BOOKS / Tale of a Genital Giant: Nicholson Baker is a writer obsessed with small detail. In his latest novel most of that detail concerns male sexual fantasy. Many readers, especially women readers, are going to be offended. What does he think he's up to?

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The Independent Culture
THE NOVELIST Nicholson Baker rents porn films from a place called Videots, which is near the house in Berkeley where he lives with his wife Margaret, and his children, Alice and Elias - named as if obeying a Californian ordinance on the equal phonetic rights of siblings. Videots is on College Avenue, a laid- back, low-rise street with boutiques and book shops and cafes where students go from lunch to class without moving an inch: professors come to the cafes - kind of drop in - and students kind of gather round, amid much happy ordering of espressos and ciabatta bread sandwiches. Outside, on a still afternoon in January, it's about 70 degrees.

Videots is an ordinary American video store: action adventures, sports compilations and scores of hardcore porn films of a kind not legal in Britain: Erecnophobia, Backside to the Future, that kind of thing. Nicholson Baker, who is very tall and aged 37, makes his way to the Videots porn section in a hesitant loop that takes him to the back of the shop and then the front. He stops to take whispered mock-interest in non-porn titles: 'Home Alone Two]' he says. Coming here was his idea, but now he is a bit embarrassed.

The porn video sleeves are held in a padded, menu-like book that sits on the counter under the noses of the store clerks, a man and a woman. Baker at last gets to the counter, and he starts to leaf through the portfolio and its many bright images. He likes porn films, and as he flips he talks with a connoisseur's authority on the virtues of key porn players: the Zane Brothers, Sharon Mitchell, Jamie Gillis ('Jamie is a pretty good actor, I guess . . .').

Baker has now lost his embarrassment, or else entered a place of such extreme embarrassment that you might mistake it for boldness. He engages the clerks in a quiet conversation about embarrassment - isn't it strange, he says, that this browsing takes place right here; couldn't there be a room at the back where we customers could 'do our little furtive things'. Maybe, suggests the boy-clerk, a bead curtain? 'I'd like the bead curtain,' says Baker, laughing.

He seems pretty relaxed now, and asks the woman clerk how she likes these films, and she begins to explain how she doesn't. Baker interjects and gently demurs, but never declares a professional interest (this is just Beavis and Butthead looking for a dirty movie). She explains that it is not only a question of representation, of making objects of bodies, but it's a child abuse issue. Most people in porn, she says, were 'incested'.

' 'Incested'?' says Baker, distracted from the debate by this word. 'They say that - 'Incested'?'

A little later, we leave Videots. (Baker declines Night Trips 1, which he has been discussing with the male clerk. 'I'll come back - furtively,' he tells him, smiling.) Outside, Baker says: 'I'm in the porn business, I guess, but I wasn't abused as a child.' Then, shaking his head, he says: 'That was traumatic]' You're not quite sure if it was.

EMBARRASSED and not embarrassed; shy, but aware of how interesting things can become when shyness is momentarily abandoned: this could be a prescription for a kind of nice sex, but it is also a clue to who Nicholson Baker is and what he has just done, which is write The Fermata, a rather creepy pornographic novel - his first post-embarrassment novel, his first shameless book.

Things were going well for Baker: two career-setting fictions: The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990); then a brilliant essay on literary ambition and John Updike, U and I (1991); then a funny, cheery phone-sex dialogue, Vox (1992). His stock was high. Readers liked this close, clever prose, in which an interior world of slightly nerdy recollection and categorisation was set in motion by rather unresponsive or absent things: a shoelace, a baby, the reputation of John Updike, a voice talking dirty on the phone. Baker's narrators delighted in the half-forgotten, the peripheral but collectively important, the things with no names - not unlike his namesake Danny on the radio. Out of that delight came books that charted not the world of ordinary messy thought but the landscape of a mind - optimistic, digressive, precise - that had set itself the task of thinking (about below-speed escalator handrails, or the love of a family). It seems significant to learn, in an interview conducted in his house and his nearby office and the Videots video store, that Nicholson Baker almost always wears earplugs when writing. They're there - yuk - on his keyboard: white-ish, silicone (brandname: Mack's). That's what the books feel like - the product of a happily undistracted mind amusing itself, making connections.

And now The Fermata, which is already making people unhappy, ahead of its publication next week in Britain and America. And we must imagine Baker writing it - earplugged in the sun on the balcony of his office in Berkeley, amazed by the nature of his own imagination, and by the fact that he is actually writing it down, writing about a man who can stop the world in mid-stride, and does, and uses this power to lift a cashmere skirt and inspect a colleague's pubic hair, and to masturbate over a woman frozen in mid-orgasm, and other things like that. Baker tells of composing one passage: his narrator (a 35-year-old office temp) drops into a time fold - a fermata - and while sitting near, and then on, the paused woman who will read what he is writing, composes a pornographic story. Baker recollects his own little fermata, the world frozen out by earplugs: 'I had him sit down on her, er, bottom . . . he says something like 'Ass to ass with his reader-to-be.' ' Baker's eyes widen: 'Whoah] Szzzzzsshh]] Like the Maxell commerical]' Baker laughs and pushes himself back in the chair as if forced by a great wind, and, despite quite advanced baldness, gives the impression of hair streaming wildly back from his face.

