Larceny

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
    Chatto, 305 pp, £14.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 7011 5999 5

The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy. The ‘action’ of his first novel, The Mezzanine, consisted of the lunch-hour of a single working day, as experienced by an office worker, but time under the discursive microscope changed its nature. The trivial and quotidian were dignified by the attention given them, and the self-consciously important found no place in the novel’s scheme. Towards the end of the book the hero read in his Penguin Marcus Aurelius the gloomy aphorism that human life is no more than sperm and ashes, and felt no sympathy for it. The modest richness of his day refuted this downbeat Roman smugness.

A highly mannered style seems to achieve its effects almost independently of subject matter, but Baker’s second book, Room Temperature (perhaps written earlier than The Mezzanine), proved the converse proposition: that mannerism cruelly shows up perfunctoriness of theme. In any case, with a highly distinctive style, a writer’s worst moments are more like his best moments than they are like anything else, which can even interfere with the memory of past pleasures.

The oddball narrator of The Mezzanine, whose love affair with the impersonality of modern life might be a form either of transcendentalism or of mental illness (the book’s original title, Desperation, tipped the scales unduly) mutated in Room Temperature into a New Man, whose self-absorption in paternity was assumed to be virtuous. The effect was of a hyper-realist Hallmark card.

After this sickly interlude U and I was a return to form. The book explored Baker’s relationship with John Updike, as writerly model, father figure to be challenged, and occasional sharer of the same physical space (the two men’s passing encounters couldn’t be said to constitute even acquaintance). U and I reduced Updike’s work to a mulch of remembered fragments – Baker refrained from rereading and checked quotations only after the book was written – and then found in that mulch the evidence for Updike’s brilliance as a writer.

The label of tour de force which appeared to attach so naturally to The Mezzanine by now seemed inappropriate. What had looked like tactics devised for a single book – a simultaneous reductiveness and mania for elaboration – has turned out to be the strategy for an entire literary career. An artist can’t be said to be producing tours de force if he is merely doing things that are in his grain and no one else’s, things counter-intuitive only to the world at large.

U and I was a combined invocation and exorcism of Updike, a homage that was also an elaborate insult, since it valued only those aspects of Updike that were Bakeresque. Out of Updike’s range of excellences, Baker singled out his celebratory precision.

John Updike’s own father-figure was Henry Green. What he sought to emulate, however, was not just Green’s idiosyncratic lyricism but a social attentiveness, and a glancing access to characters’ interior spaces. The Updike whom Baker loves is a diminished artist, an Updike with the Green filtered out.

It looked like a particular rhetorical choice in The Mezzanine, to attenuate the narrator’s life outside the workplace, but since then Baker has shown a consistent preference for contextlessness in his narrators. As a group, they are self-enclosed, gadget-loving, inherently nerdy. Baker’s narrators engage the reader not by any means so vague as sympathy but by describing sensations or objects (and particularly the sensations to do with handling objects or operating mechanisms) more or less to the standard of a legal definition. An example from The Fermata, describing a mobile telephone: ‘I imagined the quick upward arpeggio of metallic clicks produced by the telescoping chrome antenna as I pulled it out roughly to answer a call, one segment reaching the limit of its slide and engaging with the next, and the same clicks in reverse order after I’d hung up and was pushing the aspirin-shaped end-bauble down.’ This passage is likely to fail if it bothers the reader that the second set of clicks is not in fact an exact reversal of the first, since it involves the contact of different surfaces, and – more gravely – if he or she can’t get used to the idea of aestheticised patent-application prose being a bonding agent between the producer and consumer of a book. Nicholson Baker’s narrators establish their authority by the combined effect of thousands of tiny perceptual connections, microscopic hooks and eyes. His may be the first prose style to be influenced by Velcro.

The self-enclosure of his narrators (Baker has yet to risk a third person) is very striking. A surprising amount could be conveyed about the books in which they appear by renaming them, as if they were sculptures or installations in a single gallery: Solipsism with Office Worker (1989), Solipsism with New Man (1990), Solipsism with Senior Writer (1991), Two Solipsisms with Phone Sex (1992) – known in the real world as Vox – and now Solipsism with Fourth-Dimensional Molestations (1994).

Since U and I, Baker has settled on a new subject: sex. This too could be seen as part of an Updike-emulation programme, although there isn’t what you could call an overlap: Updike’s approach to sex, even as a young writer, was adult, while Baker’s has something stubbornly adolescent about it. He seems to have chosen the sexual imagination as his particular speciality – the way we invent our own excitement, hiding meanings in the world and then responding to them as if we had no choice. The results more often read like the equivalent in prose to Jeff Koons’s art: hyper-realist wank-pieces, shocking more for slickness of finish than extremity of subject. Nicholson Baker’s para-pornography isn’t the first fiction to make sex wordy, when the plan was actually to make words sexy.

The narrator of The Fermata has a name, Arnold Strine (he prefers the abbreviation Arno), and a job as a temp. Get it? He can control time, and he works as a temp: it was bound to be that or a watch repairer. On page five, Arno compares some office dictation slightingly with the prose of Penelope Fitzgerald. Even in Britain, this reference would be one of self-advertising sophistication: towed across the Atlantic, it moves up several orders of pretension-magnitude.

