If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You, the reader, purchases Italo Calvino’s newest book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Reader soon discovers a problem; the book only has the beginning of the story and then breaks off right at a moment of suspense. The Reader returns to the bookstore to exchange his defective copy. There the reader meets the Other Reader, a girl named Ludmilla, a veracious reader who remembers the details of most of the books she has ever read and who has also come to return a defective copy of Italo Calvino’s new work. The Reader and the Other Reader exchange phone numbers and agree to discuss the book after they both finish. Unfortunately the replacement copy turns out to be a different story, which also ends shortly after the beginning at a moment of great suspense. The Reader calls up the Other Reader to discover she has the same problem. As they try to solve the mystery, they encounter yet more stories that begin, but never end. They journey into the corridors of universities where professors defend their esoteric subjects and obscure books, where feminist study groups rip apart books in discussions while only having read a fraction of the book, where chaotic publishing houses face an onslaught of writers and other shady literary figures, where internationally renowned authors struggle to overcome writer’s block, and even to South America where revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries infiltrate each other’s organizations and falseness pervades everything in society, all while hunting down a mysterious translator named Ermes Marana who wants to fill the world with fake bastardized copies of books and who has some kind of past relationship with Ludmilla. While trying to solve the mystery, the Reader tries to understand his new budding relationship with Ludmilla in the hopes of beginning a romantic relationship with her.

Like other books in the Postmodern tradition such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, there is a conspiracy-type of mystery at the heart of the novel, and the attempt to unravel this mystery not only creates a strong sense of confusion and chaos, but also raises questions about our identity and the character’s identities. As a metafiction, it is a fictional story that directly comments on the nature of reading and authorship. The novel employs the unusual second person perspective in order to address the reader directly and force the actual reader to identify with the Reader-character in the story. This is a metafictional trick to make us aware of the fact that the fictional reader is both like us and not like us at the same time.

The Reader as character is an Everyman figure who stands in for readers in general. This Every Reader represents the general desire of the average reader: to get to the end and solve the mystery underlying the main problem of the story. Traditional reading involves a story beginning with some sort of problem that causes the character to attempt to solve it, reaching an ending in which they either fix the problem, are changed by it, or both. Like the Reader character we, too, experience the frustration of ten separate stories that have beginnings, but no ends. Calvino tempts us to feel disappointed along with the reader since we never get to hear how these stories finish. However, unlike the Reader-Character we can see the real story is the frame narrative around the individual unfinished tales. The problem of the novel that draws the actual reader in is the Reader-character’s attempt to solve the mystery of the unfinished novels and his pursuit of Ludmilla as a love interest. These unfinished stories are themselves a means to an end, a trope that allows us to experience the real story. Instead of thinking of them as unfinished stories, we should instead treat them as clues in a mystery. The real story then is about how the reader character tries to solve the mystery of the unfinished novel and whether he can build a relationship with Ludmilla.

The identification with the Every Reader, emphasized through the second person perspective, is a fictional trick that urges us to consider the boundaries between fiction and reality. The perspective of the novel might encourage us to identify with the reader, but we are also not like this character. It is only a character, not us. The Every Reader captures a generalized version of a reader—in other words, it might capture what we want out of reading—but at the same time it lacks all our individualities as flesh-and-blood people. I have a daughter and I think I’m a pretty good father, I have a wife who I love, and I have a job as a librarian in a school. The Reader Character has none of these specific qualities or background. This reader character is not really me. So it is important to remember then that although the narrative tries to get us to identify with the Every Reader, this figure in the text is still a character at the end of the day; it only captures the real us to a point. By doing this the novel is warning against identifying too closely with a character in any book and forgetting they are products of the imagination. They might seem real, but they are just words on a page. We might see aspects of ourselves in them, but they are still very different from us and often in very different social circumstances. We might see people similar to ones we know, but if you think about it more they almost certainly are differences between the real person and the character on the page that reminds you of them. This point is addressed further in the relationship between the two readers. The reader is constantly trying to figure out Ludmilla. Is she interested in him? Why is she always late for their meetings? When we actually think about it, the reader character barely knows Ludmilla. He struggles to understand her and wonders if she is truly interested in him. Here, the novel is addressing the difficult question about how well we ever know anybody. How much do we truly understand the inner workings of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our friends? How much as readers do we understand what motivates Ludmilla? If the reader doesn’t know much about her and we only see the world through his eyes, how can we know much about her?

