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:
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."
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!"
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,
Paper towels dispensers provide him with peak experiences:
|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.
At the CVS,
looking at the clerk bagging his new package of shoelaces:
|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.|
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.
|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.|
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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