The Fermata Summary
by Nicholson Baker

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The Fermata

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The “fermata” sign instructs musical performers to hold a note or rest for a length of time. Arno Strine borrows the term to title THE FERMATA, his autobiography. The term also names Arno’s peculiar talent for halting time while he moves freely about. The autobiography details his forays into the Fermata—otherwise called the Fold, or the Drop.

Prosaically, Arno can stop time on the job and transcribe dictation at his own pace. But mostly, he uses his powers to pursue his obsessive habit of undressing women. He describes how he stopped time and undid the blouse of his fourth grade teacher so he could savor her revealed breasts. And he delivers rapturous particulars of how he undressed a female passenger on a train, inserted a vibrating “sex-toy” into her private parts, and then observed her orgasm after time resumed. Such episodes largely comprise Arno’s story.

Amid his autobiographical notes, Arno imparts installments of his original, markedly pornographic fiction about Marian, a rare-books librarian with a penchant for self-stimulation. Arno composes Marian’s story in the Fermata after unexpected encounters with attractive women, such as a sensuous sunbather and a collegiate driver roaring by in the passing lane. With time still halted, he leaves Marian’s story where he knows the women will find it.

True comedy occurs when Arno morally evaluates himself. He blithely ponders whether or not he is guilty of wrongdoing, since women remain unaware of his actions. He also solemnly maintains the innocence of the women he undresses. And in the end, the tables distinctly turn. In his desire to share the power, Arno inadvertantly transfers it to Joyce, his latest partner, during sex with her.

THE FERMATA is by turns likable, damnable, and cheerfully sexist, and altogether without moral foundation. The novel will evoke either guffaws or indignation; in any case, it covers components of character that ever merit examination.