MR. PALOMAR. By Italo Calvino. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 102 pp. $12.95.
MR. PALOMAR is an elegantly and beautifully constructed artifice, formally designed on a triadic base. The book has three sections, each of which comprises three subsections, which, in turn, comprise three chapters each, for a total of 27. The entire work, so Calvino demonstrates in an "Index," is thematically controlled by the ordinal numbers 1, 2, and 3: the material indicated by 1 is descriptive in nature, that by 2 narrative, and that by 3 meditative. For instance, section 2 ("Mr. Palomar in the City") is essentially narrative in technique throughout, although subsection 2.1 ("Mr. Palomar on the Terrace") includes equally balanced narrative and descriptive elements, and chapter 2.1.1 ("From the Terrace") handles one-third of its materials by narrative means, and two- thirds by descriptive means. It will be seen that there are, then, three sections, three subsections, and three chapters that are "pure" in terms of the techniques employed in their composition. The work is odd in more ways than one ("truth is an odd number," Flann O'Brien says).
This rigorous structure, set gridlike on the scattered materials that make up the "life and times" of Mr. Palomar, quite literally creates the work's action and incident, its "content," if you will. Since the narrative elements of the work are continually being distorted by the other two elements, we may say that the work has no true narrative line, but is, by virtue of its recurrent disturbances, nothing but plot. The plot, however, lacks development, climax, and d,enouement, for the given narrative material has dispensed with temporal-causal habituation. Reinforcing the wholly artificial nature of the work is the protagonist, Mr. Palomar, a two-dimensional figure blessedly free of the burdensome clich,es of characterization.
In brief, Mr. Palomar jettisons characterization, conflict, linear development, and closure (it can, theoretically, go on forever, since it is subject to the rules of a time-free game). These four things, among others of lesser importance, are the flesh and blood of the sacred cow of conventional fiction, which, though dead for more than a century, has been reappearing, without surcease, as the weird monstrosity whose post-mortem twitches are mistaken for life. This cow goes by many names, some of the more familiar being, you will surely recall, Good Read, Deeper Meaning, Remarkable Insight, and Wonderful Style. But no matter the twitches or the names, the cow is a corpse, and stinks. With Mr. Palomar, Calvino has once again buried the dead, but the cow will certainly haul itself, zombie-like, out of its grave again. The persistence of putrefaction in literature is nothing short of remarkable.
ONE OF THE MOST interesting aspects of Mr. Palomar's position vis-a-vis the approved novel that reinforces beliefs planted in our minds by other approved novels is that it is written in a prose that is efficient and virtually without "style"; yet while bare of familiar rhetorical signposts, it also eschews the attenuation and deformity of much post-modern fiction. It is in this paradox that Mr. Palomar fascinates. Let me try to explain: Each chapter of the work develops logically, presents a linear argument, reveals syntactically contiguous units, etc. But when the chapters are set next to each other within their subsections, when the subsections are set next to each other within their sections, and when the work is viewed as a whole, logic and rational contiguity disappear, and with them, meaning. We are faced with a work which is, so to speak, hypotactic in its elements but paratactic in its whole. To put it simply, Mr. Palomar is less than the sum of its parts: the latter mean, but when put together, the whole refuses to mean, and stays just outside the reach of signification. It is a subtle example of negative discourse, and thus has no "use."
Calvino seems to comment on the processes of his work in a number of places, perhaps no more clearly than when he writes: "The moon is the most changeable body in the visible universe, and the most regular in its complicated habits; it never fails to show up for an appointment, and you can always wait for it at the appointed spot; but if you leave it in one place, you always find it next in another, and if you recall its face turned in a certain way, you see it has already changed its pose . . . In any case, following it steadily, you do not realize that it is imperceptibly eluding you."
The work is brought off with brio, and attacks by indirection what Michel Butor calls the "canonized structures (that) contribute to the suffocation of consciousness." He goes on to say of the novelist who is in thrall to these structures that "even if his intentions are generous, his work is in the last analysis a poison." Mr. Palomar is a partial antidote to the many poisons that surround us.