Is it possible to write a series of stories without any characters, even a main character —yet with characters, even a main character? Can a subatomic particle be a character? Can a nascent planet, or an evolutionary “moment” stuck in time forever be a character? How about an early shell-less mollusk, or an equation curving through space? A creature in the process of evolving from a fish to a land animal, or an indefinable something looking up at galaxies a hundred million light years away?
In Italo Calvino’s hilarious and poetic Cosmicomics, the main character, Qfwfq, is all of those things, yet none of them. He’s the very idea of cosmological and evolutionary “developments,” strung out over hundreds of millions of years. In each of the twelve stories that make up this book, Qfwfq lives essentially unchanged through processes that have been occurring since the beginning of time.
These are “folktales” for people who believe in science rather than gods. No supernatural beings cause things to happen; they just do. Qfwfq watches and comments and gets caught up, sometimes gleefully, more often against his will. He’s a different scientific “concept” in every story, yet somehow always the same Qfwfq, living through infinite developments that he can’t control.
Each episode, rooted however loosely in science, is actually about loneliness and longing, about the enormity of the universe and how small we all are in it. Qfwfq, whatever he is, is stymied time after time. He has attacks of jealousy, bouts of paranoia, moments (eons?) of spitefulness and mean-spiritedness. And the ever-present, unconquerable yearning. He’s the eternal — literally — loser in everyman. In only a few of the tales does he accept his “fate” with an insightful and peaceful resignation.
Calvino is one of my favorite authors, and Cosmicomics is one of my favorites of his books. Yet, there's something about his writing that awes me nearly into speechlessness; I can't really put into words how I feel about it, beyond saying "Ooooh, brilliant." For all I know, Qfwfq is that “Ooooh,” a sentiment as old as life itself, which emerges suddenly and fully formed from the meeting of my fingers and a keyboard, travels from computer screen to computer screen at the whim of those who choose to read this post, and then bounces around forever and forever and forever, essentially unchanged, and trapped in the ether.
[Note to Nonbelieving Literati: Our next book, selected by C.L. Hanson, is The Flight of Peter Fromm by Martin Gardner. (Yes, that Martin Gardner.) The target date is September 15.]