Arno is able, with different gadgets and rituals at different times of his life, to stop time and go about his business in a world of warm statues, suspended rain-drops and unmoving seas. He uses his power for personal gain, not of a financial sort (he is too scrupulous, and essentially uninterested), but for erotic profit. In the variable nights that are days for him alone he indulges in sexual larceny, stealing moments of women’s privacy, scrutinisinig their breasts or pubic hair.

Starting theoretical discussions with male acquaintances about what they would do with the same talent, Arno is shocked by one man in particular, who would simply rape. Arno recoils from this vileness, seeing his own harmless invasions as altogether different. It’s true that Arno goes in for pilferage rather than grand theft, but that doesn’t exactly put him in the clear. His misdemeanours are like unreportable acts of sexual harassment – sexual harassment on the astral plane. Just because these acts are impossible, it doesn’t follow that they represent sophisticated moral dilemmas.

Sometimes Arno’s petty larcenies amount rather to little extortions, as when he intervenes in women’s lives to prompt or shape their excitement, sneaking home-made pornography into the immediate environment of selected subjects, for instance, and watching their reactions unobserved. With one woman, Rhody, he is able to extort something closer to love than to lust. He makes himself attractive to her by playing with his watch in a way that he knows – from studying her journal-jottings in the book she’s reading – she will find appealing. They split up when he tries to tell her about his powers, not because she believes him but because she finds it a repellent line of thought in itself – a creep’s fantasy.

She has a point. Nicholson Baker has put his usual prodigies of inventiveness into evoking the sensations, both brash and subtle, made available to Arno by the time-gimmick that enables him to treat women as voluptuous holograms. What he hasn’t done is devise a sustained way of dramatising Arno’s singular relationship with reality. The world is exclusively the passive object of his erotic whims. He presides over and tyrannises a submissive, nubile universe, while the author’s persona presides over and tyrannises the book.

This is, of course, a comic novel, like all of Baker’s with the partial exception of Room Temperature, but comic writing is as mysterious in its action on the mind – with its mixture of the voluntary and the involuntary – as tickling on the body. The element of surprise seems integral to both. The comedy of The Mezzanine was part of the overall surprise of the book, but since then Baker’s narrators have tended to use humour as a substitute for charm. When they aren’t being actively funny, they aren’t particularly likeable.

The Fermata is full of jocular euphemisms. Arno’s penis is his ‘richard’, his ‘Juiceman’, his ‘stain-stick’, his ‘gender-beam’, his ‘bloated factotum’. Considering it in conjunction with the relevant testicles yields ‘moist troika’ and ‘trilogy-in-flesh’. Semen is ‘pecker-paste’ or ‘smut-schnapps’. The commonest term for a woman’s part is ‘vadge’ – strangely the only abbreviation of any sort that Arno describes as ‘horrible’ is the word ‘temp’. Breasts are often ‘Jamaican’, nipples may be ‘Fijis’. A woman’s orgasm is her ‘clasm’, her ‘fejaculation’, her ‘ejillulation’. If these cute formulations have any power, it is the power contained in the residue of a snigger. Readers of The Fermata are likely to notice that the comic effects pile up most densely at points where the taboo-breaking is most intense. When, for instance, a woman is multiply impaled on dildos (Baker prefers cod-pedantic plurals like dildi or dildae) the puns also multiply: ‘dildungsroman’ would be an example, or a ‘dilderstatesman issuing pleasure briefings’. Unless you think this mimics the endorphin-swamped brain’s final helpless rush towards its release, it seems very much as if humour is being used in a calculated, short-term way.

Nicholson Baker has chosen as the premise and conclusion of his novel an idea that contemporary culture has much difficulty with: the innocence of male sexual desire. But it isn’t the dead voice of political correctness that speaks against The Fermata. If Baker had found a way of dramatising his theme, it would be a braver and less self-satisfied book. A defence of male desire would be a valuable if not necessarily a popular project, but this protracted refusal to engage with sexual consequence is something quite different. Baker almost takes pride in elaborating his theme more or less indefinitely, without actually exploring it.

The adultery novel, even in its most formulaic manifestation, at least acknowledges that desire operates in the world. Arno’s persona in the novel is a fantastical extension of a figure familiar from Updike’s fiction (and also from Cheever’s): the philanderer viewed not as an exploiter of women but as a dazed, helpless, humble recipient of female grace. But where his predecessors take a certain wry pleasure in making things complicated for such figures (for Updike in particular, sexual guilt is original sin, paradoxically a prerequirement for redemption), Baker arranges everything to keep the heat off his narrator.

Arno constantly disavows negative feelings towards women. He feels that ‘all women merit love and constancy.’ ‘I want above all for women not to cry,’ he tells us at one point. Elsewhere: ‘Fear is my least favourite emotion and I want to be responsible for creating as little of it as possible.’ And again: ‘The last thing in the world I want is to be seen as a threat.’

