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Roland
Milan/Tokyo, IT
Immortal since Jan 11, 2008
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    Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia

    I got the Guardian today, but my eyes didn't even reach the fold. They didn't even reach the date. The top corner advertises page 4 of G2, the comment and features section:
    Nicholson Baker
    Wikipedia took over my life

    Thrill. This paper was supposed just to be something to prop my gaze against while the sandwich went in. Now I was actually set up for an enjoyable lunchtime. A good surprise. I called my dad.

    To me, Nicholson Baker was a man who wrote a short novel, quirkily interesting, in the 1980s, then disappeared into obscurity. I thought that of him because a little while ago I read The Mezzanine. It was a novel. It was short. I found it quirkily interesting. The cover was classically 1980s-styled. When I finished it, I heard nothing more of Nicholson Baker. I had not heard of him before I read it either. So I pictured him as having disappeared into obscurity by, say, 1986, leaving behind a wacky story of shoelaces, milk cartons, and the great paper vs. plastic drinking straw debate.

    I read The Mezzanine on my dad's recommendation. He is in product design. An academic. I could see why he'd been pushing it on his students, probably since the 80s. I loved the book. It is a recent thing-in-common between us, so I called him now, sandwich still sticker-sealed. He shared my thrill. Nicholson Baker? Wikipedia? Well... He would set out to buy the Guardian right away, he said. However, I was a little disappointed to discover, in conversation with Dad, that our thing-in-common was not as in-common as I had thought. For instance, he had never read a favourite section of mine. It was the two-page footnote imagining microscopic explorers investigating up-close the histories of erosion of the grooves in records, and then comparing them to the findings from a different miniaturised expedition into the grooves left behind in ice by skates. He had not read it, he said, because his attention had been too strongly bound by the relaying, in another two-page footnote, of stapler designers' decades-long, slavish following of locomotive form factors, which they reproduced in functional officeware precisely and consistently twenty years behind the fashions of the trainyard. (That is to say that 1960s staplers are shaped like 1940s trains, and 1970s staplers are shaped like 1950s trains, and so on.) In short, he hadn't actually read the whole book. But he could see its appeal, and so could I. Strangely, I think the following review sums up my affection for it.

    Faintly amusing for about ten pages then increasingly, numbingly dull: the moment-by-moment thoughts of a 25-ish office worker during his lunch hour—with an unabashed, verbose focus on the most trivial, everyday activities.

    (From the first review showing on Google Books)


    So I hope you can understand my anticipation as I thumbed for the G2, phone now on hook, sandwich bag open: The Mezzanine addressed only the whole world, Wikipedia is a much bigger subject. I was ready for the minutiae of the massive, the intricacies of the infinite.

    The article was charming. Dressed up like a Wikipedia entry, with blue hyperlinked footnotes, which made for a passable gag in pulpy newsprint. I took that first impression back to the office, eating on the move. Having chatted with dad, I didn't have time to read the article until later.



    Naturally, I sneaked in some research whilst at the desk, alt-tabbing discreetly between Excel and Wikipedia's Baker entry for some indulgent scene-setting. I read his publications list. Sure enough, The Mezzanine appeared in the 80s, but, contrary to my egocentric version of events, it was the beginning of a string of notable novels and non-fictions, occasionally cheering critics and perturbing best-seller lists. Included were:

    Vox (1992)
    A phone-sex taboo-toucher (strangely described in the wiki as "disappointingly unpornographic").

    Check-in (2004)
    A story concerning a psychotic-sounding fellow who plots the assassination of George W by unworkably stupid means, but principally concerning his conversation with a friend about his arrival at such plans.

    U and I: Tall Tales (1998)
    Non-fiction. This one inspired me because it apparently involves an investigation and analysis of John Updike's works, written without reading those works at all at any point after the commencement of the project. This caught my imagination so much that I have written this post in exactly that way. As a result, this list and my earlier references to The Mezzanine are certainly inaccurate. (In particular, these book titles escape me now, so I have fabricated them.)

    Decimo: Book destruction in US libraries 1972-1986 (2001)
    Non-fiction. This one brought to mind some thoughts of Rene's, in a post I read yesterday. He was wondering about the impact of the openness and accessibility of information on printed books and our attitudes towards them. (Sorry, Rene, if you read this: I've not reread your post either, so I may misrepresent you.) In Decimo, Baker actually traced the histories of print publications abandoned by librarians and tagged for destruction in the microfiching frenzy of the 70s and 80s. (Apparently there was a microfiching frenzy in the 70s and 80s.)


