The Other Way to Infinity
Riding an escalator up the space–time continuum in Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine.
When pondering infinity, the most immediate representation that comes to mind is likely to be The Universe. Or maybe it’s The Multiverse, sometimes analogized to an infinite sea of bubbles bouncing around in 11 dimensions, each bubble representing an infinite universe itself, and each run through (perhaps) with impossibly small vibrating silly strings. (Or something.)
Infinity isn’t just inconceivably large, though. It’s also infinitely small. Or, to be more precise, “infinity comes in infinitely many different sizes.” An infinite variety of infinities!
Let’s focus on the really tiny kind, like the spatial point that represents an infinite field of spatial points all its own, theoretically ad infinitum.* In the words of the fine minds behind The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “There are infinitely many infinitesimal instants in any non-zero duration, and there are infinitely many point places along any spatial path.” Also consider that the expansion of our early universe depended on a small “patch” of “repulsive-gravity material” that was “100 billion times smaller than a single proton.”
Awesome. I eagerly await the moment my own repulsive-gravity material becomes metastable.
But enough about all that. Despite the 30 minutes’ worth of extensive “research” all that entailed, I’m no quantum physicist.
What set me on the path toward infinite divisibility wasn’t physics at all, but rather a remarkable little novel called The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, published in 1988 (though it began as a short story in The New Yorker in 1986).
The Mezzanine is famous for its imaginative gimmick: the entire narrative ostensibly transpires during a single escalator ride, making it a sort of micro-Ulysses.
We’re dealing with a stream-of-consciousness novel here, so any implied linear time-scale isn’t strictly adhered to: While the essentially plotless tale begins with our narrator approaching the fateful escalator and ends with the completion of the upward ride to his office on the eponymous mezzanine, in between we’re taken on a discursive journey branching ever deeper into the space-time of his life and mind — not just an account of that escalator ride, and not, as the narrator claims, just a detailed document of a specific lunch hour and the morning events leading up to it, but a cascading rivulet of reminiscences and impressions and judgments and emotions and connections stretching back to his accessible childhood and throughout his whole life, with a few brief forays into the future. But still it’s all circumscribed by those brilliant lines of demarcation: We meet our narrator as he walks toward that escalator, and we reluctantly part ways with him when he reaches the top.
Baker’s meta-fictive device succeeds, and his sustained stare into one man’s mind effectively intimates the infinite expanse of conscious thought, where the most tenuous connections can ricochet interminably (when given enough time and space).
If I’m making The Mezzanine sound tedious, I’ve done it an injustice. Over a quarter-century after its release, it is engrossing, even thrilling at times, shining throughout with wit, wonder, and an uncompromising appreciation for life’s oft-overlooked trivialities.
The Mezzanine is just 135 pages but, for all its focus on the fleeting and small, feels much more substantial. This is the very purpose of the novel: a philosophical reappraisal of what matters, what should matter, and what we often miss — in the narrator’s words, “the often undocumented texture of our lives (a rough, gravelly texture, like the shoulder of a road, which normally passes too fast for microscopy).”
In an ultra-satisfying instance of form matching substance, Baker wields footnotes to great effect in the novel. (The Mezzanine undoubtedly influenced David Foster Wallace’s eventual war of footnote attrition. Wallace’s first novel was published in 1987, meaning these two launched their literary careers at roughly the same time; but Wallace’s first effort, The Broom of the System, is nowhere near a representative example of his use of this device: it features zero footnotes.) Like DFW’s later showings, some of The Mezzanine’s footnotes stretch for up to four pages, elucidating erstwhile minutiae in tremendous detail, offering at times delightful humanistic insights, and leveling some of the best jokes in the book.
One such 300-plus-word footnote begins, “The ice cube tray deserves a historical note.” This dry assertion captures the weltanschauung of the entire work: When considered properly, generously, humanely, everything deserves a historical note — or at least warrants a thought or two. Baker is unwavering in his commitment to this idea, dedicating elaborate diatribes to the following subjects, which do not approximate an exhaustive list:
Shoelaces/shoe-tying (lots and lots of this); office trends toward fluorescent light ushering out the age of linoleum; the aesthetics of white toast; the untold wonders of paper perforation (“Perforation! Shout it out!”); the knotty politics of signing office cards; “interesting-smelling knees”; the evolution (and devolution) of popcorn popper design; advancements and setbacks in vending-machine technology; the rich psychological terrain of visits to CVS stores; stagnation in stapler design; the efficacy and environmental implications of various hand-drying technologies in public restrooms; whistling in public restrooms (“my toneless, aerated tweets”); the masculine use of the singular “Oop!” vs. the plural, more effete “Oops!”; Marcus Aurelius’s asceticism and the disturbing habits of some later esteemed philosophers; and escalator technology and riding strategy.
