17. Luxuriant incedentalism
July 19th, 2020
I love when a book puts up a good fight.
Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is a short stream-of-consciousness novel which takes place over the course of a single escalator ride, and for the first few chapters I found it totally maddening—tedious, obsessive, and stuffed with rambling footnotes.† But as I pushed on, I began to feel like I was sparring with Baker and his protagonist before falling in lockstep with their obsessions and digressions: shoelaces, hand-driers, the design of milk cartons and drinking straws, perforation. It sounds dry as dust and twice as flavourless, but something about the way it meticulously paints everyday minutiae is strangely profound, particularly when it focuses on the minutiae of the workplace. Here’s a footnote that stopped me:
When you leave a job, one of the hardest decisions you have to make on cleaning out your desk is what to do with the coffinlike cardboard tray holding 958 fresh-smelling business cards. You can’t throw them out—they and the nameplate and a few sample payroll stubs are proof to yourself that you once showed up at that building every day and solved complicated, utterly absorbing problems there; unfortunately, the problems themselves, though they once obsessed you, and kept you working late night after night, and made you talk in your sleep, turn out to have been hollow: two weeks after your last day they already have contracted into inert pellets one-fiftieth their former size; you find yourself unable to recreate the sense of what was really at stake, for it seems to have been the Hungarian 5/2 rhythm of the lived workweek alone that kept each fascinating crisis inflated to its full interdepartmental complexity. But coterminously, while the problems you were paid to solve collapse, the nod of the security guard, his sign-in book, the escalator ride, the things on your desk, the sight of colleagues’ offices, their faces seen from characteristic angles, the features of the corporate bathroom, all miraculously expand: and in this way what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed.
From August 2018 until March earlier this year, I would commute three days a week to an office in downtown San Francisco. I would shoehorn myself into a packed BART at the Castro Street station (or an empty F Market if I had a spare 45 minutes and complete disregard for my lower back), and shuttle towards my own absorbing problems and incidental details. Though I left San Francisco, I didn’t leave that job, so the problems haven’t yet collapsed as Baker describes, but reading The Mezzanine this week reminded me of all the little environmental eccentricities I haven’t thought about in months, and perhaps also reminded me to appreciate the ones that surround me today.
† Like this one. The Mezzanine luxuriates in its footnotes as if each one was a warm bath. There’s a footnote about the appreciation of footnotes. One begins, ‘Let me mention another fairly important development in the history of the straw,’ and only gets better from there.
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