I was in riding in a car with a couple friends recently. One of them was talking about a book she just finished called American Psycho and how much she hated it. I've heard of it, as well as the movie, but I've never read or watched either. She described how it was a waste of time, and boring, because the narrator would spend pages upon pages describing every minutia and going into obscene amounts of detail about things ("He talked about about ONE suit for five pages straight!"). The narrator may also be a serial killer apparently.
What my friend was describing sounded incredibly similar to the book I was reading at the time: The Mezzanine. I told her it could be worse, my protagonist doesn't even have any interesting traits like being a psychopathic serial killer...he's just an office worker that describes his consumer preferences for ear plugs over multiple pages instead:
I used Flents Silaflex silicone earplugs. Only since 1982 or so have these superb plugs been generally available, at least in the stores I visit. Before that I used the old Flents stopples, in the orange box—they were made of cotton impregnated with wax, and they were huge: you had to cut them in half with a pair of scissors to get a shape that would stay put when you worked it in place, and they left your fingers greasy with pink paraffin. They revolted L., who used to store any I left on her bedside windowsill in an empty pastilles canister with a rural scene on it—and I don’t blame her. Then a company called McKeon Products began to be a force in the market, offering Mack’s Pillow Soft® earplugs[...]
— Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine, pg. 15
It keeps going but you get the point.
Life of Howie
The Mezzanine is one of the most unique books I've ever read. It reminded me of David Foster Wallace's writing somewhat, and not just because of the extensive use of footnotes. It's kinda like if you paused the plot of a David Foster Wallace novel for 135 pages, you'd get The Mezzanine.
There was no plot in this book, and you could argue that the entirety of the book takes place within a single escalator ride. The book begins with our narrator starting his escalator ride, and it ends with him stepping off that same escalator ride—everything else is tangential thinking emanating from his consciousness in these moments.
This stream-of-consciousness is a wild ride to be on. The narrator, who's name is Howie, is an extremely neurotic, introspective young man grappling with the tedium of a standard white-collar career and the gradual realization that he isn't very special and won't amount to anything great in life.
The feeling that you are stupider than you were is what finally interests you in the really complex subjects of life: in change, in experience, in the ways other people have adjusted to disappointment and narrowed ability. You realize that you are no prodigy, your shoulders relax, and you begin to look around you, seeing local color unrivaled by blue glows of algebra and abstraction.
— Baker, pg. 15
Howie's penchant for nostalgia and reflections on his young life are recurring subjects in his thoughts. He seems reminiscent of these early years and I get a sense that he misses them and the way things used to be. But, at the same time, Howie also seems wholly devoted to his life of adulthood and its routine nature.
Howie has an interest in mechanical systems and the ingenuity that has gone into their designs. From escalators, to staplers, to milk cartons, Howie describes the clever aspects of their design with a sense of genuine appreciation and excitement:
the radiant idea that you tore apart one of the triangular eaves of the carton, pushing its wing flaps back, using the stiffness of its own glued seam against itself, forcing the seal inside out, without ever having to touch it, into a diamond-shaped opening which became an ideal pourer, a better pourer than a circular bottle opening or a pitcher’s mouth because you could create a very fine stream of milk very simply, letting it bend over that leading corner, something I appreciated as I was perfecting my ability to pour my own glass of milk or make my own bowl of cereal—the radiant idea filled me with jealousy and satisfaction.
— Baker, pg. 28
Howie likes to see his own life as a system as well—a conveyor belt of recurring days filled with work, lunch hours, driving, and everything in between. He takes pride in being the operator of this personal existence factory; a master of his domain, always looking for ways to cut costs and streamline processes. Like when he figured out how to apply deodorant while fully clothed, Howie appreciates the little things in life. I think that's great.
This book felt like the 1980s version of this video:
From the novel's synopsis and the blurbs included on the book's jacket, it's apparent that The Mezzanine is supposed to be funny. I mean, in a way it is funny— but it seemed like the joke was on me. Reading about shoelace abrasion theories for multiple pages in a row felt like I was being pranked somehow.
If I cast aside my pessimism over the pointlessness of the novel, I admit that it was really well written. The humour stems from the dazzlingly sharp focus that Baker applies to the banality of modern life. His descriptions of the ordinary, putting into words the small things we all recognize but never materialize in our heads, are clever and refreshing. It's similar to the observational humour used by comedians like Seinfeld; they re-frame our perception on certain aspects of life by describing them in a unique way.
The best description I've found for what the fuck is going on in this book is, obviously, in it's Wikipedia article:
The substance of the novel, however, is taken up with the thoughts that run through a person's mind in any given few moments, and the ideas that might result if he or she were given the time to think these thoughts through to their conclusions.
— Wikipedia, "The Mezzanine" (link)
This makes the most sense to me and it really explains what Nicholson was trying to accomplish with The Mezzanine. It's an exploration of the infinitude of thoughts and half-formed ideas that float through our consciousness throughout the day. In a way, it's a celebration of the human mind and its marvellous complexity.
I enjoyed reading The Mezzanine, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to anyone. I felt like I was getting pranked and I chose to read it on my own volition—I'm not trying to lose any friends because of a book recommendation. But maybe if you're looking for something of a different flavour, and you've grown sick of all the plot and character development in those ordinaryyyyy books, then maybe give The Mezzanine a shot. It's only 135 pages.
I guess part of why I'm not too upset about it is because I read the entire thing while sitting on the toilet. So it wasn't time wasted, just time spent.