The novel offers other views about the purpose of reading. Ludmilla is the ideal reader. Ludmilla wants a pure and organic reading experience. She doesn’t want to know how books are made, revised, cut, changed, etc. She doesn’t desire books to comment on the deeper social world. She wants the final product, the book itself, to read for reading’s sake.

“For this woman . . . reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say (239).”

Reading for Ludmilla is a losing of one’s identity. We temporarily explore other worlds, other people’s experiences, other people who are not necessarily like us, and who have had different experiences from us. Reading for her seems to be about experiencing the world anew through the imagination. If there is deeper meaning to be found in literature it is the way it erases us as individuals and our petty concerns, and lets us experience the lives, worlds, and problems of others. The point for Ludmilla is the experience itself.

Some readers turn to books not to lose their identity and preconceptions, but to confirm and reaffirm their identity and political commitments. This is the case with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, who is presented as a typical left-wing university student. She states at various points in the novel that the purpose of books is not so much to read them as to analyze them for clandestine social impulses and political points. She doesn’t enjoy reading books, but rather the point for her is dissecting and discussing books. She reads books already knowing what she is looking for and then finds it.
Our third model is Ermes Marana, the main antagonist who is behind the forgeries that forms the core problem of the novel. He also has ideas about the nature of books and readers.

“As for him, he wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood (239).”

Unlike Ludmilla who views books as an escape into imagination, which may have the potential to change the way we view the world through new experiences different from our own lives and Lotaria who views books as social products to be critiqued and dissected, and thus are reflections of a certain social order that exists in the world, Ermes Marana believes that fiction is artifice. The world is meaningless, but stories give the illusion of meaning. His character who assumes multiple identities, fake credentials, and travels throughout the world on false pretenses embodies this understanding of reality. We never really learn who this man is in any definitive form. In a way, the character Ermes Marana is nothing but a series of artifices and false personas. Reading for him is about creating a variety of false meanings about the world to cover its meaninglessness. Is reading about the experience of exploring ideas, places, people, and worlds different and unknown to us that helps us open our mind to new experiences in the real world? Is reading about the pleasure of getting to the end of the story and feeling the comfort at the resolution of a problem? Is reading about challenging the status quo and an important political tool for change? Or is reading an act in which people fool themselves into creating false meaning and identity for their lives in a meaningless world? One might also see a hidden metaphor for life itself. Life is a series of stories and different people have different readings of other people’s lives. Ideal stories might always have an ending that resolves everything, but real life often doesn’t work that way and different narratives in our life don’t always have conclusions. Life often is a series of bumps and half-finished narratives, which we then replace with different narratives that matter more to us.

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Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut draws on black humor and satire to give voice to the unspeakable horrors of war. The comical tone transforms a depressing topic into a more palatable form that might otherwise desensitize a reader and cause them to shut down by overloading them with too much sensory detail of misery and depravity.

Vonnegut’s anti-war novel centers on the firebombing of Dresden, focusing on Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during the war and after as he becomes “unstruck” in time after being abducted by aliens. The story unfolds in non-linear time as Billy jumps haphazardly between past, future, and “present” that directly influences his philosophy of life, and helps him create meaning in what is otherwise a chaotic world by ironically embracing the chaos of timelessness.

Billy learns this philosophy from aliens who abduct him called the Tralfamadorians. They teach him an extremely fatalistic understanding of time in which freewill is a human illusion and the past, present, and future have already occurred simultaneously and cannot be changed. The Tralfamadorians take this to such an extreme that they even know when the universe will end, but believe themselves powerless to stop it. Time simply unfolds, it has already unfolded. There is no possibility of individual agency; the living beings of the universe exist as observers pulled about by the strings of events destined to happen and much larger than themselves. On the one hand, this serves as a powerful metaphor for war and history in the sense that large historical events drag people along and uproot them from their lives without them really having any control over it.

The novel opens with a frame story introducing us to the person writing the book. This writer-character converses with a movie star about his plans to write an anti-war novel who responds by telling him he’d be better off writing an anti-glacier book than an anti-war book.

