Microscopy

The Mezzanine

by Nicholson Baker
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 135 pp., $15.95

Although Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine might reasonably be described as a novel about a man who purchases a pair of shoelaces, the book’s likable narrator, whose name is Howie, would probably protest that his story is far more action-packed than that. In the penultimate chapter Howie reflects on the range of activities he has presented to the reader:

Chance found me that day having worked for a living all morning, broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated successfully in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half a bag of popcorn, bought a new set of shoelaces, eaten a hot dog and a cookie with some milk.

Needless to say, this is not a novel taut with suspense. Nor does it provide—prospective readers should early be advised—much in the way of plot development, disclosure of character, or emotional interplay.

What the book is, triumphantly, is a celebration. As it follows Howie through his notably—even spectacularly—uneventful lunch hour, The Mezzanine sings praises to seemingly humdrum minutiae, with especially keen-eyed attention given to the mechanical marvels of modern life. Baker is capable of lavishing hundreds, even thousands of words on a paper towel dispenser, a stapler, the perforations on a reply coupon, ice cube trays, drinking straws, milk containers, vending machines, a urinal, or an escalator handrail. Nearly all these miniatures are dexterously and wittily delineated, and now and then, engineering a little miracle of blended exactitude and fancy, he manages to bring an everyday (and hence unnoticed) object into so pristine a focus that we see it as though for the first time. He can do wonders with a stretch of office carpet:

Only under the desks and in the little-used conference rooms was the pile still plush enough to hold the beautiful Ms and Vs the night crew left as strokes of their vacuum cleaners’ wands made swaths of dustless tufting lean in directions that alternately absorbed and reflected the light.

Or with a phonograph needle:

curiously blunt, shaped like the rubber mallet used to elicit a motor reflex from the knee, hanging insectivorally there in space, ready for a new Deutsche Grammophon.

Or—displaying characteristic amplitude—with a doorknob:

The upstairs doorknobs in the house I grew up in were made of faceted glass. As you extended your fingers to open a door, a cloud of flesh-color would diffuse into the glass from the opposite direction. The knobs were loosely seated in their latch mechanism, and heavy, and the combination of solidity and laxness made for a multiply staged experience as you turned the knob: a smoothness that held intermediary tumbleral fallings-into-position. Few American products recently have been able to capture that same knuckly, orthopedic quality (the quality of bendable straws) in their switches and latches; the Japanese do it very well, though: they can get a turn-signal switch in a car or a volume knob on a stereo to feel resistant and substantial and worn into place—think of the very fine …

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