Tuesday, February 02, 2010

[Books] Book Look: The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

Book Look: The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker: I have often complained about how novelists have pretty much abandoned the idea of documenting life, instead resorting to various magic realist fantasies or, worse, lurid tales of societal outliers. (I feel less strongly about this than I used to.) As if in response, fate -- by way of assorted Internet recommendations -- brought me to The Mezzanine, which I have come to see as a reductio ad absurdum of a response.

There isn't really any story going on here. A young-ish, male semi-professional, Howie, is returning from lunch and riding an escalator to his workplace on the mezzanine of a sizable office building. We are given 130 pages of every single thought that goes through his head, a stream of consciousness only broken by brief moments where he must actively think about the actions he is going to take in the external world. Basically, it amounts to few minutes immersed inside this man's head.

The reflections are minutiae -- utterly mundane, with long footnotes cascading off as he follows his thought chains. His thoughts are centered on how he has just spent his lunch hour -- quick and superficial interactions with co-workers, a quick snack of popcorn, buying and eating a hot dog, cookie and milk, stopping at CVS to get replacements for his broken shoe laces, subtly awkward encounters with co-workers in the men's room, trying to read a bit of his Penguin Classic paperback copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Seemingly the stuff of nothing, most of which chains off into equally nothing memories from his past.

Baker has an ungodly capacity for description and the precision in vocabulary to pull it off. For example, he refers to the covering of an un-popped Jiffy Pop pan as a "maelstrom" of aluminum foil and describes the perfection of its design of a self contained cooking vessel whose handle doubles as a loop for hanging in stores. He laments the degradation of milk delivery as it went from capped glass bottles, to plastic containers, to paper quarts, to nonexistence, documenting the aesthetic losses at each step, yet also praising the wax paper carton that replaced it and how in opening it creates its own spout.

Here's a long passage regarding shampoo:
Yet emotional analogies were not hard to find between the history of civilization on the one hand and the history within the CVS pharmacy on the other, when you caught sight of a once great shampoo like Alberto VO5 or Prell now in sorry vassalage on the bottom shelf of aisle 1B, overrun by later waves of Mongols, Muslims, and Chalukyas -- Suave; Clairol Herbal Essence; Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific; Silkience; Finesse; and bottle after bottle of Arabesque Flex. Prell's green is toosimple a green for us now; the false French of its name seems kitschy, not chic, and where once it was enveloped in my TV-soaked mind by the immediacy and throatiness of womanly voice-overs, it is now late in its decline, lightly advertised, having descended year by year through the thick by hydroscopic emulsions of our esteem, like the large descending pearl that was used in one of its greatest early ads to prove how rich and luxurious it was. (I think that ad was for Prell -- or was it Breck, or Alberto VO5?) I remember friends' older sisters who used those old shampoos -- one sister especially, fresh from using Alberto VO5 and Dippity-do, with her hair rolled up in a number of small pink foam curlers and three RC cola cans, sitting down at the kitchen table to eat breakfast while we (nine years old) ate raw Bermuda onions from lunch, reading Fester Bestertester paperbacks. I think of the old product managers staring out the window like Proust, reminiscing about the great days when they had huge TV budgets and everything was hopping, now reduced to leafing through trade magazines to keep up with late breaking news in hair care like outsiders. Soon, nobody would know they had introduced a better kind of plastic for their shampoo bottle, a kind with a slight matte gunmetal dullness to it instead of the unpleasant patent-leathery reflectivity of then existing efforts at transparency; that with it they had taken their product straight to the top! In time, once everyone had died who had used a certain discontinued brand of shampoo, so that it passed from living memory, it no longer would be understood properly, correctly situated in the felt periphery of life; instead it would be one of many quaint vials of plastic in country antique stores -- understood no better than a ninth century trinket unearthed on the Coromandel coast.
This is an especially wonderful passage as it draws a contrast between the relatively short set of memories young Howie has, mostly concerning self-discovery, and the more elegiac, reflective memories of an "old product manager". But more broadly, all this extended observational trivia works because of the recognition it triggers: the bits where the reader thinks "I know exactly what you mean," or "I remember that."

And, yes, it was a commercial for Prell.

After a hundred and thirty pages of this, the dominant impression is one of wonder at the strange world we have created where even the most basic items and transparent actions are boundlessly complex and rife with hidden meanings, and what oddly gifted creatures we are that, through nature or conditioning, we navigate this world without a second thought. In that sense, The Mezzanine can be thought of as a very indirect work of sociology.

The question I always try to answer for my readers is Should you read this book? The answer for most people is going to be no. There is no plot, no action, and no characters in the conventional sense. The sentences are long and elaborate. There is no dramatic payoff or closure of any sort. I suspect many (if not most) would give it a furrowed brow and a loud "Who cares?" after a few pages. On the other hand it works well for aesthetic folks with an actively curious intellect and a strong tendency to live inside their own heads. (Clearly I fit that category.)

My favorite blogger, Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias, has argued that in a time frame of tens or hundreds of thousands of years, humanity will almost necessarily return to a subsistence-level (though not unhappy) lifestyle, and that these folks will look back on our inscrutable and elaborate world as a sort of dreamtime. The Mezzanine is a distilled document of a moment in that world. It is the internal monologue of dreamtime.