16 March 2009

Ur-story: The End of Modernity?

Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, made quite a splash when it was published in 1986. I had neither the time nor the inclination to read it at the time, and the paperback edition has sat unread on my shelves for twenty years.

I'm not sure what my reaction to it would have been lo these many years ago, being at the time an office drone much like Howie, the POV character. My response to it now is mixed.

Let me preface this by saying that my problem with cultural references in the writing of my writer friends is usually one of dismay. Now, I'm a bit of factoid junkie and can identify an allusion or in-joke or cult reference with the best of them. Yet, cultural trivia tend to date novels. If we read that one character's favorite song is 'Girlfriend in a Coma' or that another goes home every night to tend to her pet rock, we get a sense of when those characters lived (late '80s and mid-'70s, respectively). The song and the trend are artifacts of their periods, just as broadswords and armor are of medieval crusades. If we do our cultural archaeology, we might even glean some bits of meaning or, importantly, characterization from the writer's use of these items (say, fey insouciance in the first instance and lonely, mindless trend-following in the second), if the writer is being 'intentional' (the very use of that word is itself a cultural reference to an intellectual fad, or trend, of the mid-'80s, as well).

Mezzanine is now nothing but an artifact. The mindless, chick-lit, prep-school and shopping and fashion novels of the early part of this century are, if anything, intentionally (there's that word again) 'artifactual': fashionable, brand-conscious, trend-setting, marketing tools to and for a hyper-consumerist, pre-teen through twenties-ish set of middle class girls (yes, girls and not young women). They practically come with a 'Use By' date stamped on them. Of course, they, too, will someday be relics to be studied by cultural anthropologists to try to understand something about the current American (and British) commodity capitalism culture. But, they are at least aware of their datedness. Mezzanine, I feel, isn't. Still, in this respect, they are the heirs of Baker's novel.

Baker's book is dated. For example, there are, notwithstanding the writer's excruciating attention to detail, no desktop computers. Staplers and date-stamp machines are antiquated. There's even a cigarette vending machine by the bathroom.

More problematic is the overwhelming, absurd amount of detail Baker brings in. There is no selection, no judicious use of detail to color or characterize or advance the plot or set the scene. Baker describes things promiscuously and to obscene detail. It's as if he is trying to describe everything that happens and that goes through the narrator's mind in the span of the time it takes Howie to ride an escalator from the ground floor of his office building to the mezzanine where he works. That's not to say he doesn't describe things well. To the contrary, he is a marvelous writer of descriptive prose. Someday, an anthropologist or cultural archaeologist might pick up this book and actually get a sense of what went on in an average, urban white-collar worker's head one fine, summer day in the 1980s.

Here's the story, such as it is: Howie has broken a shoelace, his second in two days. This is wondrous, and pages and pages of verbiage are spent remarking this fact and attempting to theorize the forces at play in bringing about this coincidence. He sets out at lunch to go to the CVS and buy a new pair. In the meantime, he marvels over the workings of escalators, the polishing of the handrails thereof, staplers and date-stampers, paper towel dispensers in men's restrooms, the flushing of toilets, the modern drug store, the arrangements of bricks in a courtyard, the modern wonder that is perforated paper, and on and on. Words that come to mind: quotidian, jejune, even boring. Yawn.

The novel is essentially shapeless. As in a Seinfeld episode (again, a cultural artifact), nothing happens. A faceless office worker goes out to a drug store at lunch to purchase a new pair of shoe laces and returns to his office on the mezzanine of a corporate office building up an escalator, hoping to get to the top before anyone else jumps on either the up or down side. The character is smothered in the excessive details of a few brief moments—and, perhaps, that is the point; but that's a stretch, and I'm not feeling generous. There is no tension, no conflict, no real obstacles. Towards the end of the book, Howie, having finished his hot dog and his cookie and half his carton of milk (yes, he spent several pages describing it) and not read anything in the Penguin paperback of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations he's been carrying around, synopsizes the book:
"'Manifestly,' I repeated, as if scolding myself, 'no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!' 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 of 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?" (p. 123)
Oh, and there're footnotes. Loads of 'em.

James Wood opens his first book, The Broken Estate, as follows:
"The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists thirst. The real is contour, aspiration, tyrant. The novel covers reality, runs away with it, and, as travelers yearn to escape, runs from it, too. It is impossible to discuss the power of the novel without discussing the reality that fiction so powerfully discloses, which is why realism, in one form or another and often under different names, has been the novel’s insistent preoccupation from the beginning of the form."
In my last post, I mentioned a type of 'the world is too much with us' realism, what Wood later calls "hysterical realism." If you like that sort of thing, this book is the mother lode. Perhaps an Ur-text.

