is a 1988 novel by American author Nicholson Baker. Written in Baker’s characteristic stream-of-consciousness format, it enumerates the thoughts of white-collar office worker Howie while he goes on lunch break on an average day, sometime in the 1980s. Howie works at the mezzanine level of his building and is uncertain about what his job responsibilities are, and about what he is actually accomplishing. His full name and occupation are never stated; nor is anything about his background. Through Howie’s both pointless and poignant experience, the novel highlights the difficult inner lives of corporate workers who felt entrenched in the immense machine of American capitalism during a period of great economic growth.
Howie’s thoughts and emotions are scattered and non-linear, hopping back and forth from the present to the past. The general structure of his lunch break is outlined: he rides up an escalator (briefly breaking the fourth wall, as he acknowledges his reader passing by), goes to the bathroom, and exchanges a few words with a secretary. Howie reflects on the meaningless small-talk culture of office spaces. While he urinates in the men’s room, he observes that every man passes the time by whistling relatively unpleasant and random tunes. Howie realizes that the whistling is only one of countless unconscious, unwritten codes of behavior for existing in a modern office.
At one point, Howie’s shoelace snaps, and he walks to a CVS near his office to purchase new laces. He eats a hotdog and a cookie for lunch, a fact that is juxtaposed with his reading material: the classical Stoic philosophical work Meditations
by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. At the end of his break, he rides the escalator back to his office, where he returns to his monotonous day.
Throughout the novel, as Howie starts to generate deeper and deeper insights about his seemingly superficial and routine life, he thinks about his childhood. He concludes that he will only ever become a real “adult” if he acts and thinks mainly with respect to other experiences he has had in adult life. Hoping never to become an adult in that sense, he desires to keep in touch with more of his “child thoughts,” letting them outnumber his adult thoughts. Yet, he concludes, the effort is futile: as soon as he is about forty years old, his adult thoughts will make up most of what he knows and has experienced.The Mezzanine
defies easy analysis: it makes no wide-sweeping philosophical claims but suggests many. It is at times rambling and unfocused, but even in these moments, makes poignant insights about the states of confusion in which humans usually live. Even as he realizes that his short life is somewhat anticlimactic and predetermined, Howie learns to take refuge in his own mind and memories, refusing to give up on life. At the very end, he returns to work, suggesting that our routines keep us afloat rather than weigh us down.