The Mezzanine

I read an odd little book last week that lends itself particularly well to an immediate, flippant description, so here it is: The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a short novel about a man going up an escalator, and what he thinks about while doing so.

It’s also about experience design – or more accurately it’s about how people think about the form and detail of manufactured goods and the feel of everyday things. Everyone has these little thoughts and observations about the world at the level of consciousness that we occupy most of the day, a level that exists just below the threshold of internal monologue. It’s whatever you think without actually saying it aloud in your head [1]. Someone took all of those half-thoughts and wrote a book about them.

Anyway, that’s an overly-dense description of what is in fact an extremely simple conceit: The Mezzanine describes ordinary, mundane stuff without any bias towards usefulness or interestingness, and then expands on what the author thinks of that stuff. The book’s protagonist rides up the escalator, considering various cultural minutiae, most often everyday objects – staplers, neurons, record player needles, the best way to put on socks – and then discusses them all at length. It reminded me at times of observational standup comedy – the Seinfeldian “You ever notice how…?” kind of jokes – without actually trying to be funny or end with a punchline. Instead they’re long non-sequitur non-jokes that just expect you to nod in agreement at the end. Yes, you might say, I have noticed how drinking straws, made bouyant by clinging bubbles of carbon, sometimes float upwards out of a can of Coke and then flop sideways, the end hanging on to the underside of the open mouthpiece, defeating the point of the straw. I never thought about it, but yes, I suppose it is a silly design.

I’d have to quote a long section to convey how microscopically detailed the descriptions of things get [2], or how mundane the topics, but they are always infused with some small sense of wonder. Here’s part of a section that I liked about sugar packets to get you started:

It is impossible to foresee the things that go wrong in these small innovations, and it takes time for them to be understood as evils and acted upon. Similarly, there are often unexpected plusses to some minor new development. What sugar-packet manufacturer could have known that people would take to flapping the packet back and forth to centrifuge its contents to the bottom, so that they could handily tear it at the top? The nakedness of a simple novelty in pre-portioned packaging has been surrounded and softened and made sense of by gesticulative adaptation (possibly inspired by the extinguishing oscillation of a match after the lighting of a cigarette); convenience has given rise to ballet; and the sound of those flapping sugar packets in the early morning, fluttering over from nearby booths, is not one I would willingly forego, even though I take my coffee unsweetened. (p95)

It would be difficult to say anything about this book without using the word “things” repeatedly, but it’s strangely one of the only words we have to refer to the individual objects that make up “eveything”. Your entire world is made up of objects (most of them probably man-made if you’re in a town or city – imagine that, a completely manufactured environment!) and you have a couple of senses to feel them out with. Things are instances of objects that make up your physical experiences. And so the word “things” just keeps popping up.

Because of the nature of the book (no plot, no character progression), you’re left with plenty of opportunity to zone out yourself and mull over whatever takes your fancy. This probably all sounds very serious or self-important, but it’s not at all.

Some of the elevator cars were filled with passengers; in others, I imagined, a single person stood in a unique moment of true privacy – truer, in fact than the privacy you get in the stall of a corporate bathroom because you can speak loudly and sing and not be overheard. L. told me once that sometimes when she found herself alone in an elevator she would pull her skirt over her head. I know that in solo elevator rides I have pretended to walk like a windup toy into the walls; I have pretended to rip a latex disguise off my face making cries of agony; I have pointed at an imaginary person and said, “Hey pal, I’ll slap that goiter of yours right off, now I said watch it!” (p76)

What makes this funny or interesting is the idea that someone thought it worth writing about this stuff, and then the realisation that pretty deep personal insights can come from following through on them.

The Mezzanine in less than 140 characters.

Because there’s no such thing as just reading a book any more, here comes the statutory and perhaps ill-advised shout-out to the Internet: a comparison to Twitter (not all of the social network business, but just in relation to interface and motivation). I’d like to have something like a private Twitter account that had no social element, no publishing or online element, but just acts as a low-barrier way of jotting stuff down, of drawing my internal monologue closer to the surface – a record of my continuous near-naught attention, outboard memory storage of things only worth forgetting unless you add them all together. I should probably just write things down more, but it would be, on aggregate, easier for me to keep notes of personal thoughts in something like an IM bot than in a paper notebook [3]. If you know of such an app, let me know. Maybe that’s how some people use online publishing tools like Twitter today, but I’d venture that it’s not how most people use them. It’s nearly impossible to write something online, something that you know will be pushed to other people, without being cognisant in some tiny way of the fact that what you are saying will be perceived. Every act of creation, no matter how effortless or mundane, is tainted by the fact that it has been curated and presented out of a myriad of possibilities. Here’s your pal and mine, John Berger [4]:

