no critical faculties 3: nicholson baker’s the mezzanine

Look I read fiction that’s not genre please respect me.

So, umm.

There’s this guy. It’s the end of his lunch break.

He goes up an escalator.

The Mezzanine are his thoughts upon approaching, ascending, and debarking from the escalator.

There’s no narrative to speak of, just an exhaustive look at the daily rituals surrounding the unnamed protagonist’s lunch hour, their significance and history. The accumulated weight of his thoughts and memories as related to the everyday junk in his life. It goes nowhere, accomplished nothing, but manages to be diverting because of his articulate insight into things that most people probably don’t bother thinking about and wouldn’t gain much of anything from if they did.

I can appreciate, and envy, the precision of Baker’s prose: the way he describes mundane things so lucidly and dissects their signifiance. He manages to transend the banality of his subject to a degree, and we’re so firmly and lucidly entrenched in the narrator’s mind that the personal details of his life are as significant to us as they are to him. But it also seems excessively masturbatory and trivial, which of course makes me thing of this blog (ho ho), which makes me think that were Baker born a few decades later this book would never have been written.

I see him with a web site, then later a blog, dedicated minutia of everyday life, to the thoughts and feelings inspired by the ice cube tray, the evolution of the drinking straw. He’d be just another guy obsessed with spreading his appreciation of the fading but once-solid analogue on this, the ephermal digital. There would be no fictional shape, just a series of articles that eventually lead to e-fame and a published compedium of articles WITH CONTENT NOT FOUND ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB which can be conveniently ordered from his sidebar.

It’s something I enjoyed, but then I’ve devoted weeks of my life to Proust. I wouldn’t casually recommend it to anyone.

Also: this might be a subtle portrait of a lunatic.

When I was first introduced to the extreme amount of detail with which the narrator analyzed things like paper bags being stapled at a drugstore counter I rolled with it, I thought fine, he just thinks a little harder about the trivialities of everyday life than most people, and his sharing these thoughts is the whole premise of the book so why nitpick?

But I felt a strange tension when he at last actually speaks to another person, the feeling that he couldn’t possibly be accepted in polite society and I was about to encounter a clear indication that he’s that guy, that quiet pariah who doesn’t realize that everyone else treats him with nervous, strained politeness. This didn’t seem to pan out, but my suspicions remain. The thing is, he doesn’t just think about the rituals of everyday life, he inflates and makes significant lists ranking all of his “advances” in life, things like:

4.brushing tongue as well as teeth
6.discovering that sweeping was fun
7.ordering a rubber stamp with my address on it to make bill-paying more efficient
8.deciding brain cells ought to die

There follows a lengthy analysis of all the different advances, the anxieties they saved him.

The suggestion that he knows there’s something a bit different about himself:

And this was when I realized abruptly that… I had finished with whatever large-scale growth I was going to have as a human beingm and that I was now permanently arrested… I was the sort of person who stood in a subway car and thought about buttering toast… whose biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be.

As a child, his particular obsessions led to violence:

At that age [4] I once stabbed my best friend, Fred, with a pair of pinking shears in the base of the neck, enraged because he had been given the comprehensive sixty-four-crayon Crayola box – including the gold and silver crayons – and would not let me look closely at the box to see how Crayola had stabilized the built-in crayon sharpener under the tiers of crayons.

The book concludes with lengthy self-justification for his navel-gazing as “the only philosophy available to me”, and his anger at Marcus Aerelius who is wrong wrong wrong!

Also: a lengthy footnote defending all of his lengthy footnotes; and a final one, with citations, detailing an obsessive day in the library reviewing the latest in shoelace-wear research.

Also, earlier, this:

When I was younger than I should have been, I used to steal sanitary napkins from my parent’s closet… and take them to the bathroom with me, where I would with some difficulty poke a hole in one of them… push my crayon-sized penis through the hole, and urinate into the toilet…

Why is this man talking to me about his developing penis being thrust through specific objects?

Because this man is a lunatic.

This book was a cry for help.

(Yes, I listened to the Massive Attack album at length while reading this quit judging me.)



~ by ironcupshrug on 12/05/2009.

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