Making a Meal of It

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Plot: towards lunchtime, a male employee in a large corporate office building (the first-person narrator) discovers that the shoelace of his left shoe has snapped precisely twenty-eight hours after the right one snapped: a thought-provoking coincidence. Clutching his Penguin copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and pausing first for a pee in the men’s room, he descends the escalator to buy a bag of popcorn, a hot-dog, a cookie, a carton of milk and a new pair of shoelaces. Then he goes back up the escalator to his office, carrying his small bags. That’s it.

Yet a mass of human delight and anxiety, and indeed the very essence of the workings of the human mind, are distilled in Nicholson Baker’s sui generis 144-page chronicle of a single American office lunch-hour, a novel in which no tiny, mundane, daily habitual action is considered too small to examine and meditate on at length.

Baker’s ultra-minimalist The Mezzanine made a great impression on me when it first came out in 1988, the time when hot-air hand-dryers were starting to replace hand-towel dispensers. And the particular sentence in it that has stayed with me ever since is this: ‘Come to your senses, World!’ – the capital ‘W’ denoting that the narrator was referring not to the world, but to World Corporation Dryers. His detailed rant, unleashed by reading the text on the World Dryer – ‘this quick sanitary method dries hands more thoroughly, prevents chapping – and keeps washrooms free of towel waste’ – goes on for a page and a half. What if you need to dry your face, he fumes? ‘Out of desperation, real and true desperation that I have experienced, you resort to the toilet paper.’ But ‘as soon as you dampen it with warm water, it wilts to a semi-transparent pûrée in your fingers’. Spot on.

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About the contributor

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of three Slightly Foxed Editions: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, The Real Mrs Miniver and Terms & Conditions. Her latest book, British Summer Time Begins: The School Summer Holidays, 1930–1980, was published in 2020.

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