Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #167: The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

There's minimalism, and minimalism. Some achievements in the annals of tininess are unlikely to ever be beaten.

For example, Nicholson Baker's first two novels each take place during a single short action -- ten minutes at most -- cataloging all of the narrator's thoughts and ideas during that time. And I'm planning to read them both this week, because I'm all about the short books these days.

The Mezzanine was Baker's first novel, originally published in 1988. The action of the book is framed by the narrator -- whom one suspects shares an awful lot of personal characteristics with Baker, but is explicitly named "Howie" twice in the book -- taking the escalator back to his office on the titular mezzanine after a particular lunch hour. What little tension there is in The Mezzanine is around the details of that lunch hour, which were everyday and simple, and which come out over the course of The Mezzanine's 135 pages.

Howie is a young man, around 1980 -- I'll come back to this, which is probably the most interesting thing about The Mezzanine these days -- and he's been working at his current job, probably "research associate," for an unnamed company in a city never specifically named as New York, for about two years. He has a long-term girlfriend, and he's clearly telling this story some years later, after he's left that first-out-of-college job -- though that point really isn't important. Let me underline the minimalism of the set-up: we don't know the narrator's full name. We don't know his job, or the company he works for, and what industry they're in. We don't know his girlfriend's name. We don't know any of the things that a conventional novel would be about.

But we do know his thoughts. The Mezzanine is not exactly a record of Howie's stream of consciousness, since it's more carefully (and non-obviously) structured than that, but it is primarily about the thoughts that are in Howie's head during that one lunch hour and the minor everyday events that led to those thoughts. One of the major plot strands of the novel -- it's not exaggerating to say the central motif or idea of the book -- is about Howie's shoelaces, which have both broken over the past two days.

I'm probably making The Mezzanine sound dull and unpleasant, but it isn't. It's interesting and compelling as the thoughts of an interesting person are compelling: Howie thinks deeply about things -- too deeply, at times -- and spending time in his head is a quirky, special experience. He's interested in both the history of technology -- how the everyday things used in life are changing, for better or worse -- and in philosophy, and engages in his ideas forcefully.

But what's most fascinating about The Mezzanine is the way it entombs in amber a particular moment in American business and life. Howie, who must be all of twenty-four, has an office with a door. There's one named female character who works at what seems to be the same level as him, but the women in the office are mostly "the secretaries," like the one Howie talks to and signs a homemade get-well card with. A "computer room" is mentioned -- we'd call it a "server room" now, but this is the time when a business had, at most, a computer, and a small specialized staff to tend it. Howie's working day, from what we see of it, is spent writing memos and other documents, in ways unspecified but clearly on a big metal American typewriter. All of this is very much of its time -- and very much not of our time anymore.

In the wider world Howie ventures forth into during his hour of freedom, he sees and thinks about other things that are changing or have vastly changed since. CVS, the drugstore chain, is just about to switch over from paper bags -- carefully folded over and stapled with the receipt, as Howie notes -- to the modern plastic bags. Howie also thinks about changes in popcorn technology -- from JiffyPop to microwave, with stops in between -- and is mildly obsessed with straws. Anyone studying everyday life in the 1970s and 80s will need to read The Mezzanine, which is full of rich observations of How We Lived Then, from still-current musings on male office-bathroom behavior to hot-air hand dryers versus paper towels to ties and snack machines and, of course, shoelaces.

You have to be willing to care about ordinary moments to enjoy The Mezzanine. But ordinary moments are what all of our lives are made up of, so I feel sorry for anyone who can't enjoy them and doesn't care about them.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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