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The Mezzanine

October 31, 2005 ・ Blog

I recently finished The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. It’s a short book but it took me most of a year to finally complete. My cousin, Simon, recommended it when we went over to Canada last year. “Do you like footnotes?” he asked. I do, a lot. They were by far my favourite bits of Terry Pratchett books when I was little. “Then you’ll love it, and it’s all about design,” said Simon, and he gave me his copy. Sorry it’s taken so long to actually read it…

The Mezzanine is pretty incredible. Its plot is simply the journey of its protagonist up the escalator of the place he works after his lunchtime, but its 130 pages are dense and rich with the meanderings of what he thinks about in that time, from shoelaces to company bathroom etiquette, vending machines to the delicate machinations of small talk.

Its world is so mundane that it ends up seeming exotic: I’ve never seen this deeply into the everyday unmarked mental circumlocutions of another person. Actually, perhaps exotic is the wrong word, because what makes this book really fascinating is the fact that I recognise so many of these little details in my own thoughts.

The protagonist is fascinated by objects: how they’re designed and how we use them. One of the first of his many (often really funny) analyses he makes is of the drinking straw. It makes up one of the many long footnotes, a litany against “the era of the floating straw”, which began when manufacturers started making them out of plastic rather than paper so bubbles would adhere to them and make them float. He also celebrates the simplicity of the paper perforation and rails against the “static modernism” of the U- and “superdome”-shaped doorknobs found in offices, wondering why they couldn’t have the wobbly tactile response of the faceted glass ones at his parents’ house.

The way the protagonist’s thoughts about objects play into his memories – how his experiences are coloured by his interactions with things – is beautiful. But much as you might think that all this insight might give you a full picture of who this person is, you don’t. Apart from being so obsessed with detail that he must have some form of Asperger syndrome, you learn very little about him.

Ultimately, the book feels that it’s missing something as a result – it’s too bound up in clinical detail and reason. Much as it’s all about how we learn, how we remember, how we interact with the world and how we shape it to our needs, it feels strangely inhuman. But I still loved it. Thanks, Simon.