Saturday, February 14, 2004
Yet another mighty beast has fallen, at long last. In between the tour events and work, I polished off Hopscotch, and via the iPod, His Dark Materials as well. So, Hopscotch: let me begin by not damning with faint praise. This is a terrific, remarkable book. Cortazar writes beautifullly, even in translation and his book is a rich, profound, profuse one. 5 stars, and (pending some more digestion), maybe one of the finest novels of the last fifty years. No faint praise indeed--let me lay out my case and you'll be able to see the maybe as well as the praise.
First, and most obviously and famously, the book is a bold structural experiment. You read the first 56 chapters straight through (349 pages out of 564). Then you skip to chapter 73 and follow a sequence of chapters that takes you back through much of the book you have already read (73-1-2-116-3-84-4 and so on). Two things happen as you do this. First, you reread most of the book. As I rarely reread books, this was an interesting exercise, especially as the ending casts the early events of the book in a very different light, and different elements emerge, you respond to various characters in new ways. Second, Cortazar uses the supplemental chapters to subtly redirect the narrative, to add elements that are vague or absent in the straight-through reading, so the story takes on new layers and directions. For example, in the direct narrative, the protagonist, a intellectual named Oliveira comes upon a car accident. An old man has been struck by a car and is headed to the hospital, and Oliveira reflects on how that draws everyone out of their confined and isolated social selves and lets them talk freely to strangers. He thinks about visiting the old man in the hospital but lets the matter drop. At the same time, there are short chapters that contain quotations from a writer Oliveira admires, an Italian named Morelli (who is presented as if he might be a real writer rather than a fictive one). In the hopscotched reading, we find out that the old man is Morelli, and Oliveira visits him. He is given the task to sort through Morelli's papers and that is the source of all of the quotations. You can feel the contrivance as you read, and yet it works--curiousity about how the pieces will hang together mixes with interest in the story and the two parts blend into a suprised admiration as this odd and obvious structure draws you in.

This is not the only obvious structural contrivance that works. In one of the chapters, Cortazar combines two narratives by alternating the lines of them in the text. He does this without warning and only a very slight visual cue, so the experience is a jarring and baffling one:

IN September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
AND the things she reads,a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez who standing was as solvent
like this. To think she's spent hours on end reading tasteless....

As you can see it is tough to read--our eyes are trained to drop from one line to the next, so the process is reading is one of stopping, backing up, reconnecting to the thread and moving gingerly forward again. The contrivance is always there, impeding your ability to understand the text and intruding on the flow of the reading, and yet it too is successful--forcing you to bring a different kind of attention to the voices and the interplay of their concerns and preoccupations and then drawing them together at the end.

These are not idle accomplishments, and I can imagine this sort of textual experimentation going horribly wrong in a thousand contrived "experimental" stories. But Cortazar manages (mostly) to have the contrivances serve the story, and his sophisticated understanding of the reading process and its demands on our attentions is masterful. So, there is part one in a series about why this maddening book is great. More to come.

As I was fighting my way to the finish of it, I got drawn into listening to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which I also thought was excellent--4.5 stars. Its strengths are the fully realized ambitions of it (a war between "heaven" and the forces of rebellion spanning millions of worlds that includes the death of God and an entire alternate theology is gnostic in its basic structure, as well as a brutal assault on the villany of organized religions) and its coherent imaginative force. Pullman is grounded in Milton and Blake (LOVE them) and weaves their thinking into a ripping story with so many great inventions (the bears, how daemons work, Dust) that I listened to it feeling both craven and dull. Really excellent.

And for today, enough, but much stored up from traveling, so stay tuned.


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