Title: "The Fermata"
Author: Nicholson Baker
Publisher: Random House
-! Length, price: 305 pages, $20
One way to talk about Nicholson Baker's books is in terms of their subject matter, and that's easy. "The Mezzanine" (1986), his heavily footnoted first novel, follows an office worker through his lunch hour as he buys shoelaces, uses the men's room, rides escalators and ponders his stapler. The second, "Room Temperature," tracks a father's thoughts as he sits by a window holding his sleeping 6-month-old daughter.
Those books were called novels only because no one could think of a better word. Then came the even more uncategorizable "U and I," subtitled "A True Story." In it, Mr. Baker relates, seriously, what he thinks and admires about John Updike -- having read many, but not all, of his works, and without referring in advance to the texts to verify his recollections of them. It is a study of reading as much as it is of John Updike.
"Vox" attracted some readers who'd never heard of Nicholson Baker before because it's about phone sex. People hoping for hot stuff must have been perplexed. "Vox" is a book with phone sex in it -- that is indisputably and graphically true -- but basically it's about what the other books were about: thinking your own thoughts and watching how they connect and don't connect up with other people's.
Now comes "The Fermata," the supposed autobiography of one Arno Stine, an office temp whose specialty is transcribing microcassette tapes. It's more novelistic than the earlier books in that there's sort of a plot and the main character has a last name. But that's where similarities with conventional fiction end.
In addition to his considerable talents as a transcriber, Arno has an unusual skill: He can stop time, bring the world to a halt while he moves freely through it. Mr. Baker explores this Twilight Zonish idea with a zeal and a kind of permissive (some might say indulgent) thoroughness that are all his own.
One of the first things Arno does upon discovering his powers as a child is unbutton his fourth-grade teacher's blouse and check her out. Later, as an adult, though he once steals two huge shrimp out of a hotel kitchen worker's hand ("I was amazed at how good the cocktail sauce tasted"), theft is not really his bag. The main thing he's interested in while in "the Fold," or the Fermata, is women. He likes to disrobe them, touch them and watch them perform sexual acts. He calls the Fold "primarily . . . a sexual aid . . . a direct by-product of my appetite for nakedness."
He gets better and better at using the Fold -- inventing more efficient triggering devices for getting himself into it, learning its mechanical limitations (water pressure is poor; Polaroid photos don't develop properly), dealing with the jet lag it inevitably produces when he stays in one for a long time (he learns to start nTC napping while in the Fold, to even things out).
Key to all this is that the rest of the world has no knowledge of what Arno is doing, no awareness that time has stopped or been advanced lurchingly (he sometimes uses the Fold like a pause pedal on a tape-transcribing machine). His actions have no consequences for anyone but himself, though he hopes to give the woman under consideration a flicker of out-of-the-blue, inexplicable pleasure.
He starts small. He sees a woman at Waterstone's looking at a paper back -- "Paradise Postponed," by John Mortimer. He stops time, takes the book out of her hands, writes a suggestive message in the margin, gives it back to her, restarts time and observes her reaction. (She reads the message but buys "Breakfast at Tiffany's" instead.)
His schemes quickly become more elaborate. He partially undresses a woman he works with, borrows her keys and investigates her apartment, taking special note of her foam rubber therapeutic mattress pad. Later, he stops time and sits down on the beach next to a sunbathing woman and writes an erotic story for her (the text of which he relates in its entirety), seals it in a plastic bag with a silver twist-tie and buries it in the sand just under her hand.
He calls his actions "indefensible," and says he "would condemn in the strongest terms anyone else who did what I have done. . . . But I know myself, I know that I mean no harm, I mean well." His girlfriend, Rhody, doesn't buy it. When he poses to her, hypothetically, the existence of the Fold, and suggests possible uses for it, she dumps him.
Mr. Baker, like Arno, knows he's on thin ice here. He sets out to explore an unattractive impulse in himself and follow where it leads. He comes through all right: He stays true to his odd vision.
Mr. Baker is like no other writer when it comes to sex. His musings mix conventionally prettified soft-porn images with UPS trucks and riding lawn mowers and Terry Gross on National Public Radio. They are adult in their knowingness, adolescent in their energy and absolute self-centeredness. He's like the most articulate teen-age boy you've ever met telling you his most outrageous fantasies -- although he doesn't just propose an impossible situation and then back off, smirking. Comically, he follows it through, exhausts it.
And exhausts the reader, it must be said. To call "The Fermata" excessive sounds naive (it's supposed to be excessive), but even Mr. Baker's fans might wish he would move on, already.
The warmth of this book's reception may well depend on the nature of readers' own fantasies -- if they match up with Mr. Baker's, they're in for an adventure; if they don't, they're going to get impatient. Still, Nicholson Baker is a smart guy, and when he gives his imagination free rein, it's fun to go along for the ride.