Category Archives: viktor shklovsky

On Shklovsky and Defamiliarization, with Reference to The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Given the recent conversation about plot and the novel, I thought it was worthwhile to refresh Viktor Shklovsky's thoughts on defamiliarization. This is as quoted in Structuralism in Literature:

Habitualization devours objects, clothes, furniture, one's wife and the fear of war. "If all the complex lives of many go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been."

Art exists to help us recover the sensation of life; it exists to make us feel things, to make the stone stony. The end of art is to give a sensation of the object as seen, not as recognized. 

The technique of art is to make things "unfamiliar," to make forms obscure, so as to increase the difficulty and the duration of perception. The act of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged. In art, it is our experience of the process of construction that counts, not the finished product.

All good art does this to a certain degree, but some art makes a fetish of it, and one of the books I would hold in that category is Nicholson Baker's novel The Mezzanine. With all of its elaborate examinations of everyday objects like shoelaces and escalators, the book that seems to anticipate David Foster Wallace is portraying these objects in rarely seen (and perhaps not-previously seen) ways that makes them seem fresh and new.

The great art in Baker's novel is the variation he pursues across his digressions. Sometimes they read almost like a riff off of Barthelme, a very postindustrial/economic account of the history of a particular aspect of an object. Other times these items become inherently personal (nostalgia is constantly invoked here, as is childhood/adulthood), other times they are simply humorous or entertaining. What unites them all is a great ability to defamiliarize those things that most of us probably have lost any ability to take any pleasure whatsoever in. And so we are lucky to have Baker's good art to help us to liven up our world.

Part of the brilliance of this book is that Baker defamiliarizes those things about life that are so familiar that they go completely unnoticed; e.g., broken shoelaces, the unspoken norms of public restrooms, the form and feel of a cardboard milk carton. Whereas someone like Proust would first have to draw our attention to a detail of life that we might not have been aware of (effectively familiarizing it before defamiliarizing it), Baker has chosen those things that are part of our common consciousness. Thus, first we feel the strange deja vu that comes when were reminded of some part of life that we know intimately but have probably stopped noticing, and then, only after that has been established, Baker places this moment into an entirely new context.

At the same time as he defamiliarizes, Baker puts his digressions into a highly original narrative voice that sounds very authentic and is generally consistent to my ear. Baker dribbles out little bits of humanity en route to making his protagonist a likable person, someone about whom we can be persuaded to follow along for 135 meandering pages that maintain just enough semblance of plot to stake the claim that The Mezzanine is a book with a plot. More than that, though, I'd say that it's a book about the passage of eras (and Baker calmly layers a number of them into this narrator's life), as well as about evoking a very particular time in the history of the United States by discussing the life and death of pop cultural technology.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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