The fermata, p.1
Acclaim for Nicholson Baker’s
“Inventive, graphically erotic … lovely re-enactments of voyeuristic activity interlaced with satirical takes on high-tech lifestyle—imagine an X-rated Donald Barthelme.… Sparkling.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Baker is a brilliant observer and describer, clever, occasionally disarming with his insights and always entertaining.”
—Diane Johnson, Vogue
“Mixes astonishing creativity with scenes of energetic eroticism.… [Baker] has elevated pornography to a literary level.”
“Baker is like no other writer when it comes to sex. His musings … are adult in their knowingness, adolescent in their energy.…‘Originality’ is an overused word, considering how seldom we encounter the real things in life, but it applies here.”
—Joanne Trestrail, Chicago Tribune
“Funny … The Fermata has a brio and speculative ingenuity.”
—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times
“ ‘Hot’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.… His use of language is extraordinary. I have never read anything quite like it. The Fermata should be celebrated.”
—Mary Gaitskill, San Francisco Focus
“Despite all the sexual hoopla, Baker’s deeper subject is consciousness; the concept of The Fermata is actually the natural culmination of his style … all the pleasures of reading him are available here.”
—The New Yorker
“The Fermata is so weird, so extremely dirty, so funny … and above all, so well written, that no one will be able to ignore it.”
—Robert Rossney, Wired
Nicholson Baker was born in 1957 and attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College. He has published seven novels—The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990), Vox (1992), The Fermata (1994), The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998), A Box of Matches (2003), and Checkpoint (2004)—and three works of nonfiction, U and I (1991), The Size of Thoughts (1996), and Double Fold (2001), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999 he founded the American Newspaper Repository, a collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspapers.
BOOKS BY NICHOLSON BAKER
U and I
The Size of Thoughts
The Everlasting Story of Nory
A Box of Matches
First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, January 1995
Copyright © 1994 by Nicholson Baker
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Random House, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1994.
The fictional product names in this book are the property of the author and may not be used as names for real products or services without his prior written permission.
The Library of Congress has cataloged
the Random House edition as follows:
The Fermata / Nicholson Baker
FOR MY FATHER
About the Author
Other Books by This Author
I AM GOING TO CALL MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY THE FERMATA, EVEN though “fermata” is only one of the many names I have for the Fold. “Fold” is, obviously, another. Every so often, usually in the fall (perhaps mundanely because my hormone-flows are at their highest then), I discover that I have the power to drop into the Fold. A Fold-drop is a period of time of variable length during which I am alive and ambulatory and thinking and looking, while the rest of the world is stopped, or paused. Over the years, I have had to come up with various techniques to trigger the pause, some of which have made use of rocker-switches, rubber bands, sewing needles, fingernail clippers, and other hardware, some of which have not. The power seems ultimately to come from within me, grandiose as that sounds, but as I invoke it I have to believe that it is external for it to work properly. I don’t inquire into origins very often, fearing that too close a scrutiny will damage whatever interior states have given rise to it, since it is the most important ongoing adventure of my life.
I’m in the Fold right now, as a matter of fact. I want first to type out my name—it’s Arnold Strine. I prefer Arno to the full Arnold. Putting my own name down is loin-girding somehow—it helps me go ahead with this. I’m thirty-five. I’m seated in an office chair whose four wide black casters roll silently over the carpeting, on the sixth floor of the MassBank building in downtown Boston. I’m looking up at a woman named Joyce, whose clothes I have rearranged somewhat, although I have not actually removed any of them. I’m looking directly at her, but she doesn’t know this. While I look I’m using a Casio CW-16 portable electronic typewriter, which is powered by four D batteries, to record what I see and think. Before I snapped my fingers to stop the flow of time in the universe, Joyce was walking across the carpeting in a gray-blue knit dress, and I was sitting behind a desk twenty or thirty feet away, transcribing a tape. I could see her hipbones under her dress, and I immediately knew it was the time to Snap in. Her pocketbook is still over her shoulder. Her pubic hair is very black and nice to look at—there is lots and lots of it. If I didn’t already know her name, I would probably now open her purse and find out her name, because it helps to know the name of a woman I undress. There is moreover something very exciting, almost moving, about taking a peek at a woman’s driver’s license without her knowing—studying the picture and wondering whether it was one that pleased her or made her unhappy when she was first given it at the DMV.
