Both Ends of the Tub

Thomas Karshan

  • A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker
    Chatto, 178 pp, £10.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 7011 7402 1

Howie, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), asks whether our ‘disorganised do-it-yourself evening life’ can ‘really be the same as the clean, noble, Pendaflex life we lead in office buildings’. After all the ‘wealth and pomp’ of the office, ‘we return home every evening and stand sweating in front of a chest of drawers,’ pull out the loose coinage accumulated over the day, remove the ‘sticky lump’ of a wallet, store our pants away, and ‘walk about in our underpants and T-shirt waiting for the Ronzoni shells to boil’.

Howie is determined to make himself at home in the office. So he spends much of The Mezzanine, which follows his thoughts over the course of a lunch hour, thinking about the office toilet, the one place at work which is at all like home. Under the eye of the office clock, there is no time to stop and stare. But Howie manages to do a lot of stopping and staring: at the ‘brontosaural’ Scotch tape dispensers, for example, or the way the light catches the black rubber handrails of office escalators. This gives rise to the first of The Mezzanine’s many footnotes: ‘I love the constancy of shine on the edge of moving objects. Even propellers or desk fans will glint steadily in certain places in the greyness 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.’ Baker’s term for his close attention to the glint of the natural world and the constancy of shine in his own thoughts is ‘microscopy’, though he knows not to flash the label around too often.

The Mezzanine,’ Baker said recently, ‘was an attempt to stop time by expanding the length of the paragraph by using the footnote as a kind of fermata. So that you would feel a stop in the middle of a sentence, and then have a whole secondary thought that balloons down the side of a page.’ (A fermata is the musical sign that tells you to hold the note you are playing.) The narrator of The Fermata (1994), Arno Strine, is able to ‘drop into the fold’, or stop time, and uses this skill to undress women and masturbate on them. Undressing a colleague as she walks across the office is a way of subverting professional life on behalf of naked thought. The fold is a metaphor for Baker’s kind of writing, and Arno’s elaborate ploys to spy on women reading his amateur pornography represent a writer’s desire to witness the impact of his writing.

According to U & I (1991), Baker became a writer in a McDonald’s in New York in 1981, when he was 24. During the penny shortage that year, ‘the McDonald’s on 70th and 2nd was offering, so a huge sign said in the window, a free Big Mac to every customer who exchanged five dollars’ worth of pennies for a five-dollar bill.’ Having counted out the pennies, and taken along an anthology of William James for company, Baker was forced to wait at the counter as the manager counted out every penny, ‘while dozens of well-off, exhausted East Siders curled their lips at my somewhat pathetic miserliness’:

I reeled to the violently yellow ‘dining-room’, and to escape any stares at my facial colouring I bent very low over the William James book, which I opened randomly at a selection from The Principles of Psychology.

But the moment I began eating, my mortification reversed its engines and transformed itself into a fierce desire to gloat: I was chewing my way through something substantial, sweet, meaty, that had cost everyone else in the room money but which I had gotten for free . . . And contributing to at least half of this joyful inburst was William James himself, who, it turned out, was really good: unpretentious, jolly, at his ease – as smart as, but completely different, from his brother. I came to a page with an illustration – a number of shaky curved lines all travelling by different routes from a point A to a point Z – meant to illustrate the various paths that the recently christened, pre-Joycean ‘stream of thought’ might take in moving from one established idea to another. It was a glorious sight.

Unspeaking embarrassment was given a tongue, transformed into literature, by virtue of the discovery that you can get something – anything, possibly – for nothing, that what James calls ‘this free water of consciousness’ is always on tap.

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