BOOK REVIEW / From shoelaces to orgasms: Geoff Dyer watches Nicholson Baker doing his old tricks in a new novel, The Fermata. 'The Fermata' - Nicholson Baker: Chatto & Windus, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IN 1991, just after U and I came out, I was talking about Nicholson Baker with a friend of mine who now lives in America. 'Ten years from now,' he said, 'People are going to feel really embarrassed about the way they made so much of that guy.' A wildly optimistic forecast, it turns out. Ten years? Three have been ample. It's not just that The Fermata is such a shameless waste of Baker's distinctive talents; it wastes them in such a way as to make us revise our initial assessment of those talents. For a start we should make that 'talent' singular. Talk about a one-trick pony]

Baker's trick, the one announced with exhilarating and exhaustive brevity in his first novel, is the detail thing, the microscopic investigation of the everyday. Itemising as discovery. The Mezzanine was a work of genius in a way but, casting your mind back to the experience of reading it, didn't you actually begin tiring of it almost as soon as you saw what was going on, as soon as you saw how it was done? Did you really crawl along every line of those page-and-a-half footnotes on shoe laces and straws? It's all very well skimming bits of The Pickwick Papers but Baker's prose was either unskimmable or it was nothing.

In U and I, his third and best book, Baker turned his forensic gaze on himself (and Updike) and came up with a meandering, matchless piece of critical fiction. The damage done to it by the new novel is marginal: over-familiarising us with its tone, retrospectively taking the edge off its prose because much that is remarkable there is so close to much that is only so-so here. Updike's own writing operates on a similar hairsbreadth distinction, and Baker, like his idol, can also write passably well on auto-pilot. Even in the most intensively worked passages of The Fermata, where precision details loom huge, he sounds like . . . well, like Nicholson Baker doing his detail thing.

The real trick, though, is finding a new way of doing the same thing. In The Fermata it's narrator Arno's ability to stop time, to freeze the flow of events and wander the suspended world at his leisure. This imaginative sleight affords limitless opportunity to probe minutiae normally lost in the flow of time. Some wonderful moments are preserved by these 'mechanisms of pausation': clothes frozen in a spinner, speeding cars halted on a highway (Arno has trouble opening his door against 'the jellied wind-flow'), and, most beguiling of all, swimming in the heaving stillness of the ocean:

'The water's viscosity varied, areas of paused turbulence in a crashing wave dissolving like lumps of batter as I swam through them. Shells and pebbles were suspended in the undertow like forest underbrush. I ran my finger along the quiet sharp crest of wave and flicked a hanging drop of seawater into vapor with my fingernail.'

This swimming episode, however, is only a pause within a pause, a relief from the work that has occupied Arno for the previous seven hours of non-time: writing a little porno story which is reprinted in full in the next chapter. Arno buries this story in the sand where it will be found - when time re-starts - by a woman on the beach who's taken his fancy. She reads the story, becomes aroused, heads home. Arno freezes time as she is letting herself into her apartment and sneaks in before her. Time resumes; she bathes and Arno watches her masturbate. When she is in the middle of her orgasm Arno hits the temporal pause button again, steps out of the closet and comes in her face.

In total, about half the book is given over to transcriptions of Arno's dildo-in-the-asshole scribblings and fantasies. The rest of the time - or timeless, rather - he contents himself with undoing women's bras or pulling down their knickers. Arno often wonders why, given these extraordinary 'Fold-powers' - as he terms the ability to stop time - he uses them only to facilitate elaborate wanking scenarios (by the end he has RSI in his wrist) and one naturally entertains similar doubts about Nicho.

Martin Amis was reproached by some critics for relying on a temporal gimmick in Time's Arrow; but first, Amis's novel exists wholly within the rules of this gimmick and second, he uses it to treat a massive subject. Arno's assays (the archaic form is peculiarly apt in this context) at amateur erotica are simply shoved into the main body of the text willy-nilly and actually have nothing to do with his Fold- powers.

Now, if we concede that this does not disrupt the structure of the novel in the same way that it might have done had Jane Austen decided to spice up Emma by transcribing some of her heroine's more lascivious diary entries, then Baker must in turn concede that no novel of quality could accommodate this kind of dross as comfortably as his does. By comparison, Vox, his telephonic wankathon, was a work of unimpeachable artistic integrity.

'What else was there beside masturbation?' asks Arno at one point. For Baker, who seems to type one-handed these days, the inevitable reply - 'Nothing' - seems, increasingly, to have become a comprehensive world view.

But all of this is beating off - I mean around - the critical bush. There's really only one question to be addressed by a 'mastur-work' - in Arno's phrase - like this: how horny is it? Not very, I thought, but the most exquisitely damning response came from a girlfriend who tossed my deluxe, limited edition proof on the floor and said: 'Strange: it didn't even turn me off.'