Searching for Meaning in the Mundane

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is a story about one man, Howie, on his lunch break. But underneath that it is a novel about how small things connect people to each other. The Mezzanine is a unique novel, told through stream of consciousness and it focuses on the minutest details of daily life. That’s it. There is no epic struggle, no antagonist, and no quest. I was engaged while I was reading The Mezzanine, but once I put it down I really didn’t feel an urge to pick it back up.

Howie, the narrator, is certainly a likable character. His interior monologue is tame (for the most part), his thoughts are clear, and he has just enough wit about him to make the reader chuckle on occasion. His thoughts are surprisingly similar to my own during such humdrum activities, and that gives the book its main appeal. It is so easy to connect with Howie because he plays the everyman role so well. Despite the fact that his thoughts are incredibly specific, his quirky thought processes are shared by the majority of readers who will make it past the first chapter of The Mezzanine. His meandering thoughts jump from one topic to another based only upon thoughts and memories specific to him. “But the 1905 doorknobs in our house had that quality. My father must have had special affection for them, because he draped his ties over them” (27). I don’t doubt that other people may have a mental connection between doorknobs and ties, but being able to follow that connection is one of the delights of The Mezzanine. If his thoughts were less specific, if he didn’t talk for two pages about the gradual disappearance the home delivery of milk, then his thoughts would be boring, meaningless. Howie’s specificity and insight into everyday life is what gives The Mezzanine its charm and makes it entertaining. However, that wasn’t quite enough for me.

I enjoyed The Mezzanine, but to me it was more a magazine than a novel. I could pick it up and flip to any given page without being too lost or confused about who the characters are. There is little actual drama or action within the story, but this is by design and is not some accidental oversight by the author. But the lack of any physical or emotional danger, the meat of a story, made this book one that I could pick up, read a few pages and enjoy, and then put down for a few days, as opposed to other novels that stuck with me long after they ended. The Mezzanine shows that having realistic, believable characters is not enough to make a story compelling, but that emotional danger is also a crucial component. I liked Howie, and he felt as realistic to me as Huck Finn or the father in The Road. But why should I read about his lunch hour thoughts, specifically the thoughts on this particular lunch? It may be that the author’s intent was to show that even the dullest of days are still filled with insight and wonder, a “stop and smell the roses” to the reader. That is a legitimate stylistic choice, but as a reader I just wasn’t compelled to keep reading. Despite being a well written and humorous book, The Mezzanine wasn’t engaging enough to make me want to read it because there was no momentum. Early on in our writing careers we’re taught that a story is like climbing up the hill, the upward incline is the rising action, the peak is the climax, and the downward slope is the falling action. But The Mezzanine has no slope, no peak, and no unstoppable cascade down the side of falling action. It is just a straight line that follows Howie’s thoughts.

The Mezzanine is a great example of first person stream of consciousness writing. The reader knows Howie’s exact thoughts and is able to really get behind him as a character. I was ready to root for him through thick and thin, but there was no conflict. The book followed him through a boring, humdrum lunch hour. Without any reason to want the story to progress I had no motivation to continue the book any time I put it down. The Mezzanine is well written and humorous when it wants to be, but that just wasn’t enough for me as a reader.

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

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