Books: ‘The Mezzanine’

We came into work every day and were treated like popes – a new manila folder for every task; expensive courier services; taxi vouchers; trips to three-day fifteen-hundred dollar conferences to keep us up to date in our fields; even the dinkiest memo typed, xeroxed, distributed, and filed; overhead transparencies to elevate the most casual meeting into something important and official…

This quote is taken from The Mezzanine, a debut novel by Nicholson Baker (b. 1957). It is an unusual book for unusual readers, namely those who relish the mundane and the trivial. In a way, it is a book for this very moment, when everyone on the planet is being squeezed into a pigeon-hole existence and we suddenly have time to notice things that usually go unnoticed, like the color of your shoelace.

At just 130 pages, The Mezzane is a short novel that tells the simple story of a single lunch hour. A man is returning to his office from a lunch hour that included a cookie, running a small errand, and a stroll up an escalator.

That’s it. Yet as the narrator muses about milk and milk cartons, the shoelaces he bought and the small disaster that led to their need, and a thousand other small thoughts that occupy his mind as he goes about routine business, we are treated to a wonderland of the routine and insignificant perceptions that shape our days.

For instance:

At some earlier point in the morning, my left shoe had become untied, and as I had sat at my desk working on a memo, my foot had sensed its potential freedom and slipped out of the sauna of black cordovan to soothe itself with rhythmic movements over an area of wall-to-wall carpeting under my desk, which, unlike the tamped-down areas of public traffic, was still almost as soft and fibrous as it had been when first installed.

And that short ride on the escalator led to this sublime passage:

I gave no direct thought to the escalator’s grooves that afternoon, and indeed at that time I had indistinct notions as to their purpose – I thought they were there for traction, or possibly were purely decorative; grooved to remind us of how beautiful grooved surfaces are as a class: the grooves on the underside of the blue whale that must render some hydrodynamic or thermal advantage; the grooves left in loose soil or by a harrow in a field; the single groove that a skater’s blade makes in the ice; the grooves in socks that allow them to stretch, and in corduroy, down which you can run your ballpoint pen; the grooves of records.

Few books can claim to serve such a delectable spread of the trivial or devote such detailed attention to the insignificant and find such exquisite pleasure there. Part of the book’s joy comes from precisely such trivia. The book is literally an exploration of consciousness on every page. The other part is the writing – Baker’s graceful prose, combined with his slow attention to the “grain of events” makes him one of the most inviting and offbeat voices in contemporary American literature. This is a wise book, a patient exploration of that unseen mental space in which we move and have our being. And it’s very funny to boot.

About the author

Nicholson Baker (b. 1957) is the author of ten novels and numerous works of nonfiction, including The AnthologistThe Mezzanine, and Human Smoke. He is also the author of a volume of collected essays entitled, The Size of Thoughts (1997). Baker has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Hermann Hesse Prize, and a Katherine Anne Porter Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Nicholas Baker in his barn, which sometimes serve as a writing space.

Leave a Reply