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

In this quote we see reflected the viewpoint of the Tralfamadorians: war is inevitable, and it is extremely unlikely that writing an anti-war book will be effective in preventing the next war. It is a momentary sense of realism in a book whose main character cowers from the realistic by replacing it with the fantastic. I think, however, it would be a mistake on the reader’s part to assume Vonnegut agrees with the perspective of his aliens.

It is true that Vonnegut in this quote seems to accept the inevitability of war. Even though his book criticizes war, he harbors no illusions that it will effectively prevent the next war. On the other hand, he still believes it important to write, to criticize, to share his experiences in a fictional form about his horrible experiences, and hope that his book may have some effect in stopping war. Even if impossible, it is still an ideal worth aiming for. By the very act of writing an anti-war book, he challenges the perspective of the Trafalmadorians, but by acknowledging that his book probably won’t end wars he also affirms it as well. It may be unlikely that you can stop war, but it is still worth the effort to try and depict its brutal realities and senselessness. Like much contemporary fiction, these opposing and intermingling viewpoints also serves as a commentary on the nature of art itself as being both the most powerful and most powerless medium for social change.

The character of Billy is the authors own way of expressing the inexpressible. Billy’s mediocrity as a soldier and a human being in general adds to the absurdist tone of the book, while we watch more promising, stronger, and tougher men die around him during the war, somehow this man survives. Mediocrity defines his whole life. Although he ends up rich he does so by marrying his wife who he doesn’t particularly love or dislike, but feels is satisfactory. He is the most unspecial person in the whole world, sort of coasting through life. All of this brings us to perhaps the most important question of the book: has Billy imagined the aliens in his senility or are we to understand the aliens are real and Billy was actually abducted by them within the narrative? And if he has imagined them, why would he do so?

Certainly the book hints that Billy’s aliens might be a symptom of his senility or brain damage from a plane crash that he survived. The opening of Billy’s story raises his senility as a potential issue:

“Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.”

What I love about stories like this is that it leave open the possibility of the reality of the events and its causes. If we believe the aliens to be an illusion of a crazed mind, was it the terrible experiences and memories of war that caused it? Was it the brain damage he received from the plane crash as Billy’s daughter, Barbra, suggests? Was it reading too many Science Fiction novels by Kilgore Trout that led him to imagine he had been chosen by aliens to learn the philosophy of time? Was he creating these creatures to fantasize away the mediocrity of his life? Or was it all just a dream. There is no correct answer as the novel gives hints that allows the reader to infer all these possibilities, but leaves these issues open-ended enough that any of these can fit or a combination of them. Likewise, there is always the possibility that the aliens are real and he really has learned this philosophy, which of course leads to a very different reading of the story and its theme. It is almost like solving a puzzle with multiple correct ways to solve it.

While recognizing all these possibilities, I like a reading in which Billy makes up the aliens as a way to give some meaning and importance to an otherwise mediocre meaningless life. The Trafalmadorian’s fatalistic philosophy of time helps Billy evade the psychologically traumatic experiences of war, especially the firebombing of Dresden. This belief allows him to reduce death to an unimportant moment in time, one moment in a person’s life not more important than any other moment. Often it feels like when anything too traumatic in the narrative occurs, he jumps to a different time period after the war before he must deal with the emotions. His stock phrase “so it goes” trivializes death; he never faces it in all its grim reality. Although the constant repetition of the phrase also serves as a kind of counter for the reader that calls our attention to the endless quantity of death and destruction. Billy’s experiences living in a zoo on Trafalmador is the ultimate erotic fantasy where he gets to live in an ascetic bubble away from reality and have sex with an attractive famous actress (in comparison to his fat unattractive wife).

Vonnegut writes a science fiction author into the book called Kilgore Trout. We are led to believe that all of this is a fantasy that Billy uses to deal with the mediocrity of his life and the horrors of war when we are told that one of the Kilgore Trout science fiction novel he likes to read has the exact same plot as his alien abduction experience and life in the Trafalmador zoo. Billy’s jumps through time are nothing more than escapism, a way for a senile old man to evade the horrors of his past and the boredom of his quotidian existence through the tropes of science fiction.

