The Way to Enlightenment: Production and Consumption in Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine suspends time for both the protagonist and the reader, with the escalator serving as a symbol of the productive and consumptive postmodern society. Because of the escalator, the story’s narrator and other contemporary office workers have more time to devote to their work and are thus more productive. And while some critics deplore the rate of production and consumption in society and call for a return to the humanist days, Baker’s novel posits that the post-modern world actually encourages contemplation; he turns the notion of a hyper-productive, dehumanized postmodern world on its head. Like Proust’s madeleine, the escalator ride opens Howie’s mind to numerous involuntary memories. When he approaches the escalator, his recollections begin: It would have been less cumbersome, in the account I am giving here of a specific lunch hour several years ago, to have pretended that the bag thought had come to me complete and “all at once” at the foot of the up escalator, but the truth was that it was only the latest in a fairly long sequence of partially forgotten, inarticulable experiences, finally now reaching a point that I paid attention to it for the first time. (Baker, p. 9)The narrator’s memories quickly begin to open up, one on top of another, because of a simple lunchtime errand. His contemplation does not need to occur away from the bustle of his workday life, it is his workday life and one of the ubiquitous symbols of postmodern convenience, the “stapled CVS bag” that facilitates the memories (Baker, p. 9). “The phase we’re in now, is multinational or consumer capitalism . . . and correlated with postmodernism” is the world depicted in The Mezzanine (Klages, par. 15). Howie’s participation in this contemporary capitalist society, where he is both a producer and a consumer, are essential to his enlightenment. The escalator is also a metaphor for the reader’s endeavor, “Reading, as the site where textual mediation is realized, might therefore be appropriately described as a vehicle of local transport, of travel without leaving home, in which one moves, metaphorically, on the spot” (Chambers, par. 18). The Mezzanine for the reader is what the escalator is for Howie, the vehicle through which time is exploded from its linear standard and depicted more pastiche-like, a narrative style that is common in postmodern literature. The pastiche narrative is similar to the inner mind; it is not linear: “digression’s ‘counternarrative’ affinity with the paradigmatic dimension, the dimension of lists and listing, is itself associated with memory, as the faculty that both realizes and mental continuities and, on occasion, interrupts them with sudden disjunctions, or ‘second messages'” (Chambers, par. 15). The narrator’s errands, which must take place during his one-hour lunch break, are the primary message within the story. However, his tasks within this specified period are triggers for the “second messages” that are essentially Howie meditating on his life. The style of The Mezzanine’s narrative is the first of several indicators that the novel is Baker’s nod to the benefits of a productive and consumptive, i.e. a postmodern, society. Baker rejects “grand narratives, favors ‘mini-narratives,’ stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts” (Klages, par. 29). Through his seemingly mundane lunchtime routine, Howie is able to peel away at the layers of his life, and it is through these layers or “mini-narratives” that the reader empathizes with the protagonist and “gains a pleasurable shock of recognition” (Simmons, par. 18). The narrator is not coming down from on high to tell the reader how things are or should be, he is merely sharing the beauty that he has discovered in his everyman’s life. Postmodernists “pull art back into the maelstrom of daily life”; Baker’s novel exemplifies this movement (McGowan, par. 2). Like those opposed to postmodernism, Howie at first attempts to resist the influences of the world around him by literally shutting out the noise; he uses earplugs both at home and at work. But he eventually recognizes that it is when he is without the earplugs, and allows the world to seep into his consciousness, that he is the most content: “Lunch hours I never wore them; and possibly this explained why my thoughts had a different kind of upper harmonic during lunch” (Baker, p. 109). His contemplation of the earplugs reminds him of one of the most intimate moments he shared with L., his girlfriend:. . . sometimes, to demonstrate special tenderness, she would get the wooden toaster tongs, take hold of an earplug with them, drop it in my ceilingward ear before I had gotten around to doingso, and tamp it in place, saying, “You see? You see how muchI love you?” (Baker, p. 110)Despite his best efforts to drown out the productive and