Book Article

Now, Voyeur

Nicholson Baker's new book -- He covered phone sex in his last novel, now the author tells the story of a Peeping Tom who can see what other men can't

How appropriate a difficulty to befall Nicholson Baker: His car will not — cannot — move. The author best known for his best-selling 1992 novel about phone sex, Vox, had planned to take Entertainment Weekly on a jolly little tour of Berkeley, Calif., where he lives and writes exceptional prose distinguished by descriptions of things you never thought anyone would take the time to describe (''When I pull a sock on, I no longer pre-bunch, that is, I don't gather the sock up into telescoped folds over my thumbs and then position the resultant donut over my toes '': The Mezzanine, 1988).

Baker's new novel, The Fermata, is about a guy-Arno Strine, ''a 35-year-old male temp who has achieved nothing in his life'' but possesses the power to stop time at will. Everything in the world freezes for as long as Arno likes (fermata is a musical term for an endless pause) — except Arno himself. And what does Arno do with this extraordinary power? Well, mostly he walks around undressing attractive, immobile women. They are unaware of what he's doing. He kisses them, fondles them, makes various forms of love to them. He leaves them letters filled with ''rot'' — Arno's term for raunchy erotica. Battery-operated sexual aids make cameo appearances. So does a certain melancholy: ''My own skill at jamming time,'' says Arno, ''may actually be dependent on some fluid mixture of emotions, among them curiosity, sexual desire, and love, all suspended in a solvent medium of loneliness.''

But now time is standing still for Baker's car. ''My daughter left the door open all night — the battery must be dead,'' he says. And so, as he waits for a bib-overalled representative of the American Automobile Association to arrive and jump-start his big blue shoebox of a family van (he is married, with two children), Baker sits in a wicker chair on the sidewalk in front of his small, tree-shaded house. Even folded into a chair, the 37-year-old writer is awfully tall, as well as amiably lanky and — given the angle as one stands over him — charmingly bald, with a mere score of squiggly, sun-bleached hairs scattered across his pink pate. He peels a pale-green apple with a big black knife, and ponders the fix into which The Fermata — advance printing of more than 100,000 copies — seems to be getting him.

Early reviews have accused Baker's creation of having ''too many sex scenes'' (Mirabella), of ''throw[ing] a hand grenade over the barricades of the gender war'' (Esquire). Could it be that the same novel the Random House ads tout as a ''brilliant new masterpiece'' is also the book that a female colleague of mine — a self-described Nicholson Baker fan — calls ''just icky''? And that another usually sympathetic Baker reader says is ''the literary equivalent of someone rubbing against you in the subway — which wouldn't be bad if the book was supposed to be unpleasant''?

''It's not as if I don't know what the problem is,'' says Baker. ''Compared to Fermata, Vox is a mere bagatelle, a walk in the park. Vox was about two people who never met, but who talk on the phone and say, 'Yes, I'd like to be taking my clothes off with you.' But in this one, none of these women are saying yes. That's where some readers are going to be troubled.''

Oh, yes indeedy. To say that The Fermata is incorrect in its sexual politics is like saying that the Menendez brothers are mischievous scamps. ''If you don't think it's a funny or entertaining book, then the idea of going around taking off women's clothes isn't very appealing,'' says Baker. ''As soon as a book is finished, it becomes part of an exchange with the outside world, and politeness and civility and all the rules I normally live by become attached to it.

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