Turbulence

Walter Nash

  • The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
    Granta, 135 pp, £10.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 14 014201 0
  • The Memoirs of Lord Byron by Robert Nye
    Hamish Hamilton, 215 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 241 12873 0
  • All you need by Elaine Feinstein
    Hutchinson, 219 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 09 173574 2
  • The woman who talked to herself by A.L. Barker
    Hutchinson, 186 pp, £11.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 09 174060 6
  • Restoration by Rose Tremain
    Hamish Hamilton, 371 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 241 12695 9

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is a book about the mind electrically at odds with vacancy and repose; about the astonishing turbulence in the little grey cells of little grey people like you, and me, and Howie, who at lunchtime quits his office on the mezzanine floor and goes down the escalator to the street, to buy milk and cookies and a new pair of shoelaces. On the way we follow the movement of his mind through a conveyor-belt meditation, rigorous as a Zen discipline, zany as a Disneyland dance, on the everyday mechanics of things contemplated most minutely in particular. What things? Oh, just ordinary things, you know, things counter, original, spare, strange, spring-loaded, gear-driven, fully automated and packaged for your all-American convenience, that sort of thing. Howie’s central preoccupation is with the working life of shoelaces and the rival hypotheses (there are two contenders) which may be adduced to explain not only how they come to break but also how one shoelace will snap within days of the other.

This is the argumentative mainstream, into which, however, flow frequent tributaries in the form of disquisitions on earplugs, date-stampers, staplers, shirt packagings, milk cartons, and men’s rooms where you suffer the exquisite ignominy of keeping your water while all around you (especially the senior executives) are bountifully losing theirs. I should intone here a manifold and multi-conglomerate ‘et cetera’, because the foregoing list hardly begins to mention the things upon which the solitary Howie thinks, opines, and ungainsayably ratiocinates. He is falling-down-drunk with data, like a PhD student, and elaborates his observations with maniac footnotes which grow longer and longer, until they begin to outbalance the main text. As a conscientious reader, I had a great deal of methodological bother with these footnotes (which incidentally did my astigmatism no good at all), because I could not decide whether to read them as they occurred or save them up for second time round, as an alternative text. Probably Howie, or Mr Baker, would like me to do it both ways and test for differences.

Well, but the point? A point not to be overlooked is that one of the objects Howie carries with him on his lunchtime excursion is a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, in which he reads that mortal life is ‘transient and trivial ... yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes’. Howie denies this with an emotional intensity not apparent elsewhere in the book: ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong! I thought. Destructive and misguided and completely untrue!’ Wrong, wrong, wrong, we may assume, because for Howie everything in mortal life – shoelaces, shopping bags, escalators, et cetera, everything palpable and divinely unabstract – is of such peculiar and complicated interest that nothing can be trivial. Life is too full to be fobbed off with abstractions and aphorisms. Had Howie been a Romantic poet, he might have hymned the particular significance of daisies and lesser celandines: being a modern metropolitan man, he wanders lonely as a cloud, musing on vending machines and paper-towel dispensers. These blessed forms locate the mind’s unending, self-delighting play. This is worth thinking about, though whether it adds up to a novel I do not know. I found myself repeating Dogberry’s phrase, ‘most tolerable and not to be endured’: meaning, I suppose, that I congratulate Mr Baker on a brilliant performance and hope he will not want to repeat it.

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