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Monday, March 19, 2012

Paperback Review: The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker's The Fermata is a strange read . . . awkward and hard-to-categorize, much less review. It's comprised of equal parts literature, science-fiction, romance, comedy, erotica, and memoir.

On the one hand, it absolutely deserves an five-star review for its sheer audacity, innovation, and mastery of language. This is a very clever, beautifully written novel that manages to deliberately meander without boring the reader. It's also a very humorous novel, not so much in a laugh-out-loud sort of way, but one which succeeds in delivering a smile (or more often a smirk) per page. When I allowed myself to become lost in Arno's voice, I quite enjoyed the read, even as I rolled my eyes and scoffed at his good-natured laziness. It's no wonder Baker gets far more attention as a purveyor of literature than as a genre author, but you get the sense that's entirely how he likes it.

Having said all that, this is a book that struggles to earn more than a single-star review for its plotting, pacing, and story-telling. It's is a story comprised of musings, observations, and asides, in which very little happens to advance the plot. Being a fictional memoir does excuse the narrative struggle to some extent, but the 'fictional' element does demand something more. There's a great concept at the heart of the story, with Arno able to freeze time and manipulate those around him, but his own odd sense of morality and decorum won't allow him to exploit it, while his own laziness holds him back from maximizing it. Of course, Arno and his failings are, essentially, the story, so it's hard to find him at fault. Still, it's a read that frustrated me to no extent because it adamantly refused to explore the concept.

Basically, the book comes down to this - Arno longs for women he can never have; freezes time in order to undress or gently molest them; and then restarts time and walks away without the possibility of emotional attachment. It's an interesting concept, and one that's definitely erotic in its application, yet which manages to avoid being obscene in its own cleverness. Arno is so disarming, his efforts come across as innocent and rather naive, good-natured in their thoughtfulness, when in reality they're rather personal assaults upon the women around him.

There's one chapter where he continually stops and starts time, adjusting pornographic images for one woman and adjusting a discreetly place sex-toy for another, which kind of sums up the entire novel. It's weirdly inventive and amusing, but the work required to secretly arouse the two women - with absolutely no payoff for Arno - is so far beyond absurd, it really strains the bounds of credibility.

If you're a fan of literate novels, one who favours concept over content, and one who appreciates narration over narrative, give The Fermata a shot. It is a fun read (taken in small doses) but the novelty does wear thin after a while. On the other hand, if you're at all intrigued by the concept, but (like myself) tend to lean more towards plot and characterization that storytelling showmanship, try giving Dean Koontz's Dragon Tears a read instead.

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