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While some reach for the narrative stars and construct great epic storylines of high drama and relentless action, others prefer a more low-key, introspective approach. Still other authors go even further in this direction, and it is somewhere here that Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine fits in, for this is ostensibly about nothing more than one man's lunch hour.
Our protagonist, Howie, is in most ways a straightforward everyman, and this is the tale of a day like any other in an office that could be any, anywhere. As such, the "plot" is of minimal importance - it is only significant in as much as it inspires the musings of Howie's mind - for it is inside the main character's head that most of this novel takes place.
Though the action is, in one sense, centred on our protagonist's workspace - the mezzanine floor of a modern building and the various surrounding areas, underneath, this is about all of the trivial, meaningless abstractions and pondering that flit about the consciousness at any given time - so in terms of any grand scope, this is really about nothing much at all. The pressing troubles of his broken shoelaces, for instance, are one of those issues that recur throughout the novel.
The format of this book reflects the piecemeal style of storytelling wonderfully - although the 150-odd pages only span an hour or so of fictional time, the text is littered with footnotes that set into action an often almost endless chain of deviations and digressions, as Baker delightfully reflects the wanderings and complexities of the human mind on the page. It's not uncommon to see the footnotes run over several pages, taking on so many topics so deeply as to push the "real" story up into a few crowded lines at the top of the page. For some, this is bound to be a little annoying, but it suits the tone of the book, and the character, perfectly.
One of the most endearing footnote-digressions, for instance, has Howie discussing his snapped shoelaces, which leads him to comparisons with doorknobs. These, in turn, cause his mind to drift to remembering the doorknobs of his youth, and the way his father would hang his ties on them around the house, then reflects on his relationship with his dad, via their shared love of fine ties.
In terms of Baker's writing itself, his words are a delight - he makes use of an extensive, often obscure vocabulary, without ever sounding pretentious, and his descriptions are so wonderfully created as to take the reader right back to comparable situations they themselves have experienced. Baker is a master of analysing the peculiarities of the small things in life, and exposing the way in which they impact upon us.
For some, though, the narrative will fail to strike a note - whilst Baker's later book, A Box of Matches, made use of the same kind of roving digressions to build up a warm, evocative picture of family life and inter-relationships, the Mezzanine's focuses are less easy to empathise with. Executive bathrooms, drinking-straw design and hand dryers are all examined in minute, almost loving detail, but for some, these studies will feel too cold and obsessive to mean a great deal. In short, a story in which nothing much happens is unlikely to appeal universally.
So; not everyone will appreciate the wildly swinging and far-ranging focus of this book - you're likely to either appreciate the original, innovative storytelling or tire quickly of its overly wordy, aimless ponderings. However, if you like your writing carefully constructed and your stories unexpected, then next time you ride an escalator, dry your hands or use a straw, it's unlikely you'll be able to avoid feeling the influence of this book's microscopic viewfinder.