consumptive world that surrounds him, Howie becomes engaged in an intimate interaction. Without the noise of postmodern society, he would not be using the earplugs and therefore would not have these moments of contentedness nor his intimate interaction with L. The narrator’s attempted resistance to the outside world bears both personal and professional productivity. Baker refutes the notion that individuals “can enjoy autonomy from capitalism,” in The Mezzanine he is acknowledging that “the very materials of their work come from the culture . . . the individual creator is permeated with, even constituted by, that culture” (McGowan, par. 2). No matter how much one fights the influences of postmodern society, they invariably seep into your world. The carton of milk Howie purchases at Papa Gino’s reminds him of a carton of Sealtest milk from his childhood. The milk carton is tied to his thoughts about the disappearance of the milk man and milk bottles, which in turn allows Howie to contemplate the disappearance of his own childhood and transition into adulthood: I have, then, only one unit of adult thought about milk to weigh against dozens of childhood units. And this is true of many, perhaps most, subjects that are important to me . . . if I could locate the precise moment in my past when I conclusively became an adult, a few simple calculations would determine how many years it will take before I reach this new stage of life: the end of the rule of nostalgia, the beginning of my true majority. And luckily, I can remember the very day that my life as an adult began. (Baker, p. 47) A simple lunchtime purchase of a cookie compels Howie to purchase a carton of milk that is the key to his consideration not only of the evolution of consumer design (the transition from milk bottles to milk cartons) but the consideration of his own mind, the power of memory, and the relation of both to the passing of time. Howie revisits this particular contemplative vein later in the story, when he recalls his tardiness to work earlier that day: And this was when I realized abruptly that as of that minute, (impossible to say exactly which minute), I had finished with whatever large-scale growth I was going to have as a human being, and that I was now permanently arrested at an intermediatestage of personal development . . . I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be. (Baker, p. 54)Howie can assess his personal development by means of how he reacts to the products around him, a typical measure of postmodern art that “aspired to use the affective power of images much as popular culture does” (McGowan, par. 3). With every evolution of the milk container, which is essentially a fetish for the narrator, comes additional knowledge. Baker’s narrator possesses a keen intellect that is not limited to his waxing on about consumer items. While some may scorn the postmodernists for their lack of adherence to order and, in literature, the grand narrative, Baker believes that you can appreciate one while having your feet firmly planted in the other. Howie offhandedly refers to works of art and literature that are not of the postmodern vein, “An image came to me – Ingres’s portrait of Napoleon . . . I felt like Balboa or Copernicus” (Baker, p. 51). He marvels at the escalator or other developments that are inextricably tied to the postmodern, but he is also transfixed by classic literature: A glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky’s History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to, browsing in the library one Saturday, by the ambitious title and the luxuriant incidentalism of the footnotes) was what had made me stop in front of the floor-to-ceiling shelf of Penguin classics at the bookstore on a lunch hour two weeks earlier and reach for the thin volume of Aurelius’s Meditations (Baker, pp. 121-122)Howie “displays an educated literary sensibility, a wit and erudition that sometimes rises to Nabokovian heights” (Simmons, par.10). And Baker’s novel “presents a postmodern historical imagination . . . while recognizing the distance between Roman virtue and consumerist zeal . . . refuses to see that distance as a disabling one” (Simmons, par. 45). Unlike their critics, postmodernists are not elitist; rather they embrace all of their influences – be they classical or contemporary. The garbage truck, a symbol of the waste of mass production and consumption, is also a fetish for the narrator. And like the milk containers, the garbage struck allows Howie to view himself and his thinking in relation to the larger time/space continuum: But it was the garbage truck I saw at age thirty on display against the blue sky that reminded me of my old backdrop discovery. Though simple, the trick was something that struck me as useful right now. Thus, the “when I was little” nostalgia was misleading: it turned something that I was taking seriously as an adult