But “the luxuriant incidentalism of the footnotes,” which our narrator knowingly mentions as a quality he admires in a book he purchased, isn’t Baker’s sole method of championing this unrelenting attention to detail. Equally as telling is what he has our narrator neglect to mention. Like his job, for instance: For all the space dedicated to describing his interactions with coworkers and office environment, not to mention the outsize importance he attaches to having entered the adult working world, we never learn what his job is. All we know is that he often spends many consecutive hours crafting memos to his superiors. Similarly, he casually mentions having been mugged “last week” but only to explain his current lack of a watch, never giving any further details. We don’t even learn our narrator’s name (Howie) until Chapter 10 — and there are only 15 chapters.
Of his love interest, we’re likewise restricted to impressionistic facts: that her first initial is L., that she valiantly overcame her revulsion to his earplug habit, that she enjoys sweeping (a trait he shares), that she sometimes lifts her skirt up over her head when she finds herself to be the sole passenger in an elevator. Oh, and that she’s haunted by an inappropriate joke told to her when she was 11, and by a strange riddle told to her when she was 10 — both of which invade Howie’s own thoughts.
Of his family we learn that he and his father bonded over their penchant for the same style of ties, and that his mom sometimes let him purchase her cigarettes from vending machines (and on at least one occasion tried to cultivate his table manners). But even in these moments, the focus in on the ties (repp, neat, or paisley) or on the cool 1970s cigarette-vending technology. The Mezzanine instead explores what Howie insists should be given more attention by humanity — namely things that nobody pays much attention to. For all his general aversion to Marcus Aurelius, he has developed his very own set of Meditations.
“Come to your senses, world!” Howie exhorts us all during one of his digressions (this one about deceptive marketing tactics). Nicholson Baker, through Howie or otherwise, is of course not the first or last person to place value on the small. Poets, designers, coders, musicians, typographers, painters, lawyers, accountants, engineers, surgeons, clerks — observed acutely, any endeavor can be said to fall or soar on its mastery of detail. But the original, oblique way in which Baker champions the obscure, the fleeting, the small, the human, and the pleasure of spending time with the work of a mind of such precision and humor as his surely is, is a joy to behold. He will help you to see things you’ve been overlooking.
“The aim of life is appreciation,” said that eminent gentleman of letters G. K. Chesterton. You could tell he meant appreciation for life’s simplest pleasures and even for its hardships — for this one weird shot we get at being alive at all, really. In Baker’s brief yet comprehensive “opusculum” (Howie’s self-referential descriptor for his musings), he admirably takes up Chesterton’s charge and shows just how fulfilling and humane this approach to living (i.e., living with gratitude) can be. Because after all, put anything under a microscope, so to speak, and…. Well, it just looks larger, doesn’t it? That might be a tautology, sure. But look harder and you’ll see it’s more than that. You might even find that sometimes, as another of The Mezzanine’s footnotes says, “What was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed.”
*Apparently there is some disagreement on this, er, point. Those who paid attention in geometry class might recall that any given line or plane is made up of an infinite span of dimensionless points. However, pace our ninth-grade geometry teachers, any of those select few who went on to study quantum physics and possessed the facility to grasp it were informed of Dr. Max Planck, who somehow concluded that an absolute minimum distance does exist. Wikipedia** explains that this distance — 1.616 x 10-35, aka a “Planck length” — represents the minimum time interval (“the amount of time which light takes to traverse that distance in a vacuum, 5.391 × 10−44 seconds” . . . Planck time!), anything smaller than which cannot be “meaningfully measured.” OK. But there’s an entire metaphysics lurking in that phrase “meaningfully measured,” is there not? Anyway, Planck’s work does not detract from the main type of micro-infinity Baker treats us to: the infinity of the mind.
**Wikipedia is itself a serviceable proof of discursive and recursive infinity, I’d say. Ever gotten lost in a Wikipedia chain? QED.
Posted on March 23, 2014.