It’s true that no women cry, feel threatened or frightened by Arno’s tiny subliminal rapes. One woman experiences the presence on her face and closed eyelids of an unseen stranger’s semen, which she would certainly find disturbing if she was aware of it for more than a fraction of a second and at a time when she wasn’t preoccupied with other sensations. But Arno’s hand is ready on the pause-button of the universe, and he wipes her tenderly clean. What has she suffered, really? She thinks she has had a momentary hallucination, that’s all.

Yet a certain amount of aggressiveness does seep through the Fold (the inevitably suggestive word Arno uses for his personal exemption from temporality). He plays a mean trick on the estranged Rhody, by substituting himself for her new lover in mid-congress. She’s not in a position to see that she has had horses changed on her in midstream, but he hints at the substitution with an idiosyncratic sexual manoeuvre. He doesn’t manage to spoil her evening, all the same: his interventions aren’t consequential even when he wants them to be. Perhaps his overriding good intentions neutrualise his temporary desire to make trouble.

With unknown women, however, Arno does show signs of some desire to humiliate. They would not amount to much if they came from a man who could rape and kill with impunity, but since Nicholson Baker has based his literary career on inversions of perspective, where the small looms large and the important dissolves, he can hardly dismiss the significance of the trivial. Arno did, for instance, ‘once put a pair of nipple nooses on the famous Anne Rice at Barnes and Noble some years ago, when I was at the height of my mechanical-pencil Fold-phase. I clicked time on for a minute or two so she would have a chance to feel them while she signed my copy of her book, which was going to be a birthday present for somebody. Then I removed them. If she noticed anything, she was extremely cool about it and didn’t let on.’ As Anne Rice writes within the mildly disreputable vampire genre, dragging its erotic content into the foreground, she is somehow seen as the literary equivalent of a hitch-hiker in hot-pants and stilettos, and therefore as fair game. Arno’s fantastical powers are responsible for the details of Rice’s miniature ordeal, with its mildly vicious double-bind: either she is kinky enough to take poltergeist foreplay in her stride, or she doesn’t have sensation in her nipples – virtual disqualification for an erotic writer. But it’s hard to hear the voice of the temporary typist behind the exquisitely calibrated micro-slights, which tell us in passing that 1. Anne Rice is famous as opposed to successful or interesting, 2. she writes a generic ‘book’ (read one and you’ve read ’em all), 3. you don’t buy her books to read yourself – she has admirers, such people have birthdays. And how about this sentence: ‘Women who read Virago Modern Classics almost always have fascinating breasts’? Presumably this is Nicholson Baker being outrageous – loveable scamp! – but if so the attempt backfires. What is communicated is the extra excitement the fantasy of stripping women without their consent acquires when the women put a particular value on their autonomy. Not much of an argument for the geniality of testosterone.

Only once does Arno seem to recognise that he has gone too far, and that is when he is being cat-scanned as part of an experiment, to see if his constant masturbation is a co-factor, along with his professional typing, in his carpal-tunnel syndrome. Disengaging himself from the temporal continuum, he sucks the nipples of the woman in charge of the experiment, then leaves a Post-It note with the message ‘Thanks’ on her left breast. Later he retrieves the note with the help of another cosmic freeze-frame, realising somewhat belatedly that ‘it would only have perplexed and disturbed her ... and what if she took off her bra in front of her husband, and he noticed it there before she did – a note saying thanks on her breast? It would have caused needless suffering.’ But what other motive could there have been in the original action, beside causing perplexity, disturbance and possible suffering? Arno gets a kick out of chivalry, but he is also responsible for the prank that makes it necessary; his fantasies of magnanimity feed on his meanness. It’s not so much that he wants women not to cry as that he enjoys having power over their tears.

The Fermata includes two full chapters of Arno’s pornography, purpose-written to inflame particular strangers, but they aren’t so very different from the narrative that contains them. This, for instance, comes from the ‘pornography’, although it also comes, like most of the lovely moments in the book, from Baker’s Updike-register, the full-throated fictional voice that suits him better than his own: ‘His shirt was off. He was wiry; he had that adolescent ability to bend at the waist and not produce a little bloomp of waist fat. The small side muscles in his upper arms had a sort of sideways S shape that called out to her. They were the muscles he would use if he were supporting his own weight over her.’ Strange that an inset piece of parody erotica should yield a stronger point of view than its frame-story. Conversely, the way sexual acts (unremitting masturbation) lead to more sexual acts, when the nubile doctor helps Arno with his repetitive strain injury, recalls nothing more than the foreshortened plot-logic of porn – nurse helping the patient with his swelling. Baker’s fantasia of desire and the pastiche filth with which he lards it have a contextlessness in common, which makes them seem unnervingly continuous.

Compared to other narratives of masturbation, The Fermata lacks the courage of its outrageousness. Portnoy’s Complaint was about Jewish family life, rebelliousness and the Sixties. Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine, perhaps the most purposeful deployment of taboo imagery since de Sade, was about Scottishness, despair and the Eighties. But The Fermata really does seem to be about masturbation. It’s enough to give self-abuse a bad name.