This was Nicholson Baker
's first novel (1988), and set the tone for his later writing, but I think it is the most perfect of its kind: an enthralling
and delightful examination of the microhistory
of thought and life, to and fro, over and over, holding every glittering fragment of the minutiae
of our ordinary experience
s up for view.
It fascinates because it's about all the tiny questions that actually obsess us for much of the day, all the little repetitive actions and habits that we normally wouldn't put into words, all the strange trivial connections that we flip between and skate through in our everyday life.
There is no plot. It's all thoughts, memories, feelings. It's not a stream of consciousness at all, not in the way Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of Ulysses is: Baker's text is as careful, as grammatically convoluted, as a college essay, and highly intelligent and allusive. The text is full of footnotes. One footnote goes for five pages.
One lunchtime he goes on the escalator. He goes to the men's room. He leaves the office, buys a carton of milk, and needs some shoelaces because his old ones broke that morning.
Why did both shoelaces break within a day of each other? What is the pattern of wear, in the competing processes of tugging them to tie them tight, and the daily attrition of walking around?
What a wonderful invention is the milk carton, with one triangular flap glued more strongly than the other, so that it forms a useful pouring spout. He charts the history of inventions: the move from paper drinking straws to plastic and the consequent failure of them to work any more in the way we expected them to, one-handedly sipping at a milkshake or a cola while doing or holding something, occupying the other hand; the tendency of the newer plastic straws to float up, anchored only by inadequate small excrescences on the side of waxed cups, required a new method of ducking and sipping. He considers the economics of drinking straw manufacturers cooperating with the new styles of dispensing in fast food joints: the new caps on drinks with the crossed opening for the straw to go through meant the lighter-than-drink plastic straws worked when placed in such a lidded drink, and this constituted the bulk of their business; but it represented a loss of utility for users in other situations.
His girlfriend told him she brushed her tongue. He began brushing his tongue, as an antidote to all those times of surreptitiously sniffing his own breath. He counts his ascension into adulthood to be the day he worked out that he could apply armpit deodorant after dressing, just by opening a middle button on his shirt and manipulating the topology of his clothing. He measures his life by such little discoveries, mainly in childhood, and calculates at what rate he can expect to acquire more adult epiphanies and discoveries to shift the balance of his inner life.
Office etiquette. How long you stay chatting to a secretary; when you say "well, be seeing you"; why you go "oop" when bumping into someone at the door of the gents; how to conceal the fact that you can't begin to urinate when there's someone beside you; how the regular cleaner does a better job of puffing the air out of the light plastic bags they put in as bin liners each night.
The motions of parts when a date stamper stamps. Why disposable paper towels are better than hot-air dryers. How the bubbles in gradually boiling water mix and interfere with pasta shells. Watching snacks descend from the coils of a vending machine. The unsung heroes who designed better perforations, who got patents on new ways of removing simple items from bunches of others -- effects we take for granted, and which often don't work because someone has tried something different. These are difficult to get right. The thousands of brands of shampoo and their evolutionary struggles: how do they resemble the forgotten dynastic strife of ancient India?
And on, and on, and on, Nicholson Baker goes, delving into the minutiae, cross-referencing, footnoting, making unexpected connexions, analysing why we do what we do, honouring the people who first thought of doing it. And it's funny, and it's fun, and it works as a book for pleasure.