Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Essay in Fiction

So I just finished reading Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, and it got me thinking about the use of personal examination in fiction.

I'm probably the last person in the world to read this book, but in case you haven't, here's a brief recap: a guy goes to CVS on his lunch break to buy new shoelaces. It's 130 pages without much action, paced at a crawl (the whole book covers maybe 45 minutes, most of which is spent walking to CVS or eating lunch).

Obviously, there's not a lot happening plot-wise, which places the bulk of the content in the narrator's mind. He shifts his focus from office conversation to bathroom etiquette to the delights of old technology (we get 4-5 pages on the conversion from paper to plastic straws, another chapter on the decline of the milk man): all which leads to the bigger point that all of our thoughts are caused by (or are different forms) of earlier thoughts.

The book is interesting because, despite the guise of novel, it is clearly a series of essays put into the head of a fictional character. Maybe more interesting is that the fictional essays are far more interesting than Nicholson Baker's actual essay collection, which is pretty hit and miss in terms of its content. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it has to do with the stakes placed on the nonfiction content, meaning that I'm more interested in how a fictional character's thoughts fit into a story than I am with the straightforward approach of Baker's nonfiction.

I'll keep thinking about it and probably post a follow-up to this in the comments section in the next few days, but first, I'm curious is y'all can think of other examples of essay-like writing inserted into a novel. Does it always work, or does it have to get to Baker levels of microscopic examination to be successful?


  1. The fiction writer whose work most reminds me of essay is Lucy Corin. I think it has to do with the movement. At least in her stories. Her novel, less so. Interesting to think about this novel as embedded essay. Since interiority is pretty important to a lot of novels, you could make the case for it quite often. Is it essay if it's in the mind of a fictional character, though?

  2. I guess that's the question I've been wrestling with for the past few days.

    Although the essay-like writing is in the mind of a fictional character, it's writing on real-world subjects/history, and the philosophy behind them does make sense in a real world context (whether or not Baker agrees with the arguments his character makes, I'm not so sure).

  3. I think you hitting on something important here too though. That there's something different at stake in reading fiction. Does the essayist indulge himself too often in ways a fictionalist cannot? Even if there's not much going on in the way of plot, he must recognize to keep his reader, he must DO something. In essays, the fact that nothing happens is a luxury, perhaps a misplaced one.

  4. Or, perhaps the opposite: does this meander work better in essay where the form seems somehow meant for it, whereas in novels doesn't it just seem like the author thinking through the character as opposed to the character thinking? That's what I usually think. But in novel, as Nicole mentions, something has to be at stake, or else we don't care none. I suppose essayists would do well to take note of this need too.

  5. I suppose, but I'm wondering what exactly is at stake in "The Mezzanine," because I'm not sure what to take away from it other than the presented ideas.