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The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

The Mezzanine (1986)

by Nicholson Baker

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    Remainder by Tom McCarthy (machinemachine)
    machinemachine: Obsession with the intimate experience of the present moment binds both these books together

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Nicholson Baker at age 31 in 1988, publication year of this, his first novel.

A jaded, young wealthy aristocrat in French author Joris-Karl Huysmans’ slim novel "À rebours" retreats to a country villa to construct a custom-made artificial world where he can live his entire solitary life on his own aesthetic, highly refined terms. In many ways, the main character in this slender Nicholson Baker book is the complete opposite of Huysmans’ - rather than being a jaded aristocrat, Baker’s narrator is an ordinary guy supremely attuned and energized by commonplace things and events; instead of retreating to a country villa, he commutes to a routine office job in the city; rather than seeking the extraordinary in fine arts and exotic tastes, his experiences the extraordinary in the ordinary, so much so that I see him as the perfect instantiation of what nowadays is referred to as ‘everyday aesthetics.’ So, with this in mind, here are my observations on Baker’s novel coupled with propositions on everyday aesthetics articulated by Thomas Leddy, a leading thinker in the discipline:

We are thinking of everyday aesthetics in the context of the world-wide city-based culture within which most of us live.-----
First page to last page, this is exactly the subject for our pleasant, perceptive 25-year old officer worker as he encounters and recollects during the hours of his workday in the city, as when we read in the opening paragraph “On sunny days like this one, a temporary, steeper escalator of daylight, formed by intersections of the lobby’s towering volumes of marble and glass, meet the real escalators just above their middle point, spreading into a needly area of shine where it fell against their brushed-steel side-panels, and added long glossy highlights to each of the black rubber handrails which wavered slightly as the handrails slid on their tracks, like the radians of black luster that ride the undulating outer edge of an LP.”

As readers we are given a unique opportunity to concurrently experience with the narrator not only what he sees but the various feelings he derives from his seeing. Take my word for it here: Nicholson Baker’s novel is a jewel – a narrator particularly sensitive to life’s minute details, those objects and events usually overlooked and underappreciated by the rest of us.

Everyday aesthetics emphasizes how objects can take on an “aura” when perceived aesthetically. -----
The narrator reflects while walking down a city street: “It seems that I always liked to have one hand free when I was walking, even when I had several things to carry: I like to be able to slap my hand fondly down on the top of a green mailmen-only mailbox, or bounce my fist lightly against the steel support for the traffic lights, both because the pleasure of touching these cold, dusty surfaces with the springy muscle on the side of my palm was intrinsically good, and because I liked other people to see me as a guy in a tie yet carefree and casual enough to be doing what kids do when they drag a stick over the black uprights of a cast-iron fence.”

He derives pleasure on two levels: 1) the fact that his hand is free, and 2) the feel of his hand being free - free to slap against a mailbox, bounce off a steel pole, feel the cold, dusty surfaces, pleasures having no greater aim or purpose beyond the intrinsic goodness of the feeling itself. And it is the second level that is aesthetic – taking pleasure beyond the “fact” of things to taking pleasure in the “feel” of things. And by being open to the “feel” of things, in this case hand and mailbox and steel pole, these very things take on a certain “aura.”

Actually, in addition to 1) and 2) above, he values: 3) the social benefit of being seen by others as a man who has retained a kid’s aliveness and freshness when interacting with the world. For me, this is so charming- a simple happening providing our narrator with triple-decker pleasure as if savoring a slice of triple-decker strawberry cake.

Everyday aesthetics is a category separate from the fine arts and the natural world. -----
Although the narrator notes how there are Edward Hopper prints in the office hallways and observes the blue sky out his office window, his focus is not on the fine arts or the natural world but rather on things like the difference between working in an office with a linoleum floor and ones with carpets: “Linoleum was bearable back when incandescent light was there to counteract it with a softening glow, but the combination of fluorescence and linoleum, which must have been widespread for several years as the two trends overlapped, is not good.”

Everyday aesthetics studies the whole field of human experience, not just the high points. -----
There really isn’t any drama here in the conventional manner of storytelling, such thing as a runaway spouse or the loss of a parent or a psychological crack-up or artistic, spiritual or life-shattering epiphanies, not even close; on the contrary, we read about episodes in the narrator’s life leading to revelations about shoe-tying, brushing tongue as well as teeth, applying deodorant after being fully dressed, the virtues of sweeping with a broom made with straw rather than plastic and the time-saving benefits of owning your very own rubber stamp imprinted with your home address. Sounds like fun? Actually, these subjects make for great fun presented in Nicholson Baker’s breezy, frequently humorous, carefully crafted language.

