Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson BakerNicholson Baker’s first book, The Mezzanine (1988), is a decep­tively small book. As a mem­ber of my book club noted, phys­i­cally, it con­tains more words than the spine’s width would sug­gest, because nearly a third of the book’s text is found in the foot­notes. The “plot” of the book con­sists entirely of one man’s thoughts at the end of his lunch hour as he approaches–and then rides up–an esca­la­tor up to the mez­za­nine in his office. Too, the sub­jects of the narrator’s thoughts in the book appear imma­te­r­ial on first read­ing. But, through the nar­ra­tor, Baker plumbs these mun­dane top­ics to rarely-​​seen depths. With incred­i­ble atten­tion to detail, Baker crafts a book that both amuses and enlightens.

Howie (the nar­ra­tor) thinks about much the same things that most peo­ple do. Most peo­ple don’t talk about these sub­jects, though, because they seem so small. One chap­ter dwells heav­ily on cor­po­rate bath­rooms. Considering the slightly odd fact that one is gen­er­ally paid for using the bath­room, Howie expounds:

[T]he stop at the men’s room was of a piece with the morning’s work, a chore like the other busi­ness chores I was respon­si­ble for, and there­fore, though it obvi­ously didn’t help the com­pany to make more money, it was part of my job . . . . What that meant was that my com­pany was as a rule pay­ing me to make six vis­its a day to the men’s room–three in the morn­ing, and three in the after­noon: my work was bounded and seg­mented by stops in this tiled decom­pres­sion cham­ber, in which I adjusted my tie, made sure that my shirt was tucked in, cleared my throat, washed the newsprint from my hands, and uri­nated onto a cake of straw­berry deodor­ant rest­ing in one of four wall-​​mounted porce­lain gargoyles.

Howie gives long shrift to many such top­ics, includ­ing pop­corn (and its Jiffy Pop incar­na­tion), vend­ing machines, straws, bags, foot­notes, and shoelaces. Shoelaces, in fact, are some­thing of the novel’s theme, since one of Howie’s tasks on lunch hour was pur­chas­ing a pair to replace the two that broke within a day of each other. The serendipity–or not–of the two shoelaces snap­ping so near in time occu­pies much of the book.

In exam­in­ing the minu­tiae of life so closely, Baker lux­u­ri­ates in the thoughts that most peo­ple would sim­ply leave as half thoughts. Gracefully fol­low­ing those thoughts to their log­i­cal con­clu­sions allows Baker to paint a remark­able por­trait of mod­ern life, full of beauty, com­plex­ity, and serendip­ity. His por­trait is both famil­iar and strange; famil­iar because it is so sim­i­lar to the half-​​thoughts we all have, and strange because it is so fully formed.

After read­ing this book, one can’t help but appre­ci­ate more of the  previously-​​ignored details of quo­tid­ian life.

2 thoughts on “Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine

  1. There were so many nuggets of mun­dane­ness yet mun­dane­ness with mean­ing which I found inter­est­ing that while read­ing the book I folded down the cor­ners of each page where I encoun­tered them. When I even­tu­ally found myself with too many folded down pages, I switched to rip­ping a tear in the side of the page near the spe­cific lines where they occurred so that I could return to these pas­sages more quickly if I ever were to revisit them.

    Fave parts: the cus­to­dian emp­ty­ing the trash bags at the end of a work day while you’re still toil­ing in the office; the per­fect prac­ti­cal form of the open­ing of those old paper milk car­tons; the com­fort found in sweep­ing (“the uplift­ing effects of indus­try”); the sen­tence “Twice every sum­mer we dis­cussed whether col­ors in nature could clash”.

    Great pick.

Comments are closed.