The Short Version: The hour-long lunch break of a young gentleman wherein he thinks about (among other things) shoelaces, straws, escalators, driving, CVSes, earplugs, adulthood vs. childhood, and bathroom etiquette.
The Review: A curious little book, this one. A good friend of mine and fan of the show recommended it quite a while ago – I can’t entirely remember under what circumstances, other than being generally a book conversation – and I put it on my wishlist… but without much urgency. Wanted the British edition (a far better cover, for sure) and sister came through in spades at Christmas.
It’s a short book – a novella, really – but it requires far more active reading than you’d expect out of a short book about frivolous things. For one thing, the main character is smart and the speed of his thoughts prove it. The constant jumping from point to point, story to story – hell, the layering of thoughts within thoughts via footnotes (a conversational tactic I’ve been accused of abusing) is enough to ensure that you are DEFINITELY paying attention when you read.
It’s interesting to read this book after having been exposed to the footnote gambit for quite a long time. I mean, Terry Pratchett has been doing it since before Baker wrote this book – but David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers and Lisa Lutz all owe a huge debt to Baker: this book feels like the true start of that trend. Wallace’s footnotes are more akin to these – they don’t serve as an observation on the plot but rather as a tangential thought, at the end of which you will return to the primary thought and continue along your way. Eggers and Pratchett and Lutz (although I’m loathe to categorize Eggers alongside two actually-talented authors) use footnotes in this way but they also use them to make witty asides or dash a bit of random humor into a scene. Baker’s footnotes, while amusing, aren’t necessarily intended to be – they just simply exist and if you find them funny, then great.
There’s not really a plot to the book – it’s truly a stream of consciousness… although now that I say that, I’m not sure that it is, actually. It doesn’t flow uninterrupted from one point to the next and there are some occasionally jarring transitions. It isn’t, as I sort of thought going in, like the unadulterated ramblings of a crazy person like me. And Baker hints at this as you get into the novel, revealing that he’s writing from the future (well, the future to that 23-year-old self) – and there are even some jumps in time and space. So I’m having trouble actually rooting the book down to anything in particular.
The thoughts themselves are interesting and occasionally hilarious. The observations on straws, shoelaces, escalators, driving, etc etc etc are all thoughts that I’ve had or, when brought up here, made me stop and consider the thought in question. But as a result, I wonder if the profundity of the novel was less for me than it might’ve been for someone else who doesn’t spend serious amounts of time considering the way things work and why things are the way they are in a very fundamental way. This isn’t a judgment – it’s just an observation, as it were. I can’t say for sure, it’s just a thought. Nothing about this book feels lasting to me other than the impact the book had on later writers – because I can see Baker in so many other authors but I can’t honestly say that this primary source is so wildly exciting, having lived with the others for so long.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The book is funny and thought-provoking to an extent, but it’s also just… a blip. It’s more profound than Perec’s observations on the mundanities of life (perhaps because it doesn’t overstay its welcome…) but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily Profound in the way a good piece of philosophy can be. It’s an interesting oddity of a book but I can’t say I’ll see it having any lasting place in my memory down the road.