Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine (Vintage, 1988)
[originally posted 19Jun2000]
Nicholson Baker’s first novel gives us a day—okay, half a day—in the life of an ordinary office worker. It’s pretty close to being the typical eighties novel. It’s not really about anything. No one makes great personality changes anywhere in the novel. There’s only one other character, aside from a few minor ones, sales clerks and the like. The book opens with the main character walking into the lobby of his office building, and ends with him stepping off the escalator onto his office’s floor about a minute later. So what is it that differentiates this particular eighties novel from the hundreds of others, and what makes this one better?
The devil, of course, is in the details. While Baker seems as fond of brand names as the rest of his Ellis-McInerney-Janowitz-etc. cronies, they take a backseat to the generic, everyday revelations of life, and it’s amazing that Baker has managed to come up with so much of this stuff that most people never think about. The history of shoelaces. The development of footnotes from the middle ages. The archaeology of the drugstore. Whether you should drink your milk while chewing the chocolate chip cookie, or after swallowing it. This is less a novel than it is a compendium of silly, trivial facts and opinions, and if you gain pleasure from wandering through trivia websites and the like, this book is going to be a short, easy pleasure trip through things that no one else has thought to write about. If you demand plot, theme, and action, though, this is probably not a book for you. I found it wonderful. *** ½