But I do know this woman’s name. I’ve typed some of her tapes. The language of her dictations is looser than some of the other loan officers’—she will occasionally use a phrase like “spruce up” or “polish off” or “kick in” that you very seldom come across in the credit updates of large regional banks. One of her more recent dictations ended with something like “Kyle Roller indicated that he had been dealing with the subject since 1989. Volume since that time has been $80,000. He emphatically stated that their service was substandard. He indicated that he has put further business with them on hold because they had ‘lied like hell’ to him. He indicated he did not want his name mentioned back to the Pauley brothers. This information was returned to Joyce Collier on—” and then she said the date. As prose it is not Penelope Fitzgerald, perhaps, but you crave any tremor of life in these reports, and I will admit that I felt an arrow go through me when I heard her say “lied like hell.”
Last week, Joyce was wearing this very same gray-blue hipbone-flaunting dress one day. She dropped off a tape for me to do and told m
Joyce is probably not going to play a large part in this account of my life. I have fallen in love with women many, many times, maybe a hundred or a hundred and fifty times; I’ve taken off women’s clothes many times, too: there is nothing particularly unusual about this occasion within which I am currently parked. The only unusual thing about it is that this time I’m writing about it. I know there are thousands of women in the world I could potentially feel love for as I do feel it now for Joyce—she just happens to work at this office in the domestic-credit department of MassBank where I happen to be a temp for a few weeks. But that is the strange thing about what you are expected to do in life—you are supposed to forget that there are hundreds of cities, each one of them full of women, and that it is most unlikely that you have found the perfect one for you. You are just supposed to pick the best one out of the ones you know and can attract, and in fact you do this happily—you feel that the love you direct toward the one you do choose is not arbitrarily bestowed.
And it was brave and friendly of Joyce to compliment me that way about my glasses. I always melt instantly when I’m praised for features about which I have private doubts. I first got glasses in the summer after fourth grade. (Incidentally, fourth grade is also the year I first dropped into the Fold—my temporal powers have always been linked in a way I don’t pretend to understand with my sense of sight.) I wore them steadily until about two years ago, when I decided that I should at least try contact lenses. Maybe everything would be different if I got contacts. So I did get them, and I enjoyed the rituals of caring for them—caring for this pair of demanding twins that had to be bathed and changed constantly. I liked squirting the salt water on them, and holding one of them in an aqueous bead on the tip of my finger and admiring its Saarinenesque upcurve, and when I folded it in half and rubbed its slightly slimy surface against itself to break up the protein deposits, I often remembered the satisfactions of making omelets in Teflon fry-pans. But though as a hobby they were rewarding, though I was as excited in opening the centrifugal spin-cleaning machine I ordered for them as I would have been if I had bought an automatic bread baker or a new kind of sexual utensil, they interfered with my appreciation of the world. I could see things through them, but I wasn’t pleased to look at things. The bandwidth of my optical processors was being flooded with “there is an intruder on your eyeball” messages, so that a lot of the incidental visual haul from my retina was simply not able to get through. I wasn’t enjoying the sights you were obviously meant to enjoy, as when you walked around a park on a windy day watching people’s briefcases get blown around on their arms.
At first I thought it was worth losing the beauty of the world in order to look better to the world: I really was more handsome without glasses—the dashing scar on my left eyebrow, where I cut myself on a scrap of aluminum, was more evident. A girl I knew (and whose clothes I removed) in high school used to sing “Il faut souffrir pour être belle” in a soft voice, to a tune of her own devising, and I took that overheard precept seriously; I was willing to understand it not just in the narrow sense of painful hair-brushing or (say) eyebrow-tweezing or liposuction, but in some broader sense that suffering makes for beauty in art, that the artist has to suffer griefs and privations in order to deliver beauty to his or her public, all that well-ventilated junk. So I continued to wear contacts even when each blink was a dry torment. But then I noticed that my typing was suffering, too—and there, since I am a temp and typing is my livelihood, I really had to draw the line. Especially when I typed numbers, my error rate was way up. (Once I spent two weeks doing nothing but typing six-digit numbers.) People began bringing back financial charts that I had done with mistyped numbers circled in red, asking, “Are you all right today, Arno?” Contact lenses also, I noticed, made me feel, as loud continuous factory noise also will, ten feet farther away from anyone else around me. They were isolating me, heightening rather than helping rid me of my—well, I suppose it is proper to call it my loneliness. I missed the sharp corners of my glasses, which had helped me dig my way out into sociability; they had been part of what I felt was my characteristic expression.