Vonnegut has plenty of fun with these science fiction stories within a science fiction story. One of these mini-stories within the story that stands out is about a robot with bad breath and who accidentally incinerates the people around him when he burps up fire. However, it is the bad breath that people find intolerable. Once the robot solves his bad breath problem he quickly becomes the most popular person (robot) in town, despite the fact that he still incinerates people on occasion. This sub textual commentary points out the superficial quality of human beings, and their tendency to focus on the wrong priorities. They care more about bad breath and personal hygiene than people being incinerated, which of course ties back directly to the firebombing in Dresden.

This also leads us to the core point of the book: war and lack of sympathy for others thrives on a loss of human dignity (that moment when people become less than human in the minds of other people). Not only is this explicitly shown throughout the war scenes with its repetition of “so it goes” that degrades the importance of life and death, but it’s a theme that finds expression in the everyday moments of Billy’s life such as when his daughter, Barbra, treats him like a senile old man or when the military officer sharing a hospital room with him after the plane crash finds him repugnant because of his brain damage and thinks they should put the “vegetable” out of his misery, or even the fact that he ends up in a zoo on an alien planet. It is worth noting that the Nazis not only considered Jews undesirable, but also the disabled and even the elderly in certain cases. The justification for the firebombing of Dresden is that Nazism had to be defeated at any cost, but as Vonnegut goes on to show with these everyday examples of dehumanization, Nazism lives on nonetheless.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

(Originally read in April 24, 2011)

 

Many would claim Don DeLillo’s White Noise deserves to be numbered as one of the greatest 20th century novels ever written. Scholar Tom LeClair, whose essay appears in Bloom’s collection cited below, breaks down the novel into three parts. He notes the first half of the novel titled “Waves and Radiation” parodies the genre of bourgeoisie realism about suburban life and troubled marriage (which is often found today filling the pages of various contemporary literary magazines), the second half of the novel, which is entitled ”The Airborne Toxic Event,” recalls elements of the disaster story (think of films like: Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, etc.) , while the third part “Dylarama” is a drug paranoia novel (such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson), all framed around an extended parody of the college novel. In other words, we get three interrelated novels in one brought together by a larger apocalyptic vision of modern life and an additional novel “type”: the college novel.

Jack Gadney is a professor of Hitler studies in a small town called Blacksmith. He lives with his fourth wife, Babbette, and their kids from multiple previous marriages. The opening introduces his life at the college, mostly interacting with the immigrants from New York that make up the American Popular Culture department, and his family life at home. In the second part of the novel, a hole gets blasted in the side of a train and releases a toxic chemical. Jack Gadney takes his family and escapes to an evacuation center, but not before getting exposed to the toxic chemical. In the third part, this exposure leads Jack to obsess about his impending death. He learns that his wife has been taking an experimental pill that relieves the fear of death and that his wife had an affair with the project manager to get the pills. This jealousy gnaws at him, while he continues to worry about his own impending death from the exposure to the chemicals. He wants to both find the pills to relieve his fear of death and take revenge on the man who turned him into a cuckold. He finds this man, known as the mysterious Mr. Gray, attempts to kill him, gets shot himself, but then at the last minute has a change of heart and saves the man’s life instead. All of this plot description barely touches the surface of all the little details that make up the body of the novel, full of the white noises of radio and television and billboard advertising. The plot of the novel doesn’t really begin until the second half, while the first half seems an extended introduction told in the manner of a slice-of-life story, which is typical of bourgeoisie realism.

One of my favorite elements of the novel is how Jack Gladney’s Hitler studies pokes fun at modern academic trends. This satire of academia is explored further through the ridiculous things the department of American Popular culture chooses to study, telling us that some professors no longer read anything, but cereal boxes. However, on a deeper level beyond the playfulness at poking fun at the ridiculous academic trends that are unfortunately real (as anyone who has attended higher education in a humanities discipline knows), the reader comes to realize that Gladney’s study of Hitler is meaningful to the larger scope of issues the novel addresses. Scholar Paul Cantor notes that Gladney’s Hitler studies declaws the horribly violent and brutal nature of Hitler and his blood-thirsty regime much like television desensitizes us to violence and transforms it into mere entertainment and spectacle. Modern media transforms real tragedy into the modern day gladiator arena where other peoples’ tragedies become our entertainment. The media transforms our consciousness and prevents us from dealing with the reality of the tragedy. The media doesn’t just report on reality, but transforms it, shapes it, and separates us from the true event and its true impact.

