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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
The Mezzanine - Nicholson Baker's first book
  
There are many nights when I'll rest my head down, and think - with great frustration - that I won't be getting much sleep. I've come to learn that for reasons beyond my knowing, and - more unfortunately - beyond my control, there are many nights when my mind is busy racing with thoughts. Silly thoughts, boring thoughts, dull thoughts, but thoughts. Thoughts which won't let me sleep. They're not anxious thoughts, because it can happen when I'm feeling very calm and happy about things. They're not excited thoughts, because it can happen when nothing is going on. They're just thoughts. And they race around my mind like Italian cars on German highways.

For Nicholson Baker though, I'm sure it's different. He has managed to slow down his mind. Analyze each minute detail, each mundane thought, each little tidbit of information that the rest of us ignore, and are so quick to brush off as simpleton thoughts. Nicholson Baker is different in these regards too. He doesn't brush off these thoughts, but after careful analysis of each little thought, he then sets about writing novels about those very thoughts.

With his first novel, The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker chooses perhaps one of the rarest settings for a novel. The novel begins with a man taking his first step onto an escalator. It ends with the escalator reaching its summit. What would be a short story to most - after all, an escalator ride lasts no more than 30 seconds - Nicholson Baker manages to tease out a 133 page novel. Effortlessly weaving an incredible amount of information about his main character, the reader knows every single passing thought within the character's mind. This is not as the character sets about on some long and arduous course where he indefinitely will learn something about himself, and undergo an important change, after all it is only an escalator ride. This is, rather, as the character goes about a mundane task. The reader learns more about the character, than in more traditional novels, and to use an overused cliche - the reader learns a lot about themselves too.

Readers encountering Nicholson Baker may find his novels frustratingly painful at first. This is simply due to the brain not being familiar with the over-abundance of information. The initial reaction is just: "Get to the point!" - but gradually the reader realizes: there is no plot, there is no point. There is just thought. Then the reader learns to relax and just let the words flow through the narrator's mind, as well as their own. Nicholson Baker's novels are in some ways like a friend that needs to tell you uninteresting stories, and tell you every single painful detail, with multiple back-stories, and justifications. The difference being that Baker manages to keep it interesting - and manages to say a lot, with saying so little - and with such strikingly vivid words that one can't help but smile throughout his novels with the thought of "I've thought that myself so many times!"

As an example, here is an excerpt from the very first page of The Mezzanine, as the character starts his ascension on the escalator:

On sunny days like this one, a temporary, steeper escalator of daylight, formed by intersections of the lobby's towering volumes of marble and glass, met the real escalators just above their middle point, spreading into a needly area of shine where it fella gainst their brushed-steel side-panels, and adding long glossy highlights to each of the black rubber handrails which wavered slightly as the handrails slid on their tracks, like the radians of black luster that ride the undulating outer edge of an LP. I love the constancy of shine on the edges of moving objects. Even propellers or desk fans will glint steadily in certain places in the grayness of their rotation; the curve of each fan blade picks up the light for an instant on its circuit and then hands it off to its successor.

Perhaps a over-written description of light gleaming on the curved rubber of an escalator's handrail, but as I read the passage the image of watching fan blades spinning rapidly such that the light reflection bleeds from one blade to another came to focus in my mind. This then lead me to think more of times when I'd watch light act much like water - pool around a dip of a surface, and travel around the surface always towards the dip.

On the second page, the character goes into detailed analysis of the straw in a drink, floating at the top and requiring the use of both hands - one to hold the drink, the other to readjust the straw.

Another novel by Nicholson Baker is A Box of Matches in which the main character is a middle-aged man who decides to wake up every morning at 4:30am, light a fire in his wood-fireplace, and then type out his thoughts on a computer (with the monitor off, in order to preserve the mood and glow of the fireplace). Very similar to Descartes' Meditations, each chapter is a new morning, written as though we were reading what was written on the computer directly - prying into a man's private journal. A man who does not have any deep and dark secrets, no Harlequin romances, and no conspiracy theories. Just a man who wants to write in detail about how he found it peculiar that - when in the shower, upon dropping a bar of soap, his toes instinctively rose up in a preemptive effort to lighten the blow, should the soap fall on his toes. He then wonders, in greater detail, how many times it must have taken for objects to land on his toes from great height, for him to know raise his toes without conscious effort.

It takes a lot of patience to read through these novels. Though comparatively short to other novels, they turn out to be longer reads. Reads which leave you thinking a lot about your own mundane tasks, reads which make you smile at the thought that there is someone out there whose thought the same thoughts about the same things, in just as great detail, if not more. The novels are not particularly rewarding - when they're done, they don't leave you feeling as though all the loose ends were tied. They are like snapshots of the character's life - as odd a time when the novel began, odd it ends - like a friend we knew for a brief time, but never fully knew. And if you don't end up appreciating the novels in the same way I do, at least you can appreciate the patience you grew as you read the book.


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