When I started today, I had no intention of getting into all this about eyeglasses. But it is germane. I love looking at women. I love being able to see them clearly. I particularly like being in the position I am in this very second, which is not looking at Joyce, but rather thinking about the amazing fact that I can look up from this page at any time and stare at any part of her that calls out to me for as long as I want without troubling or embarrassing her. Joyce doesn’t wear glasses, but my ex-girlfriend Rhody did—and somewhere along the line I realized that if I liked glasses on women, which I do very much, maybe women would tolerate glasses on me. On naked women glasses work for me the way spike heels or a snake tattoo or an ankle bracelet or a fake beauty spot work for some men—they make the nudity pop out at me; they make the woman seem more naked than she would have seemed if she were completely naked. Also, I want to be very sure that she can see every inch of my richard with utter clarity, and if she is wearing glasses I know that she can if she wants to.
The deciding moment really came when I spent the night with a woman, an office manager, who, I think anyway, had sex with me sooner than she wanted to simply to distract me from noticing the fact that her contacts were bothering her. It was very late, but I think she wanted to talk for a while longer, and yet (this is my theory) she hurried to the sex because the extreme intimacy, to her way of thinking, of appearing before me in her glasses was only possible after the less extreme intimacy of fucking me. Several times as we talked I was on the point of saying, since her eyes did look quite unhappily pink, “You want to take out your contacts? I’ll take out mine.” But I didn’t, because I thought it might have a condescending sort of “I know everything about you, baby, your bloodshot eyes give you away” quality. Probably I should have. A few days after that, though, I resumed wearing my glasses to work. My error rate dropped right back down. I was instantly happier. In particular, I recognized the crucial importance of hinges to my pleasure in life. When I open my glasses in the morning before taking a shower and going to work, I am like an excited tourist who has just risen from his hotel bed on the first day of a vacation: I’ve just flung open a set of double French doors leading out onto a sunlit balcony with a view of the entire whatever—shipping corridor, bay, valley, parking lot. (How can people not like views over motel parking lots in the early morning? The new subtler car colors, the blue-greens and warmer grays, and the sense that all those drivers are leveled in the democracy of sleep and that the glass and hoods out there are cold and even dewy, make for one of the more inspiring visions that life can offer before nine o’clock.) Or maybe French-door-hinges are not entirely it. Maybe I think tha
Well! I think I have established that there is an emotional history to my wearing of glasses. So in saying that she liked them, tall Joyce—who as I sit typing this towers above me now in a state of semi-nudity—was definitely saying the right thing if she was interested in getting to my heart, which she probably wasn’t. You have to be extremely careful about complimenting a thirty-five-year-old male temp who has achieved nothing in his life. “Hi, I’m the temp!” That’s usually what I say to receptionists on my first day of an assignment; that’s the word I use, because it’s the word everyone uses, though it was a long time before I stopped thinking that it was a horrible abbreviation, worse than “Frisco.” I have been a temp for over ten years, ever since I quit graduate school. The reason I have done nothing with my life is simply that my power to enter the Fold (or “hit the clutch” or “find the Cleft” or “take a personal day” or “instigate an Estoppel”) comes and goes. I value the ability, which I suspect is not widespread, but because I don’t have it consistently, because it fades without warning and doesn’t return until months or years later, I’ve gotten hooked into a sort of damaging boom-and-bust Kondratieff cycle. When I’ve lost the power, I simply exist, I do the minimum I have to do to make a living, because I know that in a sense everything I want to accomplish (and I am a person with ambitions) is infinitely postponable.