Reading the book, I was put in mind of a passage from another book published some half-century earlier in another country. I had no idea at the time why the association leaped to mind, but I chased it down and re0read it. It goes like this:
"So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble point of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.

It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be.' Or else I was thinking ... how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness." [Sartre, J.-P., Nausea p. 126-27]
After I re-read this passage, I knew why it had presented itself unbidden to my mind: this is precisely the sort of thing the Baker novel lacks: insight. Roquentin is sufficiently self-aware to know he has what he calls Nausea. The press of things is overwhelming, revulsive. But he accepts it. Howie, on the other hand, just doesn't get it.

Howie is essentially passive, neutral toward all the things that impinge on his life and his consciousness. His attitude is one of subservience. He is held captive by reality, the press of things, and suffers from some cognate of Stockholm Syndrome; he actually seems to like things the way they are. He certainly never questions things. Though, much to his credit, at one point, he actually wonders how long such a materialistic civilization can sustain itself.

Howie is locked inside a vapid subjectivity and cannot see the way out, the connection Roquentin makes. He himself is colorless, truly characterless. This book is the tale of the loneliness of a solitary consciousness. It represents an almost willful refusal of what I have called the Ur-story: the coming to consciousness of one's own mortality and the subsequent sense of loss of the self amongst the things of the world. Howie is unself-conscious, adrift on a vast sea of materiality. Lost. And, perhaps, that is his true tragedy, though Baker isn't saying.


Steven Augustine said...

"More problematic is the overwhelming, absurd amount of detail Baker brings in."

Jim, the detail is the point. I don't remember The Mezzanine well enough to defend it here, but Room Temperature, which was also anal-on-a-nanoscale in its approach to the *apparently* banal (see what Baker did with the word "lumber" once and you'll see what he's getting at) was lovely, witty and fresh.

This is not "Hysterical Realism"; where are the (supposedly) wacky characters endemic to the (supposed) school?

Nicholson's style is a brave (imo) artistic decision. I fear that in only a few years the broader culture has become so fiercely hostile to anything approaching what Art once did (challenge rather than soothe; expand the possibilities of perception rather than police them) that *every* truly original, limits-pushing, burgher-insulting artifact/style/artist of the 20th century is going to suffer a similarly harsh downward-reappraisal before being rediscovered by a 23rd Century Renaissance.

When you write, "It represents an almost willful refusal of what I have called the Ur-story: the coming to consciousness of one's own mortality and the subsequent sense of loss of the self amongst the things of the world," I think (or mutter): that's the danger of LitCrit systems... it's always, in the end, just "my way or the highway". The proscriptions inevitably feel rather arbitrary.

Re: Your Ur Story theory: it seems to me that Baker's stylistic choice defies the standard narrative conveyor belt towards the maw of nonbeing by penetrating sequential time to dig down, down, down into the substance of lived life (exploiting Updike's template for hyperfine description to a purposeful extreme). Consider the time-jamming conceit at the core of The Fermata.

Isn't it possible that Baker is making an important point about what fineness the grain of consciousness can really resolve to, despite our (The West's)regrettably drugged, pressurized, grave-rushing approach to existence?

I think the salient tendency of great scientists is their *taking nothing for granted*: no question too stupid, no effect too trivial to remark upon. And I say ditto to that for great writers. Artists in general.

When you wrap up with, "Lost. And, perhaps, that is his true tragedy, though Baker isn't saying,"... I want to add: good for Baker!

Steven Augustine said...

Good Gawd, did I just refer to him as "Nicholson"? Laugh! It's okay to "Marty" Amis, but...

Steven Augustine said...

PS Just to clarify: not being "stroppy" here... just saucy...

Jim H. said...


I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Such are always welcome here.

'Mezzanine' puzzled me. Ambivalented me, even. I had hoped to show how it did not conform to the conventional norms of the novel—and, in this respect, disappointed—and yet seemed to hint at something altogether new. The problem for me was not really 'getting' the hint.

I do feel there is a sort of 'pornographic' realism at work here. (Though your point about the 'wacky' characters of Pynchon, et al., is well-taken.) 'Mezzanine' exploits the moment, what Paul Tillich, the theologian, called 'the eternal now'. As I once told a friend: some people see the world in a grain of sand, others like to walk on the beach. Baker seems to be the former.

