David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Nicholson Baker Inteview: Master or Masturbator?

Originally published March 30, 1994 in the Baltimore City Paper.
Also read the full interview transcript.

Nicholson BakerNicholson Baker thinks he’s in trouble.

Before I can fire off my first question to him (“All of your novels are concerned with the minutiae of life that we usually don’t notice during the course of everyday living. Can you comment on this unique point of view of the world?”), he’s on the defensive.

“Reviewers are taking The Fermata as a personal affront,” Baker proclaims anxiously in his halting yet amiable tone of voice. “‘We liked this Nicholson Baker, we trusted him, how could he do this to us?’ It’s a controversial book, I knew it would make some people hate me, and it’s no fun to be hated.

“What I wanted to show was that I can write about a person who is not exactly like me, who is not always nice, and I can lend him my voice if I want to. John Banville can do it. Just because I wrote three books with nice narrators, why should I be denied that opportunity?”

There’s a long pause, the first of many I will hear throughout the interview. You can almost hear Baker switching mental gears over the phone, backtracking, wondering bewilderedly where his mental perambulations have led him. I’m sitting at my desk, scrolling like mad up and down my neatly typed screen of questions for something relevant to interject.

Baker beats me to the punch, but it’s not a question that he asks me. “You hated the book.”

I admit to him that I enjoyed it.

“Oh! What a relief!” he exclaims, and I picture him visibly relaxing in his chair, muscles untensing, taking off his glasses to rub overtired eyes.

The Fermata: A Whirlwind of Controversy

Nicholson Baker has reason to be wary. His fifth book, The Fermata, has just been published to a whirlwind of controversy. Reviews, on the whole, have not been positive (a first for Baker), and readers of all gender, race, and creed have declared The Fermata a dangerous novel, an untouchable. Baker claims that in Great Britain, the only book to receive more column inches this year in the media has been Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography.

So what’s all the fuss about?

'The Fermata' by Nicholson BakerThe Fermata pretends to be the autobiography of an office temp who has the ability to stop time with the snap of his fingers. (The title refers to a musical symbol, sometimes called a “bird’s eye”, which signals an indefinite pause on the attached note.) Arno Strine (the temp) uses his powers to perverse ends: while the world remains poised between moments like one of his office dictation tapes in pause mode, Strine likes to undress women and masturbate to their nude bodies.

The Fermata is no American Psycho, however. Strine is less a Jack the Ripper than a sexually charged Huck Finn, using his gift to play pranks on unsuspecting women with the innocence and curiosity of a child. He places a vibrating sexual aid on a woman reading on the subway; he writes a dirty story and places it where a sunbather will find and read it; he sneaks into a woman’s house, hides in her hamper, and watches her masturbate. Alongside Strine’s raging libido is an industrial-sized guilt complex that inspires him to analyze why he does what he does, leading to sex-driven confessions the likes of which haven’t been seen since Portnoy stopped complaining.

Unfortunately, Baker protests, critics have mistaken The Fermata for an attack on women or, worse, a “position paper on how men ought to behave.” Random House has contributed to the feeding frenzy by shipping the book to retailers bound in a clear plastic band, giving readers the perverse feeling that they must undress the book to read it.

“Of course it’s wrong to stop time and take off women’s clothes,” says Baker. “But Arno’s drawn to it, and he hasn’t really figured it all out yet…. [The Fermata]’s supposed to be a comic novel, and in order for comedy to work, the normal consequences of things has to be interrupted.

“The book has kind of riveted people and angered them, which I didn’t want to do. I hate to make people angry. I really wanted to delight and instruct just as Aristotle said that a writer ought to do…. I was also trying to keep myself intellectually and comically and sexually entertained.” Baker pauses again, then throws out in mock-hippie drawl, “I wanted to have some fun, man.”

