The Mezzanine

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (1986). Vintage, 1990 (latest edition). 144 p., $11.95.

Sometimes I buy books at used bookstore and then forget I have them. I forgot I even owned this book until I read something about in online and realized it was on my shelf. Am I glad I read this? Yes. What a wonderful book. Baker’s short (135 pages) novel is a semi-rambling investigation of the minutiae of life encapsulated in a man’s narration (from the present) of a time in the past when he rode an escalator from the ground floor to the mezzanine of his office building. The narrative of this small moment is lengthened by the narrator’s discursive movement into parentheticals (there are a number of long footnotes in the text (a few short ones too)) and a kind of archaeology of the everyday.

I first knew of Nicholson Baker through his work about saving newspapers from libraries that were throwing them out (an issue I have conflicting viewpoints on (between my personal peeve for maintaining excess stuff, my professional librarianship, and my comics interest in old newspaper strips)). The brief historical passages on milk packaging or stapler design that pepper the novel seem relevant to this crusade. Baker clearly has an interest in the lesser considered aspects of history and everyday life. Other such evocations in the novel include the consideration of shoelace wear, various office social niceties, a wonderful evolution of the drinking straw, a rant about the disappearance of towels (in favor of air dryers) in public restrooms, historical notes on vending machines, as well as much to read about the escalator.

All these mini-essays are wrapped into the narrator’s monologue which jumps around in time as he enters his building, steps onto the escalator, and rides it to the mezzanine. Between each of these events are pages and pages of forking paths of thought. The narrator is a sympathetic, if slightly odd, young man who works in an unnamed office (doing unnamed work) sometime in the late seventies or early eighties. He moves through the narration by a chain of associations and recollections. The narrator is an observer who shares his life’s observations with the reader.

For a novel that has such a boring sounding plot (“man rides escalator”) the book is surprising interesting and entertaining. Baker’s writing is stylistically conversational, completely subsuming into the narrator’s voice in its rambling way.

I’ll be looking up more of Baker’s work.