Nicholson 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.