    I was sure then, in light of those last two books on the list, that Nicholson Baker was a man with a high regard for subjective impressions of things (Tall Tales) and a love for the history and future of information collation (Decimo). He was a man whose reaction to Wikipedia I wanted to witness. By five, I knew this G2 article was going to be a treat. I stacked the day's spread of paperwork at one side of the desk, took the supplement from my bag and laid it in the space. Then I changed my mind. I would read it at home, savour it. I bagged it again and put on my coat, clipped my trousers for the cycle.

    Actually, no. My mind was perfectly primed, I thought. This was the moment to read it. I sat at my desk again, still coated and clipped, fished out the paper and flicked to page 4. I had been right at lunchtime: the Wikipedian stylings really were charming. I read the title and lead-in again - I had got that far before. Then it occurred to me that my readiness to enjoy this article had only increased since lunchtime. The anticipation was sort of stewing, the flavours of expectation spreading and intensifying, I thought, which image made me realise I was hungry. I would read it at home. Then I could eat first: might as well add the satisfaction of a full stomach. Besides, my research had so effectively confirmed the high probability that the article would be utterly gripping, that I could actually plot a related post for Space Collective on the cycle home. Decided. I repacked and left.

    Bike locked; house clothes on; work clothes pressed; feeding accomplished; feet up. The thrill of knowing I was going to read a good article; the bliss of a happily distracted digestive system. That is what it's all about. That would be the high point of the day. The truth was, I decided, I didn't even need to read the article.

    So I didn't.

    If you want to, it's here.

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    Comments:


    Rourke     Thu, Apr 17, 2008  Permanent link
    Where to start?

    Ah, the bliss of the small writ large, the absolute certainty that life has infinite folds, countless ribbons curling out and off into ever more intricate, Möbius strips of pleasure.

    I read 'The Mezzanine' almost a year ago now, shortly after I had read mention (and praise) of it in David Lodge's marvel, 'Consciousness and The Novel'. The Mezzanine's context for me sticks in the mould Lodge carved for it, i.e. that its representations of the nuances of consciousness were, and still are, revolutionary for the solipsistic act of readership.

    How 'the novel' as a medium evolved to reflect and perhaps contain the form modern, western minds tend to posit for consciousness; inner consciousness; the homunculus of self - is a fascinating subject in itself (read Lodge for more delights). Yet what Baker seems to have succeeding in doing in 'The Mezzanine' is to show that novels are actually not very good narrative mediators of this inner realm. By over emphasising a conscious perception which is so completely enraptured in the detail of qualia, Baker brings the reader to the realisation that all fiction, all protagonist fiction, is equally parodic of the very concept it espouses to replicate.

    The evolution of the form of the novel brings up all sorts of 'chicken or egg' questions, most obviously was readership's personalisation (a novel is something rarely read socially) partly responsible for the supposed separation of mind and body (a Cartesian ideal that still lingers in the language we use to express what 'selfhood' and 'mind' are at all) or was it the other way round?

    I'll answer not.

    To my great pleasure, since reading Nicholson Baker I have come across other examples of extreme qualia literature (I'm sure there's a better title, but the whole 'genre' is so subjective in its limits that naming it seems silly anyway). I'm currently reading 'The Voyeur' by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a member of a 1950s French literary movement called 'Nouveau Roman', who I am positive Baker must have taken severe influence from. I recommend it highly.

    'The Mezzanine' is more than a book that 'redefines reality' for the reader, for me it re-defined readership for the reality. A much higher praise n'er can I find.

    Thanks for reminding me of it with such wit and similitude of form...
    meika     Wed, Apr 23, 2008  Permanent link
    I remember a conversation with Paul Holloway about writing anovel, it would have been the late seventies, more like the early eighties, just before we grew up, we discussed writing a novel in which it would take the character most of the book to get out of bed and eat breakfast because it would be side tracked by economic and historical minutia, the details of every little thing that made up his room, we focussed on his shoelaces a lot, as the history of fibre and twine is quite involved, we hoped to have a large section on comparitive natural fibres: jute, hemp, cotton etc, Of course we never wrote it, it was just an idea, so now, tell me, is The Mezzanine like that? Have our plans been ruined?


    Please, only answer if you have not yet read it.
    Robokku     Wed, Apr 23, 2008  Permanent link
    Wow. Meika, I'd really like to answer that, but I have read it, obviously, so I'm out.

    Did you read my other remarks on it? I don't think they'd be spoilers for you.
     
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