Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book 41: The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

When I was in 8th grade, I used to fantasize that I could stop time. While everyone around me sat frozen, I dreamed of being able to go right up to C. and get as close to her as I wanted. I didn't actually kiss a girl until I was a junior in high school so my fantasy was G rated. I don't think I would have even kissed C. during the time stoppage. I only wanted to get close enough to look at her without her knowing I was doing it. To see her for a moment without having to worry about being caught looking, to see her free of her own knowledge of being watched, to see her in her purest essence.

Nicholson Baker was not in 8th grade when he wrote 'The Fermata'.

His narrator has discovered that he can ACTUALLY do what I dreamed of. And somehow, in spite of the X-rated and surely criminal actions he undertakes, the novel maintains a tone of innocence and exuberance.

I have only read Baker's sex books, this and 'Vox' which is one long phone sex transcription. Perhaps someday I'll read his other stuff, but for me, his treatment of sex as a viable literary device is refreshing to the point of revolution. Usually sex in books comes as a moment of other, as a deviation from the story, as a catalyst for tragedy or euphoria, in other words as something that either precedes or follows the REAL event.

In 'The Fermata', sex is the event.

There is something refreshing about this, as if a dinner party has finally loosened up because some difficult subject were accidentally broached. Once the elephant in the corner of the room is acknowledged, things get really interesting.

I read this book at a time when I really needed a frank, unapologetic look at the male sex drive. How that drive can distort us if it is not directed in a positive manner, how much time can be wasted in a fantasy land of your own making, how lost we can become if we remain alone inside of our desires. The main character in 'The Fermata' is struggling with these questions and ultimately realizing that even the presence of real magic cannot replace the wonder of actual human interaction.

Baker somehow treats this X-rated journey not like a pornographic romp but as a crisis of the soul. This juxtaposition has the odd effect of heightening the titillation factor because Baker isn't apologizing for the content, merely positioning it as a fulcrum. The narrator must let go of this wondrous anomaly if he wants to reap the benefits of an actual relationship.

Ultimately it is a book about growing up, about discarding juvenile fantasy in favor of actual experience.

But, boy did I want to stop time and run my fingers through C.'s hair.

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