Searching for Meaning in the Mundane

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is a story about one man, Howie, on his lunch break. But underneath that it is a novel about how small things connect people to each other. The Mezzanine is a unique novel, told through stream of consciousness and it focuses on the minutest details of daily life. That’s it. There is no epic struggle, no antagonist, and no quest. I was engaged while I was reading The Mezzanine, but once I put it down I really didn’t feel an urge to pick it back up.

Howie, the narrator, is certainly a likable character. His interior monologue is tame (for the most part), his thoughts are clear, and he has just enough wit about him to make the reader chuckle on occasion. His thoughts are surprisingly similar to my own during such humdrum activities, and that gives the book its main appeal. It is so easy to connect with Howie because he plays the everyman role so well. Despite the fact that his thoughts are incredibly specific, his quirky thought processes are shared by the majority of readers who will make it past the first chapter of The Mezzanine. His meandering thoughts jump from one topic to another based only upon thoughts and memories specific to him. “But the 1905 doorknobs in our house had that quality. My father must have had special affection for them, because he draped his ties over them” (27). I don’t doubt that other people may have a mental connection between doorknobs and ties, but being able to follow that connection is one of the delights of The Mezzanine. If his thoughts were less specific, if he didn’t talk for two pages about the gradual disappearance the home delivery of milk, then his thoughts would be boring, meaningless. Howie’s specificity and insight into everyday life is what gives The Mezzanine its charm and makes it entertaining. However, that wasn’t quite enough for me.

I enjoyed The Mezzanine, but to me it was more a magazine than a novel. I could pick it up and flip to any given page without being too lost or confused about who the characters are. There is little actual drama or action within the story, but this is by design and is not some accidental oversight by the author. But the lack of any physical or emotional danger, the meat of a story, made this book one that I could pick up, read a few pages and enjoy, and then put down for a few days, as opposed to other novels that stuck with me long after they ended. The Mezzanine shows that having realistic, believable characters is not enough to make a story compelling, but that emotional danger is also a crucial component. I liked Howie, and he felt as realistic to me as Huck Finn or the father in The Road. But why should I read about his lunch hour thoughts, specifically the thoughts on this particular lunch? It may be that the author’s intent was to show that even the dullest of days are still filled with insight and wonder, a “stop and smell the roses” to the reader. That is a legitimate stylistic choice, but as a reader I just wasn’t compelled to keep reading. Despite being a well written and humorous book, The Mezzanine wasn’t engaging enough to make me want to read it because there was no momentum. Early on in our writing careers we’re taught that a story is like climbing up the hill, the upward incline is the rising action, the peak is the climax, and the downward slope is the falling action. But The Mezzanine has no slope, no peak, and no unstoppable cascade down the side of falling action. It is just a straight line that follows Howie’s thoughts.

The Mezzanine is a great example of first person stream of consciousness writing. The reader knows Howie’s exact thoughts and is able to really get behind him as a character. I was ready to root for him through thick and thin, but there was no conflict. The book followed him through a boring, humdrum lunch hour. Without any reason to want the story to progress I had no motivation to continue the book any time I put it down. The Mezzanine is well written and humorous when it wants to be, but that just wasn’t enough for me as a reader.

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

A Lot Like Life

By Liat Faver

            Joan Didion is an observer. Curious about the effects of people and events on society, she keenly watches herself swimming in life’s uncertain waters. In the first pages of The White Album she announces, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (11). Didion tells many stories of real people living and working, surviving and dying in the middle of chaos. Her stories remind us who we are, strangely beautiful, at times unfailingly destructive, durable, predictable, puzzling, and capricious. When we hear bad news, we “look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. Or at least we do for a while” (11).

Album is chiefly set in the 1960s and early seventies in California. In the first chapters we learn about local news stories, Didion’s psychiatric report, The Doors, black militants, politics, and the items on Didion’s list of travel necessities, “made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative” (35). She highlights what is missing from her list is a watch. She has every other practical need covered, but “I didn’t know what time it was. This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself” (36). Didion’s script is elusive, and keeps changing. She thinks she has it memorized, but in the course of events she finds “nothing on my mind was in the script as I remembered it” (37). She is sharing a common ailment among women. Somewhere in the shuffle of doing what we are supposed to be doing, we lose sight of the helmsperson. The director is at large, and the show must go on.

Didion takes us to Hawaii, where she continues to dissect her life while simultaneously putting it back together, finding common ground with the past and present. Didion and her husband are trying to heal their marriage, and her descriptions of the distance between them are familiar and sad. She tells herself she is “not the society in microcosm. I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with . . . bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come” (135).

The White Album is an escapade through the young life of a successful writer. Didion involves us in her identity struggles and her insistence on approaching her craft with integrity. Her curiosity is contagious, and although some of her themes are outdated, their applications are not. She elevates us with her ability to see things as they are, and in her understated tone, somehow makes our wasteland palatable. Didion’s artistry resides in her subtleties. She inspires us to remove our rose-colored glasses and take an honest look at our world and ourselves.

