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The Mezzanine

As a novel-reader I’m a lover of plot and character, of the idea that a number of people are interacting in ways that makes each more believable and pushes the whole group towards some sort of crisis. And I like a book with some weight and sadness in it, to feel that the pleasure of the story-telling is making it easier for me to contemplate some of the difficult stuff in life.
So it wasn’t easy back in 1990 to get me to read a novel that Salman Rushdie had described as a “funny book” about things like “shoe-laces, drinking straws and ear plugs.” To make matters worse, Nicholson Baker had a reputation for being ‘clever’. I opened The Mezzanine with the utmost scepticism.
But whatever kind of book you generally prefer, there is still no better reading experience than that of being captivated by the thing you didn’t want, or didn’t know you wanted, or didn’t even know existed. Never was unpromising material more brilliantly and seductively deployed than in The Mezzanine. In the space of 130 pages a new genre is created, explored and, one suspects, expertly exhausted. There will not be another novel like this. Yet like other magnificent dead ends – Sterne’s Shandy, or Beckett’s Trilogy – The Mezzanine remains in the mind for years, an ominous shadow threatening the very premises of ordinary fiction. From time to time I pick it up again, read a page here and there, and each time it’s with a sense of amazement at how convincingly Baker describes the world and consciousness while missing out all the things that normally interest me.
Basically, a young man is riding the escalator from street level to the mezzanine floor where he works. He has taken advantage of his lunch break to visit a pharmacy and purchase a pair of shoe laces. The fact that both the laces of the shoes he bought two years before for his first office job have snapped within 48 hours of each other creates a sense of wonder in the narrator. His mind ranges excitedly over questions of probability and mechanical attrition while at the same time recalling how his mother taught him to tie his laces and how he himself introduced some personal tics and flourishes into the standard process, particularly when tying sneaker laces in the playground.
Far funnier, but above all far more evocative and accurate than any description of mine can suggest, this riff, complete with earnestly long footnotes and bizarre digressions, establishes the book’s strategy. On the one hand we have a manically detailed celebration of the rapidly changing products that corporate industry develops for us – milk cartons, ice-cube trays, scotch-tape dispensers, shampoo bottles – and on the other the pathos and comedy of way the individual responds, often perverting the intended usage, as shirt cardboards become dustpans, or door knobs tie racks.
Meantime, objective and quantitative as the narrator seeks to be, his accounts even of such things as paper bags and milk cartons cannot avoid being drenched in sentiment, since our dealings with day-to-day products are mediated over the years by those we live with and hence coloured by nostalgia. It was Mother who taught the narrator to ride the escalator safely, his girlfriend who prompted him to use his toothbrush on tongue as well as teeth and who confirms her affection for him in bed by inserting the earplug (scissored in half to save money) that isolates him as he turns over to sleep.
Most movingly and brilliantly of all, a mammoth footnote on door-knob design leads to the story of how the narrator’s father hung his many flashy ties over every knob in the family home and how the son sought to emulate, if not copy, the father in his purchase of a tie for his new job, and then was deliriously proud to have chosen one that the father envied and appropriated, until it too was seen hanging over a door knob where, as Baker tells us excitedly: “it fit right in. It fit right in!”
Which is precisely what The Mezzanine is about. Disillusioned and optimistic, the book charmingly demonstrates how wayward instinct and carefully machined product, individual, family, small group and great collective, do indeed all fit together.