He had fun writing The Fermata, with all its dildoes and asses and penis pumps and half-apologetic abuses of unconscious women. In an era when students of Antioch College, Ohio, are obliged to ask permission at each stage of sexual progress ('May I now touch your breast?'), Baker gives us Arno Strine, the man who omits to mention to his lust-objects that he has just ejaculated on their eyebrows.

There are some good things in the book, erotic and funny and candid - and moments where the Mezzanine Baker is in happy partnership with the Vox Baker: 'I clenched once in a false-dawn sort of pre-orgasm, which is a spasm . . . very similar to the false flush-moment that can occur in a toilet tank if you don't hold the handle down for quite long enough for the mechanism to confirm your unambivalent wish for it to go through a full flush cycle.' But in the end The Fermata is not good. No one is going to mind a bit of filth, even if the purest porn sections in The Fermata - the stories written by the narrator in an effort to excite his women subjects - overwhelm the rather tinny sci-fi structure underneath. But there is a problem of tone. A narrator does some rather bad things - nothing wrong with that in a novel, but he uses an unflaggingly perky tone of justification to tell us about them, and that voice never quite becomes non- authorial. One of Baker's skills was having us like his narrators - we thought they were pretty cute - and he tries to work that on us again.

And again and again. Why? It's one thing that we should have Arno Strine enact a 14-year-old's sexual fanatasy; why must we think he is neat? The book seems marooned between its twin interests in abuse and self-abuse. What, you wonder, is Nicholson Baker trying to do? Has he, perhaps, gone mad?

In the sun in Berkeley, he seems not mad. He is very friendly and funny. There is a hesitancy about him - to walk around Berkeley in his company is difficult, and slow, because it seems to pain him to give any direction, to take the lead. Like Arno Strine, who is very careful to leave things the way they were, to wipe up, Baker doesn't want to impose. He would rather stand entirely still, or walk two blocks in the wrong direction, than suggest that we should turn a corner. And when he asks which restaurant we should eat in, he really needs an answer, even from someone who has never before been to Berkeley. (In the end, the choice is narrowed to a place whose tables have 'nicely countersunk Philips screws' or a place where 'there's a woman with tattoos all over her legs'. Early- or late-period Baker.)

On the phone, he has explained that his wife has problems with The Fermata: not its 'smut-level', but its moral shape ('She wanted Arno to be punished in the end'). She would rather not have even an extra's role in any magazine article, so the day has been choreographed to prevent my seeing her. It has been decided that I will arrive at the house after she has gone out (with Elias, aged two-and-a-half months), and we will leave for lunch before she comes back, and so on throughout the day. The plan fails pitifully. Margaret Brentano and I seem to spend the whole day passing and smiling in hallways. I can report that she looks to be in her thirties and is dark-haired.

The disorganisation shown in this failed wife-shielding is reflected elsewhere in Nicholson Baker's life. He is not as fastidious as people have imagined from a reading of The Mezzanine. His little red car is full of junk, and his office is a mess - with its earplugs and computer equipment and children's drawings and the fax from the German translator querying a phrase in The Fermata, 'muff-finger flying'. And he does not have a tidy line on this new novel. He thanks you for your concern, but is far from insistent in his own defence: 'It was fun to write,' he says, 'and sometimes, of course, it was sexually exciting to write. I was in a confused state because it seems funny to have these wildly over-stated crypto-pornographic passages. But there's a point at which your brain becomes confused, and you think, wait, we're talking about something quite interesting here, you know. Let's stop cackling.'

He does still cackle, quietly, every now and again during the day, taking pleasure from the fact that the book is out there, full of all that stuff. This morning, in the kitchen of his one-storey, wooden-walled and wooden-floored house, he makes us coffee: 'Cups,' he says softly. 'The question is which to give you. Well, we're pleased with these.' He moves about in his comfortable, loose clothes, in his sneakers and spectacles.

I ask him about the problem of the narrator's cheery tone. Isn't he trying to have it both ways: a lovable narrator doing unlovable things? He says: 'I still have this wish for Arno to be liked because he's my proxy. At the same time he's doing things that, you know, aren't so hot. The weird thing is that he is likeable to some people. To men. Some men read this book and think: 'Yeah, I believe his justifications, I think they're perfectly convincing.' And of course they are completely specious. He's saying that he doesn't think anyone else should do it, but he should be able to. But maybe that's true of the way that we think about lots of things: 'I'm a nice guy and therefore the ethical system that's been constructed to guard against not-nice people shouldn't apply in this particular case, because really my intentions are good.' '

Later, Baker tells me: 'I kind of think of Arno as harmless. He's not making anyone feel uncomfortable. He's even distressed by the idea of causing fear or discomfort.'

