on March 29, 2002
You are getting ready to read an Amazon.com review of Italo Calvino's book "If on a winter's night a traveller". Is your mouse nearby? Are you sitting in a comfortable chair? You're not slouching over the keyboard, are you? Sit up! Now, rub your eyes, close any windows containing video games, and read on.
Besides Tom Robbins' "Half Asleep in Frog's Pajamas", this is the only book you've ever read written (mostly) in second person narration. 'You' are the protagonist of the story, and are directly addressed by the author/narrator. 'You' are the Reader. This is a technique that Calvino uses very well, especially when he manages to predict (or accurately tell) the circumstances around how 'you' bought the book, how 'you're' reading it, and 'your' thoughts and feelings concerning it.
You notice that this book has no story, per se. Instead, it is about Stories. The structure of the book is more important than the narrative thrust. A Reader (you) begins reading Italo Calvino's new book, "If on a winter's night a traveller". But the book is misprinted, and ends halfway through. So you head down to the bookshop, anxious to get your money back. There you encounter The Other Reader, a young woman also foiled in her attempt to read Calvino's new book. You both buy a new copy from the shopkeeper, only when you get it home, you realize it is not Calvino's new book at all, but something called "Outside the town of Malbork". Things continue this way, back and forth from thwarted novel to encounters with The Other Reader (who, by this time, you've developed quite a crush on). Along the way, you will meet many other shady literary characters, like The Non Reader, The Writer, and the Plagiarist. Do not be afraid of these men. They are merely devices to get you thinking about the nature of reading, the nature of writing, the nature of authorship, and a number of other significant post-modern issues.
This all sounds quite fascinating to you, but you still have trepidations. You have a copy of the book with you right now. To help quench your fears you open it up, seemingly at random, to page 197, and read the following exchange:
"'On the contrary, I am forced to stop reading just when [the stories] become more gripping. I can't wait to resume, but when I think I am reopening the book I began, I find a completely different book before me...'
'Which instead is terribly boring,' I suggest.
'No, even more gripping. But I can't manage to finish this one, either. And so on.'"
You think this is pretty good so far. But wonder, is Calvino right on either count? Would such a novel be "terribly boring", or "even more gripping"? Would you get frustrated beyond repair if the story kept stopping, every time it got good? You realize that you must decide for yourself before you begin reading the book in earnest.
Continuing your perusal on the same page, you read the following passage:
"I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can't go beyond the beginning... He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged..."
You stop, because you can see where this is going. This is Calvino telling you the genesis of this book. This kind of self-reflexivity sometimes gives you a headache, for a story within a story within a story (etc.) can sometimes be very confusing. You stop reading for a while to get your bearings.
You take a break by going to the fridge for a glass of juice.
Later, you flip the book open again, this time to page 218, and you notice this:
"Then what use is your role as protagonist to you? If you continue lending yourself to this game, it means that you, too, are an accomplice of the general mystification."
"Calvino is challenging me?" you think to yourself. "He doesn't think I am capable of following him through this labyrinthine world. He doesn't think I have the brainpower. But I do!" You are getting a good head of steam now. "I can read his book, no problem! I am a Good Reader."
You turn to page one, intent on starting and then finishing this book. And when you do, you'll realize that it was a rewarding, if oftentimes difficult and confusing, experience. It will have questioned your preconceived notions of what it means to read, write, to tell stories, and to listen to them. And it will do it in a (mostly) fascinating and suspenseful way, to make the ideas go down that much easier.