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!’
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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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!