Notwithstanding, the conventions of story, plot, character, etc., have endured for a reason: they get and hold our attention. They interest us. Their patterns satisfy something central to our historical mind. This is where Baker's book did not work, for me. At the level of artifact, on the other hand, it excels.

You say: "Isn't it possible that Baker is making an important point about what fineness the grain of consciousness can really resolve to, despite our (The West's)regrettably drugged, pressurized, grave-rushing approach to existence?" I think it's not only possible, it's a plausible reading. But, still I come back to the same question: to what end?

Jim H.

Steven Augustine said...

"Some people see the world in a grain of sand, others like to walk on the beach."

I'd wear that on a t-shirt, yes.

Richard said...

"You say: "Isn't it possible that Baker is making an important point about what fineness the grain of consciousness can really resolve to, despite our (The West's)regrettably drugged, pressurized, grave-rushing approach to existence?" I think it's not only possible, it's a plausible reading. But, still I come back to the same question: to what end?"

That is the end. And the experience of reading it.

I agree with Steven on this book. I think you've missed the boat on it. (Your remarks on its datedness seem out of place, too. I read it less than ten years ago and was unconcerned.)

Jim H. said...

S & R,

I don't necessarily disagree with your feeling, to wit: I "missed the boat on" Mezzanine. It wouldn't be the first time.

Certainly, Mezzanine is a Ulyssian moment. Howie is Bloom writ small. A somewhat static portrait of an ordinary office drone riding up the escalator after lunch break: cf.: Nude (Awareness) Ascending an Escalator.

My question, though, is why should I be interested, other than the artifactual value of the descriptions. There is a solipsistic, almost autistic, quality to it.

Though Howie is acutely aware of the things he sees all around him and his own particular experiential history with them, they do not really rise to consciousness—i.e., to meaning, to what A. Danto called (in re Warhol and the Pop Art movement), the transfiguration of the commonplace.

Here's an analogy: when you're a kid you have ideas in your head, but sometimes you don't have the language skills to communicate them in their full complexity. Hell, that's the crucial daily struggle, frankly, for artists working in the medium of language. So, yes, Baker puts us in Howie's head for a brief moment and plays out all(?) the associations that impinge on him in that moment. And he does so convincingly, with sure artistry. But, I go back to my autism analogy, unless I love or otherwise care for the autistic child, his world does not interest me, fails to command my attention. I am not drawn in, unless I have some reason to be—e.g., I am his parent, his caregiver, his teacher, his therapist, etc. I am none of those things for Howie. When I read Mezzanine, I don't feel compelled to make sense of things for him, or, for that matter, for me. (Except, ironically, that seems to be what I/we am/are doing here.)

Superb artifact? Absolutely. Ultimately interesting? Again, I'm ambivalent. Just by virtue of the fact that we're having this discussion, the novel, 20 years on, has shown the capacity to at least stand to take what Wm. Gass calls 'the test of time.'

Thanks, gentlemen, for challenging me to clarify and refine and think through these issues.

Jim H.

Dan Green said...

"There is a solipsistic, almost autistic, quality to it."

Indeed. Autistic realism. It's precisely the opposite of "hysterial realism" and a mode only Baker and a few precursors (one of which I think might be Alain Robbe-Grillet) have really explored.

LML said...

"why should I be interested, other than the artifactual value of the descriptions."

Not to pile on, Jim H., but I've read this book numerous times and like it quite a bit. Steven and Richard and Dan are correct, in my opinion. Not only are the details the point in The Mezzanine, but they absolutely rise above artifactual value.

The absurd proliferation of matter wrought by consumer capitalism has--or should have--a paralyzing effect on the sensitive observer. Howie isn't "normal" in his noticing, but that's only because most of us go to abnormal lengths to avoid dwelling on the trivial substance of our lives. This is all we've got, right? We like to think it's not, and we therefore dream stupid dreams that, when shattered, leave us looking around again at our shoelaces and record grooves, going, "Is this all we've got?"

I've taught this book to freshmen college students, and they recoil from it precisely because it seems to undermine their thoughts about the working world they're going to be entering. Also because it requires concentration.

Howie's need to notice, to valorize even, the trivia of his life is psychologically no different from Levin's need, in Anna Karenina, to formulate agricultural-management theories that accord with his ethics. We make meaning out of the materials that our circumstances give us.

