The Mezzanine


I was going to do a massive post about my two days of no math post prelim whatever. I learned of a new band, read a book, and saw a movie. Although all are noteworthy, I will focus on the book for reasons that will become clear soon.

I read The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. I was quite surprised. Despite having read many books over the summer, including the massive Gravity’s Rainbow, I really think this tops them all. It probably makes my top 5 of all time (definitely not surpassing things like White Noise and Infinite Jest), and its only 130 pages! And only about 15 seconds of action happen!

The entirety of the plot is a guy walks into a building and gets on an escalator and rides it to the top. That’s it. The 130 pages are of footnotes describing his thoughts during this process. Now this isn’t as tedious as it sounds, since some of the chapters are only thoughts to avoid a fully footnoted chapter (there are still footnotes of when one of those thoughts goes off in a new direction, though). Sometimes these get several deep. Having to then flip a few pages previous to find where you left off on a footnote tangent is a great simulation of what happens in real life when you get deep into thought.

Essentially what makes this good is that it is utterly hilarious. Yet it isn’t. It is more that you are laughing at the fact that you know you’ve had exactly these same thoughts for the same reason, and you are sort of embarrassed that someone has recorded it and published it. I’ve never related to a novel so well. It is a very profound read. It makes you conscious of your thoughts and just how many you have and even of how much time is wasted on very trivial matters.

In fact, at one point the guy comes up with “thought periodicity” in which he measures how many times per year he thinks about certain topics. These are listed. Some of the better ones are:

brushing tongue: 150 times; panasonic three-wheeled vacuum cleaner, greatness of: 52 times; friends, don’t have any: 33; (later on) friends are unworthy of me: 15 times; DJ, would I be happy as one: 9 times; birds regurgitate food and feed young with it: 0.5 times;

I can only assume 0.5 times per year means every other year. I would love to quote other parts, but most of the humor comes from the lengthy build and sudden shifts in thought which would take far too much space. It would lose its greatness to just describe it. One such instance is when he thinks about the eight most significant advances of his life so far.

The language use is great. Baker comes from that tradition that is hyper-in-tune with everything. Words borrowed from math are all over, like “topology,” which is actually used properly! Words from all other branches of knowledge are used freely (most notably in my opinion is “engram” which is either borrowed from neuropsychology or Scientology, and most likely the latter remembering that this was written in ’88).

One reason I think people might not like the novel is that it could be quite offensive at parts, but one must remember that these are private thoughts your intruding upon. It isn’t like the character actually does or says these things.

My only actually nit picky point is that I think the timeline is a little messed up. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions without looking it up, but the character is only 2 years into his job out of college, so maybe 24. There are technological advances that indicate it must be the late ’80’s at least. There are things the character remembers that I think have to of occurred before his birth. Maybe not, though. When did plastic straws replace the older paper straws in mainstream use?

Overall, it was fantastic. Expertly crafted, inventive, profound, hilarious, what more could you want? And why was I not aware of this book before now? I blame this on the poor state of American education (or not taking a single lit class in college?)!

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