At the heart of the novel then is how technology and the fear of death prevent us from experiencing reality. As Murray, one of the American popular culture professors, who befriends Gladney and with whom our protagonist engages in long Socratic dialogues, tells us after seeing a sign for the most photographed barn in America, we can no longer see the barn in its actual reality once we view that sign. Instead what replaces it is the media image of the barn; the barn is now special because the sign tells us it is special and we can no longer truly judge on our own or see the barn itself without that information impinging on our perceptions.

Jack Gadney and his wife, Babbette, suffer from an intense fear of death that prevents them from enjoying life. The book hints that all our technological inventions, all our innovations, all our desires, hopes, and dreams are born from this fear of death. Our species progresses in order to conquer death. The novel points out that man’s curse is his higher status on the evolutionary chain that allows him to possess the intelligence to produce technology to better his life, but also is a double-edged sword in making us aware, unlike other animals, that we will someday die. Despite being a college professor, Gadney, fears knowledge as much as death, because he believes that by making himself ignorant of knowledge about the world, he can escape death (emphasized in the scene in part II where he refuses to believe he will have to participate in a mass evacuation from the spilled chemical because such things don’t happen to bourgeoisie college professors). His kids, on the other hand, embrace all the diverse forms of knowledge found in modern society. They are know-it-all types who turn to reference books about diseases and chemicals to be able to comprehend these fearful disasters that could kill them, with the exception of Wilder (the youngest child) whose childish ignorance prevents him from worrying about death at all.

A running motif is the inability of the elderly to adapt to the changing world, the changing social order, and most importantly the changing technology underlying all these fundamental shifts in the world. The old and elderly constantly are terrified of the outside world and death. This image is reinforced in the end when the constancy of the supermarket (presented as a safe haven from an ever-changing world) disappears after management rearranges all the aisles; the elderly are lost and confused, unable to cope with this change, unsure how to find the groceries they require. However, technology again tries to establish order amidst the chaos.

“The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. . . . Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”

The strangeness of technology reasserts itself in this image. The holographic scanners, not only literally scan the barcodes of the items, but decode the people buying them, their identities and needs tied-up in their consumerism. Too much of our identity is caught up in what we buy, what we listen to, what we watch, not in our authentic selves.

Technology produces a false sense of order in the novel, while it simultaneously creates more chaos in the world. During the Airborne Toxic Event, Jack shares his observation that people need leaders and information from experts to tell them what to do in order to deal with the situation and the unknown, but the information they receive over the radio constantly changes (such as the ever-changing symptoms of exposure to the toxic Nyodene D). The lack of accurate information from these technological sources only creates more chaos. This issue pervades the novel beyond just this single scene; we find technology is meant to disseminate information faster than ever, but only ends up creating more confusion. Technology (television and radio) brainwashes us to constantly worry about death, so we’ll buy more creations of technology to prevent death. Even as technology provides means of curing cancer and other medical advances, it alienates us from human experiences, and as these technologies become hyped in the media, it also engenders a fear of death by creating a hyperawareness of the fact that we can die and we need these technologies to cure our ailments. In other words, all this technology and worrying about death prevents us from enjoying life for what it is.

While this novel is certainly complex novel, has an important perspective about the modern world, and is extremely funny at times, there were problems with it as a story. I’m not always convinced with the verisimilitude of DeLillo’s characters. For example, Gladney’s fifteen year old son Heinrich often challenges his father with an argumentative relativistic world-view (one scene has Jack arguing with his son that it is raining and his son won’t acknowledge that it is in fact raining giving all sorts of sophistic relativist reasons for his doubt). While this proved an amusing dialogue that successfully parodies the relativism of postmodernism and its overemphasis of differing perspective as truth over empirical facts, I still had a tough time believing a fifteen year old kid would say some of the things Heinrich does. This problem pervades the novel with other characters as well. DeLillo seems content with sacrificing verisimilitude for the expedience of making a joke or adding an additional layer of subtext. I find this problem also afflicts his language. Sometimes I find myself admiring his prose, while other times it seems overwrought and forced, and certainly not what any normal human being would say or think.

Work Cited
Select Essays from Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Don DeLillo’s White Noise edited by Harold Bloom