No 692 The Mezzanine by Nicholson Barker


Howie, the protagonist and almost only character in Nicholson Barker’s oddly wonderful The Mezzanine, is reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius on his lunch break. He reads the following quote:

Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!

Howie cannot understand how philosophy could possibly come in to the day that he is having.

Chance found me that day having worked for a living all morning, broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated successfully in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half a bag of popcorn, bought a new set of shoelaces, eaten a hot dog and a cookie with some milk; and chance found me now sitting in the sun on a green bench, with a paperback on my lap. What, philosophically, was I supposed to do with that?

Actually, philosophically, Howie does quite a lot with that as he has just summed up the entire narrative of the book. The Mezzanine has no real story or plot, no conflict and pretty much no other characters. It takes place during Howie’s lunch hour from his unspecified job in a large building and is an almost stream of consciousness musing on the trivial and the everyday, from the design of milk cartons to the  use of staplers and the best way to apply deodorant when already dressed.

The Mezzanine eschews narrative in favour of Howie’s long (sometimes very long) musings on daily occurrences. He is concerned about the wear on shoelaces, the design of vending machines, the correct etiquette for enjoyable escalator use, how Kiwi shoe Polish makes a profit and paper versus plastic straws. The best way to cut toast is another pressing concern;

Now, why was diagonal cutting better than cutting straight across? Because the corner of a triangularly cut slice gave you an ideal first bite. In the case of rectangular toast, you had to angle the shape into your mouth, as you angle a big dresser through a hall doorway: you had to catch one corner of your mouth with one corner of the toast and the carefully turn the toast, drawing the mouth open with it so that its other edge could clear; only then did you chomp down. Also with a diagonal slice, most of the tapered bite was situated right up near the front of your mouth, where you wanted it to be as you began to chew; with the rectangular slice, a burdensome fraction was riding out of control high on the dome of the tongue.

If you liked that passage, chances are you’ll probably love The Mezzanine, because it goes on like that for 150 pages, the format interspersed with often hilarious footnotes, including a footnote discussing the merits of footnotes. Like a little Russian doll of a book, with Howie’s mind at the centre, the ‘real’ story (if there is one) is often pushed, quite literally, to the margins as Barker gleefully reflects on the complexities and quirks of the human mind.

The Mezzanine may sound like a gimmick, but it’s actually a very human and surprisingly funny book, which is bursting with recognisable insights into how we think and how we behave. Suddenly, the smallest of observations becomes important and speaks to us about how we live.

I borrowed a Band Aid from the box in L.’s apartment – I did not own a box of Band-Aids myself. And very often you see women wistfully studying the Band-Aid shelves at CSVs; perhaps they are thinking. If I buy these Band Aids, I will have them in my medicine cabinet, ready to dress the minor wounds of the good man I will maybe meet at some future date, and later they will be there for the elbow scrapes of the children I will have with him.

This is where the pleasures come from in The Mezzanine, not from narrative or character development, but from the minutiae of observations, some of which make you think, ‘Thank God, I thought it was just me who thought like that!’

How exactly do you tie your shoelaces?

For all its convoluted yet finely balanced sentence structure, Barker’s wordy prose, although sophisticated, comes across as almost childlike. Howie considers the point at which he became an adult and looks forward to the day when the number of thoughts he has had as an adult will tip the balance over those he has had as a child (in fact he works out, mathematically, how long this might take) but it would seem that he has a way to go. Take this description of the seemingly simple process of counting sheep;

I was imagining sheep, true, but the convention, which I wanted to uphold, called for counting them. Yet I didn’t feel there was any point to counting what was obviously the same set of animated frames recycled over and over. I needed to pierce through the cartoon, and create a procession of truly differentiable sheep for myself. So I honed in on each one in its approach to the hurdle and looked for individuating features – some thistle prominently caught, or a bit of dried mud on a shank….I backed up and reconstructed the sheep’s entire day; for I found that it was the approach to the jump, rather than the jump itself,  that was sleep-inducing. Some sheep had probably reported for work around noon several towns over, tousled and fractious.

