Customer Reviews: The Fermata
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on March 12, 2004
This is probably my favorite book from Nicholson Baker, the modern master of minutiae. Mr. Baker has a gift for capturing the essence of habits, thoughts, reactions, and objects that are so small, so insignificant that most people don't ever notice them ... and yet when Mr. Baker puts them on the page, he gets it just right.
None of the half dozen of so books I've read from Mr. Baker sound like much when the plots are summarized, and that is certainly the case with The Fermata. The book's story line is based on the ability of the 35-year-old narrator Arno Strine to somehow stop time, and most of the pages are used up with explorations of how he decides what he can and can't do while time is stopped.
The unimpressive story line means that the value of the book depends almost entirely on Mr. Baker's ability to keep the prose engaging. Sometimes it doesn't work (as with his more recent effort Box of Matches) and sometimes it works well, as with The Fermata. As always, what holds it together when it works is Mr. Baker's memory for trivia, his intelligence, and his eye for detail: witness the title: "Fermata," the noun form of the word "stop" in Italian, is also a musical term that means holding a note longer than the time value -- a perfect name for a book with this kind of plot.
Ultimately, my criticism of The Fermata is one shared by all of Mr. Baker's books and all literature based on prose rather than memorable plots or characters. In my mind, they're like the old cliché about Chinese food, which tastes great but leaves you hungry a few hours later. In the case of this book, the prose keeps the pages turning, but when you're through, very little of it sticks with you.
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on March 15, 2000
Nicholson Baker is a master at taking what seems unusal, bizarre, or even ordinary (as in "The Everlasting Story of Nory") and make it interesting, fascinating and exciting. What Arno does during his "Fold" time is at once creative, enticing, and sweet. And Arno has an amazingly convincing way of justifying what seems immoral, to the point where I can actually wish to be one of the women he undresses and plays around with during one of his "Drops." Not for the inhibited, but this book is a must read for anyone who has ever asked him or herself "if I could freeze time and do whatever I wanted..."
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on August 1, 2002
After the brilliance of "Vox," I expected this book to be a pale follow-up to that instant classic. Eight years and countless re-reads later, I've changed my tune. "The Fermata" is, bar none, Baker's finest hour. Yes, it borders on pornography, but it's unusually good for that subgenre - and besides, it plays in depth on a fantasy nearly all men (and maybe women too?) have surely had at some point. If nothing else, Baker deserves kudos for taking his simple idea far beyond the middle-school titillation it could so easily have devolved into.
Stopping time in order to undress women - the very idea invites accusations of misogyny, but the genius of the book is that Baker keeps his protagonist, Arno, on the right side of that line at all times. While his hobby is undeniably invasive and lacking in respect for privacy, Arno leaves no doubt that he loves women and is in awe of them in any number of ways. His lengthy but enjoyable treatises on the minutiae of women's bodies in general, and those of his "victims" in particular, suggest a genuine and deep admiration that enables us to forgive him for having no use for personal boundaries. Rather than just treat us to egregiously detailed descriptions of female flesh, he takes time - often a lot of it - to explain just why it's all such a turn on. (For me, this is what keeps the book squarely in the realm of erotica rather than pornography.) Arno also displays a sense of ethics about his powers - never using them to humiliate or hurt anyone, still expressing regret decades later about stealing a few shrimp from a "frozen" chef as a child, always putting his subjects' clothes back exactly as he found them - that makes his one vice seem wholly forgivable by comparison to other things he is capable of.
Although Arno's story is focused all but completely on the seamiest details of his life, he's not one-dimensional. As enviable as his voyeuristic abilities are, there's a strong sense of underachievement and untapped potential in the few non-sexual details he provides throughout the book. There is also an unspoken but growing aura of loneliness throughout the story, due to the touch-but-don't-be-touched-or-seen nature of his pastime, which Baker finds a wonderful way to address toward the end. Along the way, Baker's famous knack for detailed descriptions comes in handy with the scenes of frozen moments in the midst of everyday events. I have read critiques explaining that Baker got a number of things "wrong" (i.e. rain wouldn't really stop in midair), but it's beautifully illustrated all the same.
I'm hesitant to give away any further details, not only of the ending but of any part of the book, because it all deserves to be savored firsthand. If you're openminded about sexuality and not afraid to confront feelings and ideas we all have at some point in our lives, there's a lot to enjoy here. Don't let the raunchy nature of the story scare you off from such a brilliant achievement!
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on November 18, 1999
Any male conscious of his daydreams realizes that he has many fleeting erotic desires, harmless save for stigmaticism and inpracticality of fulfillment. This book, giving the protagonist the ability to stop time, explores fulfilment of these modest though eccentric seeming fantasies. The ethics and value of aesthetic fulfilment are explored in a very entertaining and comprehensive manner in this novel. It makes for an enjoyable read.
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on May 30, 2000
The best feature of Baker's writing is his rapier wit (not to mention his exquisite language). I died laughing during parts of this book. Baker is a terrific writer (and a daring one). This is the best time you'll ever have reading daring sexual material. I sought out all of Baker's books and it didn't surprise me that he has many witty and insightful critical essays as well. After this book and Vox, he's become one of my favorite all time writers.
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on August 31, 1999
If you're a fan of Hard Science Fiction, GET THIS BOOK. It'll blow you away. Bakers descriptions about stopped-time are breathtaking. Every question I had about the "Fermata" was answered in this book, as I was reading it. Baker doesn't miss a beat. I was worried that it might lean more on the Adult Content and less on the Science, but I was wrong. It was a good balance. His physics about the "Fold" couldn't have been handled any better, and the Author really took the time to explain in detail what everything was like, while his character "Dropped". Not to mention the very creative ways he would go about initializing the "Drop" itself.
I was suprised he was able to squeeze so much into that many pages. Every paragraph was intriguing. Baker didn't waste one word. I applaud Baker's bravery in writing this book. The Science Fiction world is a better place because of it, and I hope he writes some more in this feild. This book is a breath of fresh air, and I hope it sets new standards.
As far as the adult content goes, it got pretty heavy in parts, in fact, he puts new meaning in the phrase: Hard Science Fiction. But it all makes perfect sense in this book. It is almost natural. Baker's really got a good bead on human behavior, and I think this book explores some of the truth in us, whether we like it or not.
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on August 15, 2006
You can read a hundred reviews where people mention "sexual" and I still don't think they'll ever prepare you for how blatantly graphic this novel is. And it's not graphic in an erotic way, it's just detailed to the point of being absurd and somewhat hilarious. If you watch movies or HBO in this day and age, it's hard to consider things shocking, but this novel becomes pretty close. You keep thinking that the author can't possibly top himself, then 20 pages later you find the narrator doing or thinking something even more outlandish or absurd.

The plot is pretty simple: Arno is a guy with a special power. He can stop time. But, like Faustus, he doesn't use his power to achieve greatness. He doesn't do magnificent good or evil. He simply uses the power to freeze time and undress women. Sometimes he leaves them a gift or some self-penned erotica.

I don't know that I really liked this novel, but I enjoyed reading it and I would tell any person to give it a shot, even though they may end up offended by all the graphic content. Baker is an extremely gifted writer and has a firm grasp of language, but it's impossible to figure out if the character he's writing is the weirdo, or if Baker himself is the weirdo for dreaming him up.
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on April 19, 2005
Well, you all know the basic premise by now: Arnold Strine can stop time, but instead of stealing loads of cash or exacting petty revenge of folks who've done him wrong (I'll admit it - that's what I'd do), Arnold likes to take women's clothes off and describe their nudity in exhaustive detail.

I read through a bunch of the reviews here, and it looks like the consensus is that "the Fermata" has a terrible premise but the prose is interesting. I'm actually the opposite: I think the premise is fantastic, but the story is boring.

What's brilliant about "the Fermata" is that every horny teenage boy has had this fantasy, but no other writer (to my knowledge) has been willing to dedicate 300 pages to this premise. Whenever I've seen characters halt time in TV, movies, etc. it's generally used for crime. I've always wondered why those characters don't go around taking people's clothes off, and what would happen if they did? Well, Nicholon Baker sure answered the latter question here.

The problem is that once you get over the outrageousnes of the premise, there isn't much to like here. Arnold Strine is an interesting character. He has an odd sense of morality that I found strangely endeering - not easy to do when you're basically talking about a rapist. The book is also well-written and descriptive - sometimes to a fault. There are only so many ways that a writer can describe a muff without losing my patience...

The bigger problem is that there's really no plot. None. This truly is 300 pages of Arnold stopping time, removing ladies' clothing, and then talking about it in exhaustive detail. Baker's verbal wordplay and overactive imagination get a few laughs, but ultimately "the Fermata" is a well-written but seriously overlong character sketch that wears out its welcome before the halfway point.
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on August 6, 2001
This is the fourth book by Baker I've read and it's closest in content to Vox. The Fermata is narrated by Arno Strine, a 35-year-old temp who has the ability to stop time and move around in an arrested moment. His chief use of this power is to undress various women in order to ogle or grope them. He also engages in various masturbatory experiments which involve placing his own typed up erotica where it'll be found by various women and then watching their reactions to it. The Fermata is graphic, lewd, and sometimes very funny. It is both sexually explicit and intelligent writing � a very odd diversion of a book. I was getting bored with it about halfway through its 300 pages but then read a little more and with a bemused smirk settled on my face, finished it off. Nicholson Baker is nothing if not inventive. Even the euphemisms he comes up with to describe female genitalia are inventive, from "flowerbox" to "Georgia O'Keeffe." This is definitely the most sexually explicit book I've ever read. The next book I'm going to read is going to be something more "normal." This was twistin' my melon, man.
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on July 27, 2000
The main character, Arno, has a marvelous ability to stop time for everyone but himself. This ability enables him to get away with a lot, but he chooses to use it mainly to undress women, fondle them, rearrange their clothes, go back to where he was, and start time back up again. If he decides he's really interested in a woman, he follows her home, then stops time while she has her door open, slips into her home, hides, and watches her undress, bathe, etc.
Baker's writing is dazzling. The book is replete with literary, musical, scientific, and historical references, which are always aptly chosen and frequently striking. He delights in constructing amusing new words to deal with the context of Arno's fixations on time and sex. The problem is that his character's single-minded obsession with sex and pornography grows deadeningly tiresome after awhile. One of the things Arno likes to do is to write pornographic stories and then plant them in places where a woman he's interested in will see (or hear) them. Baker does us the great "favor" of including those stories verbatim in the book. Arno is a much less accomplished writer than Baker, so there is less to appreciate in his writing than in the novel itself. Just to make this review as accurate and informative as possible, I will acknowledge that I myself am a regular reader of hard-core pornography. However, even my own interest in the subject did not prevent me from screaming, "Enough already!" when one of Arno's stories goes on to its tenth tedious page.
The basic idea of the book is captivating, and Baker's writing is brilliant. Arno could have done so much more with his ability to stop time, especially with Baker's vivid imagination animating him. Sadly, the book turns out to be much less than it could have been.
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