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Nicholson Baker: The Mezzanine

A book which can be summed up in a few words and, when you do sum it up to someone else, their very reasonable reaction is Why would you want to read that book? offers a certain amount of fascination. Baker’s first novel can be summed up as saying that it is about a man going up an escalator in his lunch hour. The man – he is called Howie but we only learn that in passing – has bought a half pint of milk and a cookie (from a failing franchise, as he tells us) as well as a pair of shoelaces currently residing in a CVS bag. We later learn that his left shoelace had snapped just before lunch. He will also buy a hotdog and some popcorn later on. However, what makes this book so much fun is that Howie is an inveterate observer. He observes all the minutiae of life around him – from the CVS bag to popcorn packaging, from drinking straws to the correct way to speak to people when peeing in an urinal. On the surface this sounds really boring but Baker tells it with such quirkiness, such wit and such aplomb (replete with copious footnotes) that it really works. All our minds work like this when we go off to our lunch hour, but probably few of us go into the detail and technological history of the things we see and it is this that is the secret of this book. It is ordinary everyday life, just as we live it, but taken just that one step further to make it a very worthwhile little book.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson