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 Toyota turn-signal switches, to the left of the steering wheel, which move in their sockets like chicken drumsticks: they feel as if they were designed with living elbow cartilage as their inspiration.
Doubtless, some readers will regard this last passage as much too much about much too little, but I don’t see how anybody who lingers over the language (the happy unlikelihood of seeing “knuckly orthopedic” applied to a straw, the aptly clunky coinage of “tumbleral”) can remain unswayed.
By electing to string the plot of this, his first novel, on something so tenuous as a shoelace—and a frayed shoelace at that—Baker boldly wagers everything on the proposition that his observational powers are in themselves sufficient to bind a novel securely. It’s a sucker’s bet—as Baker must have known. He has undertaken a job that is at once brutally taxing and easily dismissed; he is like the poet who commences a lengthy and elaborately formal piece of light verse, fully aware that if he once stumbles he will be spurned as clumsy and that even if he manages to pull off his feat, many will reject it as that contradiction in terms, a “mere tour de force.”
Well, Baker does pull it off, and I know of no other first novel since Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse(1972) that offers so winning a mixture of charm, intelligence, and out-and-out weirdness. Millhauser’s novel purported to be the biography of a great American writer who died at the age of eleven. It was at once a parody of academic hagiography, a mystery story, and a gruesome meditation on the parasitism of literary scholarship. What held it together—and what holds together The Mezzanine—was a core of jubilation. Ostensibly an elegy, Edwin Mullhouse was actually a eulogy for the vividly pigmented joys of an American childhood. When Millhauser approached the subject of crayons, or playgrounds, or television cartoons, his prose thumped with life.
The kinship between the two novels deepens once one perceives that Howie’s office, for all its sophisticated, high-tech trappings, is a sort of kindergarten. Howie is not so much working as playing at working. In a book that relishes detail of every sort, his duties are never defined. Howie himself cannot quite believe that he and his fellow workers (Tina, Sue, Dave, Jim, Steve—names that, like his own, bob balloonishly along, buoyantly unmoored to any surnames) have entered the corridors of the “Big Kids.” And if the world of contemporary fiction is overpopulated, at the moment, by young men who cannot quite accept that they have crossed the threshold into adulthood and its grown-up responsibilities, few of them can boast Howie’s salvational gift for wonder. His is a wide-eyed amazement that doesn’t blink; he sees far more than the adults around him ever will.
The Mezzanine asks to be read slowly, in brief, intense interludes. I had the bad luck to begin it (and almost to abandon it) on a transatlantic flight, where its quirky finenesses were steadily eroded by the grinding of the jet engine; this book is many things, but it is not a page-turner. And even under the best reading conditions, it occasionally seems designed to illustrate how fine is the line that separates admiration from vexation. Baker works hard to slow the reader down. The book comes thickly footnoted, and there are times when the little trickling rivulet of its narrative feels dammed by the boulder-sized masses of type lodged beneath it. Baker is demanding in his vocabulary as well. The Mezzanine abounds with words of a sort for which—even if they are recognized—one would probably hesitate to venture a pronunciation during, say, an academic dinner: microscopy, vibratiuncles, cotyledonary, bungee, remorid….
All the more impressive, then, is Baker’s control over what he does. His baroque vocabulary rings true. He is a precisionist. And he succeeds in bringing the twin strains of his novel—the slender narrative, the outsize footnotes—to divergent but appropriate termini. His final footnote is an inspired collocation of improbabilities which concludes with a reference to an article in a technical journal (a Polish technical journal) concerning “abrasion resistance and knot slippage resistance of shoelaces.” The narrative, by contrast, drifts off with a gentle, genial wave of the hand.
Having finessed his way through a remarkable debut, Nicholson Baker, who was born in 1957, ought to feel entitled to exult momentarily and not to fret overmuch about his next performance. His readers, however, will naturally speculate about what might follow so eccentric a première. Where will he go from here?
In recent years, a number of writers have confirmed the ongoing possibility of building a rich career on fictions in which, as in The Mezzanine, characters are secondary presences—if they appear at all. One thinks of Jorge Luis Borges, of some of Stanislaw Lem’s more curious creations—and perhaps especially of Italo Calvino’s matchless later novels; a reader does not regret the lack of people in books like Invisible Cities or Mr. Palomar. In the spiky, lovely geometry of Calvino’s domains, people can come to look like spoilingly soft, blunting interlopers.
The Mezzanine may well turn out to be the start for Baker of a splendidly unpeopled architecture. Or—perhaps more beguiling still—there’s the possibility that in time he will manage to introduce into his microscopically tactile environment various forces that are not isolable under any magnifying lens—fears, confusions, allegiances, carnal desires, spiritual misgivings.
In an exuberant, extended footnote that serves as tribute to Frederick Mennen, the inventor of Jiffy Pop popcorn, Howie speaks of a newly exploded kernel as “potentiated cellulose.” One is left to wonder what lively, outflung shapes Nicholson Baker will take as he potentiates.
August 17, 1989