Wittgenstein’s Mistress on the Mezzanine
An unnamed, first-person narrator is a free-lance illustrator of animals, in or around London. He describes his ordinary, nerdy life in excruciating detail, reminiscent of Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine. This narrator seems to have the same mild Asperger’s syndrome that Baker’s narrator did, dwelling on the tiniest details, but without Baker’s wit and erudition.
On his way to work, the narrator finds a dead mouse in a gutter. Morbidly fascinated, he pokes it with his pen. Later, at home, his partner, “K,” happens to pick up that pen and put the end of it in his mouth. Narrator is near apoplexy when he sees this, is unable to speak, and runs out of the house.
Narrator then bumps around, looking for a place to stay. He visits a friend, his son, and even his son’s mother (presumably his ex-wife, though there’s no flicker of recognition), and that’s when we start to see clearly that Narrator is more than just unreliable, his mind is rapidly disintegrating.
As in David Markson’s remarkable book, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, this narrator demonstrates through his narration, his descent into madness, re-telling stories with variations, retracting and correcting his statements, undercutting himself, misjudging things. Unlike the narrator in Wittgenstein’s Mistress however, Ridgway’s narrator lacks complexity, experience, cultural depth and interest. He’s just an ordinary nerdy guy with mundane, albeit crazy thoughts.
On the plus side, Ridgway’s narrator has some wonderfully bizarre delusions and hallucinations that qualify for the descriptor, “Kafkaesque.” Near the end of the tale is a surreal vision of a very strange office building.
There is also a good phenomenology of a “famous person,” Catherine, the wife of his son and possibly his own ex-wife. Whether she is really famous or not is doubtful by that time. It could be another delusion, but the description is great nonetheless.
There are other examples of excellent writing throughout.
“I stopped suddenly as I turned into Michael’s road, disturbed by two thoughts, and a third, which was horrible, but which came slowly crawling after the others like the mangled survivor of a car crash that I had not noticed occurring.” (p. 166).
The good writing keeps you reading, but it’s just barely enough forward motion to keep those pages turning. Still, the setup and context seem derivative from other recent novels, which is disturbingly unoriginal, and like most derivatives, is much less good than the source, leading to a somewhat disappointing experience overall.