into something soupier, less precise, more falsely exotic, than it really was. (Baker, pp. 38-39)Howie has pronounced his denial of nostalgia and his acceptance of the contemporary. The things that we yearn for from the past were at one time the things that we looked upon with doubt because of their newness. In subscribing to the whims of nostalgia, one can never truly enjoy the present, and becomes stuck in an endless cycle with no reward. Whereas if one seizes upon the present, as Baker demonstrates in The Mezzanine, the bliss of nostalgia can still be accessed but without any of the conscious, negative yearning. The narrator also finds pleasure in the towel dispenser in his office’s bathroom. To Howie, the dispenser is an absolute marvel, proof that newness and order still exists: “The renewing of newness – whether it was for me then, and is still, one of the greatest sources of happiness that the man-made world can offer” (Baker, p. 93). And like many of the other objects in The Mezzanine, it reminds the narrator that there are similar elements everywhere, that newness and order exists in new Pez dispensers, in parachutists lining up a plane door to jump, in pinball games and slices of bananas, and finally, in the escalator. There is joy to behold in the disposable world; you just need to be open to the experience. In another nod to the benefits of embracing the world of mass production and consumption, Howie finds pleasure in the vestiges of his consumer life: Just after lunch always seemed to be the time to think about practical things like bills – and I can’t help mentioning here the rarefied pleasure that I took in handling my finances back then; especially the pleasure of getting in the mail fat envelopes filled with charge statements and their receipts. (Baker, p. 69)The narrator’s role as a consumer gives him pleasure and a feeling of control. The charge receipts, like the old business cards and paycheck stubs that he refers to in another section of the novel, are proof to Howie and the world that Howie exists. To be a consumer is to know your place in society, and for the narrator that is a powerful thing. Jurgen Habermas and Fredric Jameson, in their attack on postmodernism, insisted that “a complete immersion in the local gives us no way to judge it and is thus doomed” (McGowan, par. 5). Baker’s The Mezzanine proves otherwise. The narrator may begin his contemplation with the local, like his charge receipts, but his judgment of those items and how they are metaphors for his own existence goes beyond the immediate. The impetus for personal improvements should not come down from on high as Habermas and Jameson suggest. When improvements are organic, from the local source, is when they are most effective. It is not necessary for the reader, or for the narrator as he recalls his trip up the escalator, to know the larger stories behind the narrator’s life or his company’s mission: While the problems you were paid to solve collapse, the nod of the security guard, his sing-in book, the escalator ride, the things on your desk, the sight of colleagues’ offices, their faces seen from characteristic angles, the features of the corporate bathroom, all miraculously expand: and in this way what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed. (Baker, p. 92)The details of our existence are what we adhere to, not the grand schemes. As Howie recalls the experience of the escalator ride, and the numerous involuntary memories from that day, it is the minutiae that are brought to mind – his own organic recollections. They are the markers in his life, and with the distance of several years, each memory provides for Howie the link to the next, and how each has influences his total being. Critics of postmodernism decry mass production and consumption as signs of the degeneration of culture. Postmodernists, like Baker, argue the opposite. If “the values that we attach to mass culture have much to do with whether we think ourselves at the end of empire, at the dawn of a new age, on the forefront of progress, or just muddling through” (Simmons, par. 1), then the postmodernists are the optimists, and in Baker’s case, see the society on the forefront of progress. Where modernists seek to find binaries and other signs of order, postmodernists celebrate chaos – why attempt to assign order where none exists? Baker and the postmodernists assign responsibility to the individual because they believe that, whether or not order exists, individuals are capable of finding meaning in their existence. The plethora of products and images in the postmodern world merely present individuals with increased opportunity for reflection because each is a stimulant unto itself. The human experience, including contemplation and self-discovery, is seldom orderly. It accepts stimuli to produce involuntary memories, and the more stimuli available, the more occasions for reflection.