Howie seems to lead such an inner life that you almost want to hug him, but this focus on the microscopic details of his life suggests an inability to examine the larger picture. From his mind’s meanderings we discover he has a girlfriend, L., he is in his early twenties, he loves his father. He is very easily embarrassed by office etiquette, as featured in a very funny sequence in the office men’s room and seems uncomfortable around other people, a loner of sorts. When he makes a list of the subject of the thoughts that have occurred to him the most in the past year, we learn so much more,


Penguin books, all                                          35.0

Friends, don’t have any                                  33.0

Marriage, a possibility?                                   32.0

Vending Machines                                          31.0

Wheel chair ramps, their insane danger         14.0

Urge to Kill                                                      13.0

Escalator invention                                         12.0


Given how much insight the reader has gained into Howie’s thoughts on escalator invention, it’s a little concerning to see that he has thoughts about the urge to kill more often. I’m also intrigued as to what constitutes the ‘insane danger’ of a wheelchair ramp! However, Barker doesn’t do anymore than hint at Howie’s deeper neuroses; he leaves him to be recognisable to the reader and casts a light on our own relationships with the objects and people surrounding us every day, illuminating the unseen world.

It may be a short book, but it’s a concentrated read and I think had it been stretched any further it would have outstayed its welcome. It’s a love or hate book for sure and not a book that I would reread, but I do know I’ll never take a napkin out of a dispenser again without thinking ‘Flaps to the Front!’

Have any of you read it? Was it love or hate for you?


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24 Comments Leave a comment

  1. As I was sort of thinking similar when actually read ‘Thank God, I thought it was just me who thought like that!’ I’m thinking I might like this book but would have to be in the right frame of mind & place to read it… Certainly piqued my curiosity! One for the TBC pile… To be considered 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read it. It sounds like something that could be interesting, depending on one’s mind-set on any given day. I do love the exploration of people’s inner worlds. That is, after all, where we spend all of our time!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really liked the review and the sound of this book but am slightly concerned that this says something about me that I’d rather not think about! But I am intrigued by those random thoughts ( my ponder for today was why people seem to breathe much louder on the Tube on the way home than they do on the way in!) Definitely one for my list to look out for!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I like the idea of this turning into s serious research project!!!! Another topic would be the sniffing ratio between men and women in public – I think women hardly ever whereas the bloke next to me right now is every 2-3 seconds!!!!! What is it about we men and handkerchiefs?!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the sound of this book. My husband laughs at me all the time when I voice the thoughts in my head. Unlike his thoughts that are meaningful and with purpose, mine are random and out of the blue. My brother is even worse than me. We seem to like to think about things that don’t matter to anyone else.
    I love the quote about the toast. It makes perfect sense. I always cut diagonally, and prefer to, and now I know why! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read it, but it’s probably something that I wouldn’t endeavour to read anyway. The narrative seems dry, and while it would make a reader think, this book would probably make the What to Read When the World Ended and There’s Nothing Left list that I have in my journal.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think Baker is a love or hate author, I enjoy his sense of humour so will have to read this. Of what I have read, The Anthologist is my favourite. Have you read that?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I haven’t read this one but I have read Nicholson Baker before. I’ve been to many book readings and lectures (mostly, dull), but I saw Baker speak a few years ago and it really was in the top five. He is very funny and smart. He is able to condense one moment and add so much to it. I really want to read this one, but I’ve been so reading-list busy.


  8. This sounds interesting and quirky. I haven’t read any of his books at all. I’ll look out for this one at the library. Thanks!


  9. I’ve heard so many good things about this book I really need to get around to reading it. I heard Baker give a reading two years ago and he is such an interesting and personable man. It was quite a treat!

    Liked by 1 person

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