From The Mezzanine to Vox

Nicholson Baker first gained the attention of the literary world with The Mezzanine, a 133-page chronicle of a man’s ride up an escalator, which remains the author’s best work to date. The Mezzanine introduced Baker’s penchant for examining the world down to its most ludicrously small detail, taking nothing for granted. It’s an odyssey through the world of staplers, shoelaces, and bathroom towel dispensers that betrays a childish awe at the complex daily routines of life. A typical Bakerean ode to the little world runs as follows in one of the novel’s abundant footnotes:

Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped wood fiber.

Baker spun the disappointing Room Temperature out of the same thread, an entire novel that takes place in the twenty minutes a man feeds his baby daughter a bottle.

Curiously enough, Baker describes his highly praised tendency for exaggerated narrative digression as a problem of technique. “I want to describe something in a paragraph, and it turns out that I have more to say about that thing than a paragraph can comfortably accommodate,” he explains. “Normally I have to stop myself, tell myself that I’ve said all I want to about the flotational characteristics of a straw, even though there’s more I could say…. In The Mezzanine, I used the footnote as a way to encapsulate more stuff that the reader could take in at will or skip over.”

1991’s U and I charted a new course for Baker’s work: scandalously frank self-examination. The book details Baker’s real-life obsession with literary giant John Updike, his fears about his own writing capabilities, and the sometimes minuscule ways in which Updike’s writing has altered the course of his life. He plunks his own petty jealousies down on paper without qualms — a childish simper about Updike inviting Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato) and not him to go golfing comes to mind. In another quintessential U and I moment, Baker casually admits that he has never been able to masturbate to orgasm while reading Updike’s more prurient passages.

'Vox' by Nicholson BakerIf U and I was greeted with a shower of accolades for the whimsical young author, his next novel — the slim, sultrily packaged Vox — was received by a thunderstorm of controversy. Consisting entirely of a telephone conversation on an adult party line, Vox starts from the traditional phone sex pick-up line (“What are you wearing?”) and jets through erotic fantasies, intimate reminiscences, and mutual masturbation before it’s through.

Vox was a nice book, an egalitarian book where the woman had as much to say as the man,” Baker says. “But there were certain things left over, and I felt there was much more to be said. After I finished Vox, I felt brave enough to write about things I wouldn’t have written about before.

“There’s a fated progression of books inside writers, and there isn’t an awful lot that negative and positive reviews can do to change that. When I finished Vox, the only book I could write was The Fermata.”

A Microscopic Eye for Details

Despite its science fiction premise, The Fermata isn’t much of a thematic stretch for Baker. With its microscopic eye for details — one particularly Mezzanine-esque passage in the novel ponders about the minute differences between seeing a woman’s breasts nude and seeing them through a brassiere with x-ray vision — The Fermata is as much a writer’s fantasy as a pornographer’s fantasy. Baker describes the book’s premise as an extension of the footnotes in The Mezzanine; Strine’s powers allow Baker to create literary time-outs without disrupting the natural flow of events.

Despite the book’s boundless carnal energy, however, it’s certainly not sexuality that provides The Fermata with its fascination power. Baker’s erotic vignettes are only mildly arousing and certainly not groundbreaking — the most explicit section deals with a ménage a trois between a woman, her gardener, and his girlfriend, complete with vibrating appliances, golden showers, and the ever-handy garden hose.

What makes The Fermata such an absorbing read is Baker’s constantly overflowing inventory of ideas and perspectives. When Arno halts the flow of time while driving on the freeway, for instance, we strain with the narrator as he tries to open the car door against a solid mass of time-frozen wind molecules; we hear the womb-like hush of a world where sound waves have halted in mid-air. When Baker picks an idea, he doesn’t paint it in broad strokes, he meticulously etches it down to the finest detail. (One detail the author seems to forget is that in a world where time stands still, Arno wouldn’t feel heat — the sensation of hot pavement wouldn’t be able to travel into his feet.)

Outside of Strine’s chronological powers, it’s also striking how much of The Fermata actually isn’t pure invention.

Arno Strine, Baker claims, “is a very exaggerated, very selectively filtered part of my fourteen-year-old self.” He also shares characteristics with the adult Baker, who did indeed once type dictation tapes as a temp in the Boston area. (Unlike Strine, Baker went on to a number of other white collar jobs, and even worked for a while on Wall Street.)

Baker also says that many of Strine’s sexual escapades are not entirely of his creation, but suggestions from friends and associates. “This is not entirely a product of my own feverish sexual imagination,” Baker tells me, deadpan. “Some of it is a product of other people’s feverish sexual imaginations.”

“It’s a Book That Nice Guys Like”

But there have been those who aren’t willing to consign any of The Fermata to the realm of the imagination — even the book’s premise. It’s a tribute to the visceral power of Baker’s prose that he has received more than one query asking if he can indeed stop time. (He insists that he cannot.) But will some readers’ inability to make that distinction between fantasy and reality cause problems? Will the country be plagued by would-be Arno Strines forcibly stripping women in public places?

“There’s a huge gulf between thinking about something and doing it,” Baker says. “…I don’t think this particular book could inspire anyone to do anything bad because it’s based on an impossibility. Besides, they couldn’t do anything too horrible under the inspiration of my narrator, since he’s so reluctant to do anything horrible.

The Fermata does what the novel can do: it takes a situation that can’t be true in reality and assumes that it can be true…. I think [my novel] is pretty benign as far as influencing people to do bad things. It seems to click most with people who are in person polite, not prone to acts of violence and crime. It’s a book that nice guys like.”

But even if Baker feels like The Fermata isn’t about to turn couch potatoes into sex-starved ghouls, don’t look for him to be discussing sexual techniques on the radio with Dr. Ruth Westheimer. “The excitement of sex thrives on forbiddenness,” he says. “Without some sense of scandal and resistance to [sexuality], the whole thing can become just a little bit too healthy, too open.”

To those who find The Fermata offensive, Baker’s bottom line is this: “There’s absolutely no reason why anyone should finish this book if it’s making him or her unhappy.” He refers to the reaction of a woman in the book who’s had the cassette tape in her car stereo switched with a lascivious tape of Arno’s creation: “I think they should do exactly what she did: fling the tape out the window.”

Moving On

Those who have been distressed by the libidinous turn Baker’s novels have taken recently can be comforted that he’s decided to move on to other topics. “I’m kind of pleased with these two books, but I really feel that for the time being this is all I have in inventory to say about sex…. Not all of it is entirely pleasant. But at least it’s been put in book form. I’m happy about that, and I can get along with writing about medieval shipping or horticulture or delicate familial sensibilities and whatever.”

The Fermata is not Nicholson Baker’s best book. But in the literary market of freeze-dried sexuality and half-baked interaction between the sexes, it’s an eye-opening dose of fresh ideas and images about how we live our erotic lives.

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  1. […] in these times? Who does it, and why? Enter: Nick Baker, the brilliant mischief-making novelist of Vox and Fermata, the compendious historian in Human Smoke of 20th Century weapons of mass destruction, […]

  2. […] in these times? Who does it, and why? Enter: Nick Baker, the brilliant mischief-making novelist of Vox and Fermata, the compendious historian in Human Smoke of 20th Century weapons of mass destruction, […]

  3. Robert Baker on April 28, 2010 at 7:50 pm  Chain link

    I would love an autographed photo I collect my famous “cousins”.
    I just got a copy of The Fermata v\this past weekend. I will be reading it soon.
    If there are others let me know. Ifa photo is not available, an autographed note will be just as welcome.


    R. Baker
    P.O. Box 303

    Wadesboro, NC 28170

  4. David Louis Edelman on May 2, 2010 at 11:18 am  Chain link

    Robert: You might have better luck actually trying to contact the author himself instead of some blogger who interviewed him 16 years ago. Just a suggestion.

  5. […] Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, about which there is plenty to say and also about Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata (which actually might have suited the theme of the post when I think of it… time being stopped […]

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