In Hollywood now, apparently, the talk is of ‘high-’ and ‘low-concepts’, a high-concept film consisting of a single, simple idea that can be summarised succinctly on the back of a cigarette packet. Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger as twins! Tom Hanks as an eleven-year-old!
Nicholson Baker’s extraordinary, hilarious novel is a high-concept book, and this is no bad thing. Admittedly, it is a little thin on plot (narrator Howie breaks shoelace, goes to buy replacement), but the story of one man’s lunch hour seems somehow very appealing even before one opens the covers. (By contrast, Margaret Drabble’s new novel deals with three friends who met at Cambridge in the fifties attempting to come to terms with Thatcher’s Britain. It is difficult to imagine a lower concept than that.)
The Mezzanine is, inevitably, a scrupulously detailed account of la vie quotidienne, but whereas countless writers, from Austen to Carver, have elevated the minutiae of our lives towards literature, their microscopes were incomparably less powerful. Shoelaces run up and down through the eyes of this book, and tie it up neatly at the end; but it is also about drinking straws, and escalators, and popcorn, and toast (diagonal cutting, superiority of), and milk cartons, and hand dryers (paper towels, inferiority to). And these artefacts do not serve as a backdrop to anything: they are the very stuff of the novel. Baker analyses them, points out design faults, recounts their histories, not only in the narrative but in the hundreds of footnotes to it. There is even a lengthy footnote on footnotes.
The cumulative effect is disorientating in the extreme, and not only because for days after finishing the book, one finds oneself staring intently at one’s icetray, or suddenly aware of one’s gauche modus operandi in the men’s room. The Mezzanine is also disorientating in that Baker commits to paper our innermost thoughts – not our dreams or hopes or desires, which in the bare-all eighties have already been shared with innumerable lovers and spouses and friends and siblings, but our real innermost thoughts, those too lame to make the long journey from the brain to the mouth. It is impossibly gratifying to find that someone else in the world has thought long and hard about where to place his signature on an office get-well card, and has noticed the interlocking leaves at the top of an escalator which prevent rubbish jamming up the machinery.
Occasionally Baker slips over the fence into Barthes territory. There is a brilliant analysis of the nuances involved in accepting paper bags in corner shops, an analysis that folds out on itself like one of the best essays in Mythologies:
Why had I requested a bag to hold a simple half pint of milk? It wasn’t simply out of some abstract need for propriety, a wish to shield the nature of my purchase from the public eye – although this was a powerful motive, and not to be ridiculed. Small mom and pop shopkeepers, who understood these things, instinctively shrouded whatever solo item you bought … in a bag: food meant to be eaten indoors, they felt, should be seen only indoors. But after ringing things up like cigarettes or ice-cream bars, obviously meant for ambulatory consumption, they often prompted ‘Little bag?’ ‘Small bag?’ ‘Little bag for that?’ Bagging evidently was used to mark the exact point at which title to the ice cream bar passed to the buyer.
And just as we have Gilbert Adair’s Myths and Memories as a British companion to Barthes’ book, perhaps we need a British Nicholson Baker. Our readers can tolerate incomprehensible American brand names in most US fiction, but several dense footnote paragraphs on Jiffy Pop (‘not the new microwave Jiffy Pop, the old aluminium Jiffy Pop’) may leave those of us on this side of the Atlantic a trifle impatient. My only other complaint is that Baker: long lunch Baker could, perhaps, have gone deeper into the subject of the Penguin orange spines fading in the sun. Has he not noticed that early-to-mid eighties TDK cassettes do the same thing? Is the colour orange itself a problem? I think we should be told.
The Mezzanine is a wonderful first novel, both for Baker and for Granta books. It is terribly funny, and unique (unless readers can recall another novel in which sneaker shoelace-knots and dress shoelace-knots are imagined side by side reciting the Pledge of Allegiance). I eagerly await both the author’s next effort and the film version of this one.