Everyday aesthetics appreciates how artists are close and constant observers of everyday life. -----
Case in point – here is our young office worker/narrator entering the corporate men’s room: “I negotiated the quick right and left that brought me into the brightness and warmth of the bathroom. It was decorated in two tones of tile, hybrid colors I didn’t know the names for, and the sinks’ counter and the dividers between urinals and between stalls were of red lobby-marble.” This bathroom sequence, complete with observations about towels, hot-air blowers, toilet paper, the habits and sounds and sights of other company men goes on for several pages. I don’t think I have to include any more quotes as I am sure you get the idea.

Everyday aesthetics is immensely important for our lives. -----
Important in the sense you can use the realm of everyday aesthetics to gauge how awake you are to your everyday world. If you are like Howie (yes, we learn the narrator’s name in the closing chapters when his fellow-workers address him directly), then you will have the feel for what it is to be reading this review, a feel for not only the language and ideas contained herein but also the size and font of the letters and words on your screen. And what is the level of brightness of the white behind the words? What color is the border around your screen? Black? White? Silver? What is the texture of your keypad? Is your computer making a pleasant hum? If your desk is made of wood, does the grain have small groves? . . . ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
I waffled on my rating. This is a 5 star book I think, but I didn't always feel like it was a 5 star read. My review is still percolating. I need to sort out the tension between Baker's less time-dependent ideas, and those that feel a bit like flies in amber. ( )
  mkunruh | Nov 13, 2016 |
I started willing to go where this was going to go, taking all the weird diversions and wild tangents. However, about 1/3 of the way in, I just needed a plot point. Any plot point would do. All the randomness and footnotes just got weirder and weirder and I became more and more frustrated. I think ultimately I would describe it as more clever than enjoyable. From our past bookclub reads I might call it The Son of Pale Fire and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
  amyem58 | Mar 8, 2016 |
It isn't often that I discover a new author by reading their first book, but I was fortunate enough to pick up Nicholson Baker's debut novel The Mezzanine as my introduction to his work, and I am already looking forward to what follows. Baker has earned a place on my bookshelf with this irreverent, time-compressed character study.

The Mezzanine is a playful work of post-modern metafiction in which the narrator explores the nuances of his life and his relationship to the world around him during an escalator ride between floors after an afternoon lunch break. Filled with numerous asides and digressions, including copious footnotes on everything from ice cube trays to ear plugs (and even footnotes), the novel exists as a stream of consciousness in reflection as Howie expands upon his thoughts and actions that afternoon with an obsessive quality that becomes an integral and telling part of the character.

Often compared to Proust for his poetic and accomplished attention to detail, Baker eschews an formal semblance of plot or story and instead focuses on a jewel point of consciousness and self-reflection that borders on existentialism. Readers looking for a formal plot with a traditional story-line setup and resolution might feel lost when they first wade into Howie's tangential narrative, but those who share Baker's wonder at the complexity and importance of even the most mundane activities will most likely be as enthralled with The Mezzanine as it's narrator is with shoelaces and paper straws. ( )
1 vote reverends | Aug 8, 2014 |
Hilarious (and depressing) insights into the multifarious facades of the 1980s corporate world where Gordon Gekko would have been right at home. Its entire narrative arc takes place within the narrator's mind as he travels from the lobby of his workplace up the escalator to the mezzanine where his office is located. Dizzying footnoted interludes where he concentrates on the microscopy of his observations about such things as record grooves, vending machines, and staplers. Some readers who were born with game consoles in their hands would no doubt chafe at these interludes that slow this plotless rumination to a complete standstill. You can lose your place even in the going-nowhere narrative while getting lost in a maze of footnotes that take up more space than the text. I've never been a footnote freak. I prefer end notes. But even if Baker does sometimes overdo his forays into the minutia of mechanization, surely this fault can be sidelined by his dazzling rhythms and the fun and games on his linguistic playground. ( )
  Koffeecat | Jan 26, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
It was quite a debut. When Nicholson Baker chronicled, in The Mezzanine, a single lunch break in the life of Howie, a young office worker, he was hailed as a modern Proust. Eschewing narrative in favour of a virtuosic, minimalist exploration of life's trivialities, the book has Howie marvelling at the engineering of an escalator and worried about the best way to put on socks. With its enjoyably digressive footnotes, this short but hugely inventive novel helped point the way for the audacious styles of writers such as Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace.
added by peterbrown | editThe Observer, Ben East (Jul 24, 2011)
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At almost one o'clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned toward the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679725768, Paperback)

Turns an ordinary ride up an office escalator into a meditation on our relations with familiar objects--shoelaces, straws, and more. Baker's debut novel, and a favorite amongst many of us here.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:42 -0400)

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