Friday, August 01, 2008

The Unending "Ooooh"

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.]


Anonymous said...

I'm nearly done reading the book. I hope to get a post up on Monday night, before I leave for two weeks of vacation.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I really loved this book.

yunshui said...

This was such a good choice. Thanks for suggesting it, Ex, I'd never have read it otherwise, and my life would be the poorer as a result.

Lynet said...

I thought the library didn't have it, but that was because I spelled the title wrong and I'd forgotten the author's name. So I haven't read it yet. Forgive me. It looks like one I shouldn't miss.

John Evo said...

On behalf of Exterminator, I forgive you Lynet. And I'd definitely like to hear what a poet has to say about this.

Ex, good points about the loneliness of man. If was a common theme. Another one was the insignificance, in the cosmic picture, of mistakes we hold against ourselves. Seen in the grander picture - they aren't sins that we will live in hell for; they are simple mistakes and the hell is what you do to yourself over things that, once done, are done. Move on and live!

The Exterminator said...


Good point about the mistakes, except of course, you put your usual chipper spin on it. My take is a little more sardonic.

You say: Acknowledge your mistakes and move on.

I say: Acknowledge your mistakes, and realize that they don't matter in the long run -- because there's nowhere for you to go.