It was my first semester of college, and I was working at the campus library. On my breaks I began wandering the stacks, searching for interesting books to pass my leisure time when I got off work. It’s not like I actually studied for my courses or anything, so it was a daily task, finding these books. I clearly remember one day finding a small book tucked away on a shelf collecting dust. I instantly knew I had to check it out. That book was Vox, by Nicholson Baker, an intriguing story about phone sex that wasn’t really about phone sex. The writing style had me hooked from the start, so I searched for more from Mr. Baker.
Enter The Fermata. The library had just purchased the book. Indeed, it was still brand new when I was the first to check it out in the spring of 1994, and it was so scandalous that I was constantly looking over my shoulder when I would read it in the stacks. Or behind the circulation desk. Or sitting on a bench anywhere on campus while eating my lunch. Despite the embarrassment that I would get from reading such material, it still drew me in. Because it wasn’t pornography, not in the classical sense of the term. Neither was it purely erotica. It was an amazing mix of sexual experimentation and scientific discovery.
You see, Arno Strine, the book’s protagonist, can stop time. Meaning that time stops for everyone else in his world, but not for him. Of course you can imagine what he does when he stops time, the situations he can get himself into with this power at his disposal, and the book heartily explores so many of those situations. But the book is not just about how he delves into his own sense of sexual self. It’s about his reasoning for what he does, and about where he is going in his life.
What honestly amazes me about the novel is Baker’s writing style. It’s matter-of-fact without being judgmental. In fact, it is quite conversational, drawing in readers not with its sensational subject matter, but with its naked analysis of Arno, his emotional issues, and his connections (or lack thereof) with humanity. It’s a story more about discovery and redemption than it is about anything else. What Arno realizes at the end of his journey is something that many people take a lifetime to find out.
And yes, there is the sexual element. There’s no getting around it, no matter how much analysis and character realization goes on. But even when the writing is at its most explicit it maintains its literary chops, not devolving into mere pornography for pornography’s sake. What I honestly love about Baker’s writing is that no one writes quite like him. When I first picked up The Fermata I didn’t know what to expect, but after I finally put it down, I knew I had to own it. Baker has a fresh voice and an inimitable style that keeps drawing me in.
I would recommend The Fermata to those who aren’t faint of heart. It truly is explicit, but if you have the ability to get beyond the sexual situations, you will see the genius that I see.
I give this novel FIVE stars.