A Tale of Two Novels: Part Two

October 9, 2009 — Leave a comment

Now for a look at the skiff.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a completely different reading experience from I Know This Much Is True. For starters, it’s 130 pages with footnotes [yes, footnotes in a novel], long paragraphs, and a little dialogue but not much. It’s about a guy at work with a broken shoelace. So the plot is not spectacular but the novel is excellent in its way. Baker spins out these amazing riffs on mundane interactions between people and on common household objects like ice cube trays. It’s like listening to jazz or browsing through a small museum. But because it was so rich, I found I couldn’t read it for very long. I needed to take the oxygen mask off and breath some regular air before going back to it. I don’t think this would be to everyone’s taste but in defense of Baker’s rather idiosyncratic approach to fiction, there’s a quote from Flannery O’Connor:

“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer
begins where human perception begins….it is a good deal easier for most people
to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus recreate some object they
actually see.”

Baker does that kind of re-creation. He stops to look at things we see and experience every day without noticing them. I find there’s something very spiritual in this concreteness; it’s like the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It wasn’t a vague dry academic treatise about things like shoelaces but a very specific and particular story that helped me pay attention. That’s one reason I liked reading this book.

Snack Bar item: Amuse-bouche*

*An amuse-bouche is a small hors d’oeuvre not listed on the menu that a waiter brings to give you a preview of the chef’s cooking. I had never heard of the term until a couple of years ago when I went to a restaurant in France that served them. By the way, an amuse-bouche is free in the sense that it doesn’t show up on your bill. But the total is always a tad more than what you’d pay at MacDonald’s.

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