some whacky surrealism, some explicit sex, more whacky surrealism, rinse and repeat. Ho-hum." Like the philistine looking at a Jackson Pollock, I kept thinking, "Whatsa big deal? *I* could do this."

Whether or not that leapt-to assessment of "House of Holes" was fair, I decided to try out "The Fermata," an earlier book of Baker's. The major draw of this novel for me was the delightfully sexy premise: A man has the ability to stop time, and uses his power to undress and ogle women. Yes, it's an old idea, but I thought it was potentially a terrific jumping-off point.

I was not disappointed. The main charm of the book is in the character of the protagonist. He's an immensely gentle, thoughtful man who takes great pains to avoid doing any harm or causing any distress with his magical power. The women he undresses, he meticulously re-dresses before restarting time, careful to leave behind no trace of his trespasses on their bodies. Furthermore, he's no mere seeker after nubile perfection. Instead he takes a boundless delight in the variations of women's bodies; "the average woman, the unexceptionable woman, the interestingly ugly woman…" In his delight, he waxes poetic for pages at a time over one woman's pubic hair ("to think I could have died and not seen this…"), the breasts of a host of others ("perfect in their indispensable imperfection"), and even such minutia as "the beautifully defined H shapes" at the backs of another woman's knees. He is intoxicated, transported and inspired by the physical beauty he unveils, by the secrets that women's uncovered bodies whisper to him.

Baker has said that he's a great admirer of John Updike, and it shows. The narrative is often intermixed with Updike-like musings on such peripheral topics as contact lenses versus eyeglasses or the experience of transcribing dictaphone tapes. But always (even more so than in Updike), these meditations are inspired and filtered through the protagonist's all-pervasive sexuality.

Speaking of sex… Yes, there's rather a lot of it. But since this is "literary pornography" (a term that in combination with Nicholson Baker's name returns 206 hits on Google), it's not the wall-to-wall sex you'll find in straightforward porn [cough[like mine]cough]. But the hot parts are definitely hot, and cover a generous range of kinks and variations.

Something of a standard line of description in reviews of erotica is "but there's a good story too." I'm spared from having to parrot that apologetic-sounding phrase here, because really there is no "story" to "The Fermata." There's no plot arc or character arc to speak of. Rather, it's more of a portrait -- a deftly and artistically rendered portrait of a delightful character and his magical gift.
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