An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved - for a few moments, or a few centuries. Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family snapshot. (p10)

It’s just a coincidence that I read this shortly after going into way too much detail about this kind of thing in my bit about corrugated roads, but that might go some way towards explaining why I liked the book so much. There’s a section in The Mezzanine where he wonders about ice skating ice and the gradual deterioration of record grooves that was, I thought, quite similar:

As in the later case of the frayed shoelace, what I wanted here was tribology: detailed knowledge of the interaction between the surfaces inflicting the wear and the surfaces receiving it. For skating: Were there certain kinds of skate strokes that were particularly to blame for the dulling of the skate blade? The sprinting start, the sideways stop? Was very cold ice, or ice with a surface already crosshatched with the engravings of many other blades, liable to dull my blades faster? Was there a way to infer total miles skated by the wear inflicted on the edge of a blade? And for records: Was it the impurities in the vinyl that wore down the needle, or was it the ripples of vinyl music itself, and if it was the music, could we find out what sorts of timbres and frequencies made for a longer-lived needle? (p66)

How much fun is that? However, I would be terrified to actually recommend this book to someone else. I enjoyed it greatly, and continue to enjoy it’s resonance a week later, but I can appreciate how someone else might think it a complete waste of time (although I might secretly pity that person and think them to be lacking imagination and perhaps even some sense of wonder about the world). I just checked, and I can’t believe that it didn’t get any one-star reviews on Amazon; I was expecting to see all fives and ones, but no. It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever, as David St. Hubbins said.

Put it this way: if Nicholson Baker had a blog [5], nobody would read it.

  1. Stephen Pinker calls this “mentalese” in his book The Language Instinct, and it’s something that keeps coming back to me. Mentalese is the language of thought, a language without words or grammar or symbols, but made entirely of concepts and understanding. Consider it: you’re not constantly talking to yourself in your head; most of the time you just understand or know what your thought process means. Even when language is used externally, those words need to be “translated” into some form of understanding, as anyone who has ever struggled when trying to find the right words can confirm. It’s a fun thought experiment to monitor your own mundane internal thought process and try to verbalise it (I suspect most people have done this at some time).

Aside from all that, you would most likely go nuts without mentalese, and the ability to block out distractions and focus on a single thing, but it’s still interesting to think about mining that level of consciousness in some way. Similarly, it’s probably fun to read the 150-odd pages of The Mezzanine, but reading books like that all the time would drive you to distraction, as we appropriately say in Ireland.

  1. A lot of this detail is played out in footnotes, often stretching across multiple pages. I suppose this is kind of old hat in postmodern novels by now (D.F. Wallace, Eggers), but The Mezzanine is almost twenty years old. Regardless, because the entire book is composed of tangents to the main story (man goes up escalator) it still works: the footnotes are just tangents to the core tangents.

Also, have you noticed that this digression on footnotes is actually itself a footnote? Baker includes a fantastic footnote about footnotes near the end of the book that would win anyone over.

  1. It’s worth noting the aptly-named here, with it’s single-keystroke entry adding. I love the interaction design of Things. A custom keyboard shortcut invokes a HUD input dialog from any app (similar to Quicksilver or Google Desktop), so data entry takes about two seconds from any context, and then these items are filed away to be dealt with when you’re in todo-management mode, in the application itself. Once you’ve learned to file and forget, and trust that that process will work for you, there’s none of the distraction that would otherwise have come from switching between GUIs to perform one small task. Also, the more I learn to use the command line for various simple tasks, the more I like a text prompt as a powerful, fast user interface.

And have you seen the “speechless conversation” video of a guy making a computer speak by thinking about using his vocal cords? Jesus. With a refined interface like that, the barrier to data entry approaches zero – just above the cognitive effort level of mentalese.

  1. While I’ve got free reign with the footnotes, I might as well mention that gratuitously quoting from famous books to validate your point in blog posts always reminds me of this scene from Annie Hall.

  2. I checked; he doesn’t, but he has contributed extensively to Wikipedia, which now that I think of it, makes blindingly perfect sense. Baker wrote about Wikipedia in the NY Review of Books this month.

— 30 Mar 2008