 

 

Hyphen-hyphen-hyphen-pearl. Know what I mean?

If you haven’t heard of the “Poem-A-Day” function from Poets.org, you should check it out. Here’s the dealio. Sign up. Every morning at around 6am, you’ll get a shiny poem on your phone/computer type object. I have to admit, because I’m really honest, like socially-unacceptable-and-awkward-honest, I first put in for this service with a sense of “ooh look at me being an active poet.” But now I look forward to reading the poem in my inbox, partially because it’s like a crossword puzzle: it makes me use my brain right away. The best part, though, is the you-never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get. You might wake up to find a poem hundreds of years old, or you might get a poem written months ago. It might be in strict form, or it might be abstract, avant garde, or something without definition. What I love the most is that reading a poem that I did not choose is challenging and enlightening. It keeps me guessing…and thinking.

I came up with the idea for this blog post before I actually read my Poem-A-Day for today, thinking that surely the poem on my smart phone would be something I would “get” and could write about easily. But oh, sneaky Poets.org, you threw me “a woman all about love yesterday.” by Shira Dentz. On the page, this poem moves from centered lines to columned lists to left-justified lines. It employs anaphora, repeating “a single” and “single” on the left column, and a truncated list of words in alphabetical order starting with “rose” and ending with “round” on the right column. Should the reader read the columns as columns or across the page? Example: should I read “a single smoke” and then “rough,” or should I read “a single smoke” and then “snake”? If the reader goes by columns, then the there is serious alliteration in the “s” sounds and then in the “r” sounds. If the reader chooses to read across the page, there is the repeat of “s” and then “r,” with the huge gap between. The line before the columns reads “have a single slash.” When followed by the columns, the gap forms a physical slash down the page, reminding the reader of separation, perhaps violent separation. After all, the woman in the poem was “all about love yesterday.” What is she today?

This is one of those poems that I would term experimental. Without researching it or its author further, doing a little “new criticism,” I have to say that I am not really sure what this poem is about, other than what the title tells me. I can say, however, that its unconventional presentation makes me read it several different ways, and that changes the feel of the poem. It is an amazing thing to read a piece of writing over and over again and have a new interpretation each time.

The last line of this poem reads: “Your pearl self slows power, circles” That’s not a typo. There is no end punctuation. And I ask why “slows”? A pearl is a circle, a sphere. It is created layer upon layer, and it is all based on an irritant. Does the “woman” gather a hard shell around her as she goes? Is the “single snow” and “round” a lead in to the spherical pearl? Does it matter? As a poet, I have to say no. The reader’s reaction is always a surprise and a delight. I love to hear what other people think I meant when I wrote a poem. Hopefully, Shira Dentz does, too.

Go to http://www.poets.org to sign up!

Lions and Mongooses and Footnotes: Oh, My!

by

Rhonda Browning White

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Oscar de Leon and his family and their emigration and reculturization from the Dominican Republic to the United States. More importantly, it tells of their fuku; the curse that plagues their family and fouls every good intention and goal they set.

The story is narrated by Yunior, Oscar’s dear and only friend—despite that Yunior failed Oscar numerous times. Yunior doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, but instead relates Oscar’s childhood and rise to geekdom, then switches to Oscar’s sister Lola’s coming-of-age clash with her mother Beli, next recounting Beli’s life in the Dominican Republic (DR), then Yunior’s college experience with Oscar at Rutger’s, then tells Oscar’s grandfather Abelard’s story of his life and death in the DR, and finally Yunior relates the end of Oscar’s story—the end of Oscar’s life. Why would Yunior would narrate a story that began generations before his own birth, we wonder. We realize, by the end, that even though the story is presented to us as Oscar’s story (based on the title, prologue and first chapter), the fuku is the actual central character, the protagonist. This family curse introduced in the beginning is the common thread throughout every chapter

The novel is rife with footnotes clarifying historical events, and at first, one might find these off-putting (they may initially pull readers from suspended disbelief and drive one into a fact-finding mission). Once readers find the story’s rhythm, however, they’ll come to appreciate these interruptions. The indirect dialogue and lack of quotation marks helps one feel as if Yunior sits alongside relating the story, therefore the footnotes become as natural asides that occur in any conversation. The footnotes improved my personal understanding of the DR’s (and therefore the characters’) history, while the numerous Spanish phrases assisted the narration in coming across as natural for an immigrant.

In addition to the superhuman-like fuku, appearances are made by a talking mongoose, a black-pelted golden-eyed lion and a man with no face: these characters bring with them salvation, protection and (in the case of the faceless man) foreshadowing of imminent destruction. Oscar often disappeared into a fantasy world of video games, graphic fiction and sci-fi novels, and Diaz asks the reader to join that fantasy world, as well, by introducing these creatures into his story. If Oscar and his family truly believe in fuku and zafa, in talking mongooses, in black rescue-lions and faceless men, then their fatalism is more understandable, their passive acceptance of impending doom more explicable, perhaps even logical.