When the attacks on The Fermata start, will this be his line: moral relativity? 'If somebody attacks it, what can you say, except, you know, 'I'm very sorry. I didn't want to make you angry', and then you have to backpedal with some abstract nouns, like Justification or Embarrassment.' He peters out, and raises his eyebrows. The tape recorder goes into automatic reverse, and he shows genuine excitement.

But the inspiration was less abstract than those abstract nouns suggest? He talks about Lolita: 'If a guy writes several hundred pages about a guy being attracted to 13-year-old girls, it's very difficult to believe he himself doesn't have flutterings in that direction. So here's this guy who goes on for 300 pages about stopping time and taking women's clothes off, so clearly that must have something to do with me. But it's partly that I wanted to get rid of that, to expose any thinking that I'd had in that direction, expose it to ridicule in a way, and get beyond it.'

Baker has written about the seeming impossibility of male friendships outside work. His friends are women, and he says he writes to please women more than men. But he is stuck with the stuff of being a man - porn and penises. Is he just lucky that his fantasies do not include desires trickier to include in The Fermata: greater violence, rape? Or did he censor the thoughts?

'I think,' he says, 'I'm very fortunate in having a sexual imagination that doesn't lead me into doing horrible things. I put in everything I wanted to put in.'

There is a key in the door. Quick - his wife] 'We're still here,' he calls out, 'but we're leaving]'

He clears up the coffee cups. 'From a distance it feels kind of exciting to, you know, completely mess up your life, but when it starts to happen, ha], it's less fun. It hasn't happened yet'.

NICHOLSON BAKER insists that he did not write this novel for the money that might result from a minor literary scandal. So instead, perhaps, we can imagine The Fermata as a piece of anti-therapy, designed to cultivate, rather than expel, trauma: aimed at roughing things up, testing Baker's marriage, subverting his paternal role, making people distrust him.

Because until now, his life has not been hard. He was brought up in upstate New York, happily, by parents who met at art college; his father ran his own advertising agency, his mother was a social worker. There were financial worries at times, and a bit of bullying at the mostly black elementary school to which progressive educational policies had him bussed, but his memories are overwhelmingly cheerful. His parents are now divorced, but live close to each other. He sees them, he likes them a lot.

From high school he went to music college, where he learnt the bassoon, but left to study English literature at Haverford, a middle-ranking college near Philadelephia. There he met his future wife (and soon made the happy discovery that she would go to porn cinemas with him). Then on to Wall Street, working first as a research analyst and, for one tearful fortnight, as a stockbroker. The first two short stories he wrote were published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic in 1981. He worked in Boston, first as an office temp, then a technical writer. He was married in 1985, in Venice. The Mezzanine was started in 1986.

Happily, it has worked out. There were fine reviews; Vox was a bestseller (Baker could afford not to sell Vox's film rights, much in demand). Two years ago, he moved to Berkeley. He loves his family, he loves California - where, to his wonderment, cars stop at pedestrian crossings. He hangs out with his nearby in-laws and a few friends, but mainly his family. He hires the occasional porn movie, he writes for the New Yorker. He has a copy of John Updike's Rabbit at Rest inscribed, cutely, 'From U to You'. When he re-reads his journals he realises how often he writes about his own great happiness.

And now, a problem book, written with the same bravado with which he looks a video store clerk in the eye. This will screw things up a bit.

IN THE AFTERNOON, in the office where he writes, Nicholson Baker opens a tiny bottle of Californian Chardonnay. He is not a great drinker, following some excesses in his mid-twenties, but he feels he should have a small glass now. It will loosen him up; he knows his duty as a publicist. Within a sip or two, he does get looser, moving more in his chair, cackling more.

We sit on the balcony. Noise is carried up from the street. Inside the office, a muffled answerphone takes messages from the New Yorker or Random House. Baker talks about his adolescent interest in porn, and then his own porn writing, including the scene in The Fermata that features two women, a man, defecation, anal sex, tulips, and a sex toy given the name the Royal Welch Fusilier.

'Yes. This woman, you know, at one point, does, er, does go to the bathroom.' He cackles. 'God bless her.'

He squints into the sky and giggles. 'The problem with writing these things is that it's such a high to write, and it's also a high to be aroused. You're not quite sure at any one point: have I caught an interesting thought here, or is it just as horny as hell?' He laughs again, embarrassed and not embarrassed.

'The Fermata' is published by Chatto next week at pounds 14.99

(Photograph omitted)

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