Claude Simon is someone else who works in this vein.

A side note about the datedness issue. What you're talking about isn't datedness, as I understand it. Authentic, non-anachronistic details root a narrative in a particular time. Proust wrote about the moment when electricity arrived in the homes of the aristocracy; this doesn't date the text, it documents a moment in time in all its fullness, which is one of the things novels do well.

Frances Madeson said...

Interesting. Mightn't you squish Millhauser and his 1,001 department store tableaux in there, wherein the dream is the materialism? Or is that Mercantile realism, an entirely other beast?

Jim H. said...

Quixote disillusioned us from the great and noble Romance, introduced us to the reality of life. Bovary seduced us to the quotidian life. L. Bloom stumbled through an ordinary day. Howie glided through a fairly jejune moment.

A fair trajectory of modernism? From realism to consciousness to autism, is that the natural progression? Thus, the question in my title: Does The Mezzanine represent the end of modernism? Is its predominant form played? Exhausted?

Where does (can) the modern(-ist) novel go from here? Can there be any further 'progress'? I mean, there is nothing more modern than the very moment in which one finds oneself (though, as I've argued, Howie's 'moment' is now more a historical one; it is no longer current. Yet, for the duration of the time of reading the pages of the book we are current with Howie).

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all!

Jim H.

LML said...

"A fair trajectory of modernism? From realism to consciousness to autism, is that the natural progression?"

One strand of modernism, absolutely. Baker definitely seems terminal to me, an extension of the logic of the most well-known parts of Ulysses, and I'd agree, if this is what you're suggesting, that Baker's is a diminished modernism compared with Joyce's. But whose isn't?

As to the rest of modernism: Joyce himself, of course, lit out for other territory, not far from Stein's, where word and thing come uncoupled and give birth to all sorts of conceptual possibilities that I doubt have been as thoroughly explored as we think.

Other strands of modernism continue to produce offspring, too. There's a zig-zagging, recursive line of descent from Kafka's dramatization of the unconscious, to Beckett's dramatization (comicalization) of meaninglessness, to Bernhard's mental-musical rage, to Borges's gamesmanship, to Pynchon's exploding networks of narrative, to Barthelme's bit riffs, to Sebald's faux archives, and on and on.

Frances Madeson said...

LML, I wish you would go on and on. Such a pleasure.

Thanks so much, Jim. It was really enjoyable.

By way of reciprocation...Last month I heard the Cinematic Orchestra play their score to the movie, "Man With the Movie Camera." I don't know if they've made it to Atlanta yet, but they have a CD, and I do recommend it. The whole thing is gorgeous but the final song is called Time and Space and it is transporting. All That You Give and Breathe are also very beautiful. Inspiring for writers, like these illuminating conversations.

Toast said...

Er, there are no desktop computers, the writer's "excruciating attention to detail" notwithstanding? Baker's attention to detail might have been more pleasing to you if he saw into the future? I mean, just following your analytical logic is all. If the "absurd amount of detail" is more "problematic" than the dated objects in the book, that means the dated objects are problematic, and the book's datedness is problematic. That's going to be a problem for a lot of literary works. Romeo and Juliet, for instance, doesn't even feature vacuum cleaners, and you can search Tom Jones as hard as you like, but you'll never find a razor scooter, or even a skateboard. What's up with that?

Jim H. said...

Oooh, so close, Toast. As Maxwell Smart used to so nasally intone, "missed it by that much."

Had there been desktop computers in Howie's up-to-date in Kansas City office building, one can be quite certain Baker would have had him notice them, describe them (yes, in excruciating detail), articulate their function in the skein of his day-to-day life, etc., etc. That he did not just shows how dated (artifactual) the book is from the perspective of today. That's the problem—not the datedness of the objects.

The book has become an artifact because it relies too heavily on the things it describes. It has lost its currency. It spends way too much ink describing business things and far too little on the business of fiction.

I must confess, though, I do sometimes wish Don Quixote had a jet ski or Elizabeth Bennet a cell phone.

Toast said...

Yes. I missed it. "To Penshurst," "Upon Appleton House," "Cooper's Hill," "Windsor Forest," "Tristram Shandy," "Tom Jones," everything Walter Scott ever wrote, everything James Joyce ever wrote, "Mrs. Dalloway," all dated on the same principle. And don't be saying that those works don't rely too heavily on the things they describe. They are all works that rely totally on the things they describe and you missed it, captain.