Utilizing interlinked stories that work as a novel, footnotes in fiction, and supernatural characters that mimic or mirror human character’s emotions are tools that, with practice and effort, can add depth, understanding and passion to a serious writer’s work. Diaz’s story serves as the perfect example of how these tools can be successfully used.

Work Cited

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Religion with a Giggle

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

The Year of Living Biblically is A.J. Jacob’s non-fiction book about his year at attempting to literally follow the rules given in the Bible as far as the law and his environment will allow. Although Jacobs is a self-professed “agnostic”, his book mostly focuses on the rules and practices given in the Old Testament since Judaism is the faith and tradition of his relatives, however, he does spend a small portion of the book on the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is a book about the Bible and whether it can be taken as the literal words of God, but it is also a book about the journey to find faith and find meaning in religious traditions.
Jacobs does a really nice job of selection. He chooses rules that are not commonly known and rules that seem to be really outdated so the reader is more engaged on how he will adhere to them in these days and times. For instance, Jacobs pins tassels to his clothes and attempts to stone adulterers with pebbles. He also shops online for a rod to discipline his child and buys a ten string harp off the internet. The story has a lot of situational comedy, especially when he has to navigate his new rules at home with his wife and son. He also selects the things that seem to cause some uncomfortable situations at home. The reader gets an inside look at how Jacob’s experiment impacts his relationships with his wife and family members. In many parts of the book, Jacobs pokes fun at many religious traditions. Yet, Jacobs lets on that he thinks that his biblical habits are improving him, especially his new attitude of gratitude. He said, “I’ve never before been so aware of the thousands of little good things, the thousands of things that go right every day” (269). His year leads him just outside of his agnostic views. He is now a “reverent agnostic.”
After Jacobs studies the different groups of religious literalists, he concludes that no one, not even the people that say they do, follow all the rules of the Bible literally. “The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate”(328). He notes that if they did, the rights of women would be greatly impacted. He cites a rule in 1 Corinthians that does not allow women to speak in church, but there are many other rules that are included in the book that he proves are not followed or not observed as literal rules. People pick and choose what resonates with them.
The book does a few things at once by allowing memoir to work alongside biblical history lessons. He attempts to be fair by reading a variety of sources and consulting with many advisers, but the reader always knows where Jacobs stands at many different points in his journey which I think is important. He doesn’t just present information. He evaluates the information and tries to find meaning in the text and for himself. For readers interested in even more information than that given in the book, Jacobs provides seven pages of notes and six pages of bibliography.
Jacobs is a great humorist writer who knows how to balance humor with interesting content. The book is a fun and interesting read that allows for thought and reflection as well as a great laugh.

Voice Authenticity and Respectful Dialect in A Gathering of Old Men

by Rhonda Browning White

Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men relates the story of a white Cajun murdered by a black man in the Louisiana bayou during the late 1970’s. The entire story is narrated through the first-person point of view of fifteen different characters, each with his own chapter, but with some narrators sharing their viewpoint in more than one chapter. This first person point of view allows readers to develop some intimacy with each of these narrators and lends a sense of credibility to the story. I find it interesting, however, that none of the main characters (Beau Boutan, Candy Marshall, Mathu, Sheriff Mapes, and Charlie Biggs) have a point of view chapter. Perhaps Gaines wanted to give the impression of misjudgment—outsiders opining on a situation about which they understand little or none of the truth.

Gaines’s use of regional dialect and its conveyance from oral speech patterns into written word maintains each narrator’s different voice. Snookum’s narration in the first chapter easily expresses his childish diction, though he seldom spoke aloud: “Old Toddy with his snagged-teef self looked at me and grinned, ‘cause he thought Gram Mon had to hurt my feeling when she told me to sit back down. I checked on of my fist, but he knowed I couldn’t hit him, ‘cause he already had caught me and Minnie playing mama and papa in the weeds, and he told me I had a year when I couldn’t do him nothing no matter what he did me, and if I did he was go’n tell Gram Mon what he caught us doing” (7-8).

The dialect distinctively changes when Lou Dimes narrates his chapters: “I drove the thirty-five miles from Baton Rouge to Marshal in exactly thirty minutes. Why I didn’t have every highway patrolman in the state of Louisiana on my tail was just a miracle” (93). Without the reader being plainly told, we know Lou Dimes is older and better educated than Snookum by his narration voice.

Even though Gaines uses the Cajun-Creole-French-Louisiana regional dialect with a heavy hand, he allows his narrators to speak with full knowledge of their own experience. They never appear ignorant because of their colloquial voice patterns, just different. This is a subtle reminder to the reader not to pass judgment on these characters based on their speech patterns, but to listen to what they are saying beyond their mispronunciations.

Work Cited

Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. Thorndike, ME: Thorndike, 1984. Print.