The Mezzanine
Nicholson Baker, 1988

A yuppie ascends an escalator.

Okay, yes, there's somewhat more to it than that. Every fleeting thought that the yuppie has while on the escalator is explored in exhaustive detail, complete with multi-page footnotes, allowing a single escalator ride to fill 135 pages of small type.

It's pretty darn good!

Zot! #30 begins with Jenny's mom asking herself when life became so trivial. "You start out thinking about life, the universe, and the existence of God... next thing you know it's pension funds, laundry detergent, and a new muffler." Baker observes in The Mezzanine that even that might be an overstatement, that a thorough accounting of one's thoughts might well be dominated by "which urinal?" and "itch on face."

Now, "which urinal?" and "itch on face" might not make for much of a book. But Baker gets a lot of mileage out of observations that are only half a degree removed from this level, thoroughly unpacking the experiences that constitute our lives but which we rarely articulate. A perfect example: you know how when you pass someone's desk on the way out of the office, and you're making small talk, and then the person you're talking to needs to take a call, and you can't just walk away because you were in the middle of a conversation and that'd be rude, but it's also sort of awkward just standing there waiting to resume the conversation because it wasn't very important? Baker continues:
Etiquette required me to wait until her phone duty was done in order to exchange one last sentence with her, unless the message she was taking was clearly going to go on for more than three minutes, in which case Tina, who knew the conventions well, would release me — cued first by some "Gee, I'm taking off now" movement from me (pulling up the pants, checking for my wallet, a joke salute) — with a mouthed "Bye!"
The entire book is like this, and almost every page offers that sort of shock of recognition, the sense that, "Yes, I have had that experience any number of times, and have had these exact ephemeral thoughts each time, but have never put them into storage."

Baker spends a lot of time on optimization; much of the book is devoted to breakthroughs in hand-washing, sock-donning, shoe-tying and the like. And again, there's the shock of recognition that, yes, we really do put a lot of ephemeral thought into optimizing our routines, all those little breakthroughs: shave at night because the extra eight hours of beard growth is a small price to pay for an extra three minutes in the morning! pulse the turn signal rather than click it all the way down! which takes more time — balling up socks to keep them together, or hunting down each sock's mate when they're loose in the drawer? Baker also touches on all those idle thought experiments: hmm, would it be worth losing my left hand for ten million dollars? how about my right? how about fifty million?

One could also make a case that The Mezzanine is one of the sunniest books ever to go to press. This guy loves everything! The design of milk cartons sends him into a six-page paean that wraps up,
And here was another wayside greatness of the milk carton: the small diamond shape of the spout is a perfect fit for the nose, concentrating any scent of sourness: no wide, circular milk-bottle opening could have been nearly so helpful for diagnosis.
Paper towels dispensers provide him with peak experiences:
This renewing of newness — whether it was the appearance of another identical Pez tablet at the neck of the plastic Pez elevator, or the sight of one parachutist after another standing for a second in the door of an airplane before he jumped, or the rolling-into-position of a pinball after the previous one had escaped your flippers, or one sticky disk of banana displaced from its spot on the knife over the cereal bowl by its successor, or the uprising of yet another step of the escalator — was for me then, and is still, one of the greatest sources of happiness the man-made world can offer.
At the CVS, looking at the clerk bagging his new package of shoelaces:
I wanted to tell her how nimble she was, that I really liked the fact that she had discovered the movements and shortcuts that kept cash transactions enjoyable, but there didn't seem to be an unembarrassing way of conveying this.
There's a Calvin and Hobbes book called There's Treasure Everywhere; the treasure in question is "a few dirty rocks, a weird root, and some disgusting grubs." But I imagine most people are more likely to categorize even those things as treasure than items like the shampoo bottles and plastic straws that make the narrator of The Mezzanine so giddy.

Someone once said that Catch-22 was the best book ever written from which any fifty pages could be removed without affecting its quality. Much the same is true for The Mezzanine: it could be one-third as long and still have the same impact, and it does drag after a while. But it's worth reading through to, or at least skipping to, the end, where the point of the exercise appears. The narrator is reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and is struck by the assertion that "Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!" That is to say: the pension funds, the laundry detergent, the muffler — those things are life. Those things are the universe. And they're only as trivial as you make them.

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