A shotgun blast of the disagreeably tedious and the amusingly pleasant

Reading The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a lot like talking to a hyper brilliant super geek who suffers from an impulse control problem and whose furious onslaught of quirky miscellanea simultaneously produces a desire to laugh and a desire to punch him in the mouth, as self-defense against his incessant yapping.

Baker is one part Robin Williams, one part Cliff Clavin, and three heaping tablespoons of Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida. The result is a post-modern mish-mash of mania, meets know-it-all, meets ready-to-hand, meets micro-history, meets periphery and margins of experience. This is as true a description of The Mezzanine as you’ll ever find in the literature. Guaranteed.

But I digress, as I should. Inspired, no doubt, by Baker’s very fine but exasperating example.

Structurally, The Mezzanine reads like a footnote to a footnote, or an aside to a digression. Bulleted lists, indented blocks of copy, and long, tedious footnotes go a long way in making up the bulk of the novel (if that is in fact what The Mezzanine is, I wonder).

This structure isn’t an incidental feature of the book’s design, either. It’s a core part of its substance. As we learn in one of Baker’s footnotes about footnotes, “Digression—a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument—is sometimes the only way to be thorough….”

Is it any wonder, then, that an escalator from the ground floor to the mezzanine figures so prominently in the story? In his quest for thoroughness, Baker plumbs the depths of his narrator’s experience in the course of an unheralded hour.

Meet Howie, a 24-year old office worker.

He breaks a shoelace, talks to a co-worker, urinates in a “porcelain gargoyle” in a corporate setting, washes his face, eats popcorn, buys new shoelaces at CVS, eats a hot dog and a cookie with milk, sits in the sun on a green bench, and snorts with gusto a line or two of Marcus Aurelius.

Howie is insistently self-reflexive, about himself and the objects he uses and the people he encounters. The aspects of his experience that interest him most are precisely the ones that are routinely ignored. To capture the true stature of these details, he practices a kind of narrative microscopy. And if this sounds like a vaguely exotic and slightly invasive procedure, it is. Howie probes for dimly felt polyps on the periphery of the familiar. He records the “undocumented daily texture of our lives.”

In the process, he subjects us to a flurry of startling insights and unexpected observations, like the virtue of triangular sliced bread over its lowly rectangular counterpart, or how to apply deodorant when fully dressed, or pitting two different models against each other to explain why shoelaces break, i.e., the walking-flexion vs. pulling-and-fraying model of shoelace breakage.

In addition to these quirky musings, Howie enthuses over the marvels of mechanical ingenuity, everything from bags and straws, to the wonders of local systems of transport, such as marble chutes and milk-bottling machines, to the cut and shape of toilet seats. He prefers seats shaped like horseshoes.

But Baker is at his finest when he provides a kind of phenomenology of the ready-to-hand. That is, he draws attention to the fluent, thoughtless happenings of everyday lived experience—for instance, the secret joys and pleasures of using a properly loaded napkin dispenser, or the delight of rubbing one’s stockinged foot on carpet. Baker even shows how a common artifact like windshield wipers support and make possible a whole range of rituals and ceremonies and behaviors. 

Baker is a very fine thinker and a gifted writer. He surpasses such mediocrities as Heidegger and Derrida. Still, this doesn’t prevent me from basking in one of the greatest unsung pleasures of reading a plotless, genre-bending novel.

Slamming the damn thing shut.

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8 Responses to A shotgun blast of the disagreeably tedious and the amusingly pleasant

  1. anokatony says:

    “a footnote to a footnote, or an aside to a digression”
    I like your description of Nicholson Baker’s writing. It seems the digressions are the best most important part of his writing.

    • Ay, digressions plus an obsession with micro-observations. Baker reminds me of van Leeuwenhoek when he casually says, “In the year of 1657 I discovered very small living creatures in rain water.” Like van L., Baker has discovered the existence of very small things that pass unnoticed in our experience. There is a certain thrill and excitement to his prose — but also a grand mal tedium at times. Thanks for swinging by…

  2. Colleen says:

    I can’t believe this novel, which I think I own a copy of, can possibly be as good as your first paragraph about it…so maybe I won’t bother with it.

    • I don’t think you’d like it anyway. There’s no meanness to it! By the by, I picked up a copy of The Leopard. I’m looking at it right now. The corner of my lips are twitching a little. I should read it soon….

  3. […] complements Marshall’s article with not one but two pieces on Baker’s The […]

  4. Biblibio says:

    One. Hour?

    My head is spinning a little just from this post. Sure, I’ve also got to give props to a writer who includes napkin dispensers in his book, but…

  5. Danielle says:

    Your first paragraph is spot-on. I got no more than a third of the way through the book before I couldn’t take it any more. I read Baker’s The Anthologist and loved it, though. It has some digressive elements without becoming nauseating.

  6. Hi Danielle, thank you for visiting. Zebra cactus? A cool plant. I’ve heard great things about The Anthologist and figure that if I ever pick up another Baker book, that would be the one. Cheers.

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