Thursday, May 15, 2014


Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
Read: 25 to 28 February 2013
5 / 5 stars

Calvino opened this beautiful little collection with "The Distance of the Moon," a tale from the days when the lunar landscape could be reached with nothing more than a ladder and some well-timed gymnastics, so it struck me as appropriate that I began reading Cosmicomics on the night of a full moon.

I had its richly resonant first two stories running through my head while driving home from work that evening. The first half of my commute is a journey illuminated by the artificial lights of both commerce and my fellow impatient motorists before giving way to a monotonous stretch of interstate road, offering precious few spots of gap-toothed skyline that allow the evening sky to break through; one of these infrequent openings offered a glimpse of the looming, swollen moon. The distortion of a full lunar sphere just beginning its ascent, an engorged orb hanging so low and heavy that she could pass for the grandest part of the man-made horizon, is one of my favorite displays offered by my favorite celestial phenomenon: I’ve had a particular affinity for the full moon ever since I discovered that unusually well-lit nighttime walks were the most reliable antidote for my teenage moodiness. The optical illusion that makes a low moon loom gigantically renders a familiar sight unusual, and stealing a few glances of it during my daily trek home lent a tangibility to Calvino's story I wasn't expecting but didn't really surprise me. This would not be the first (and I sincerely doubt the last) time I couldn't help but apply Calvino's vision to a real-world occurrence.

These stories make the kind of sense that dreams do, in a way. While clearly mismatched words don’t rhyme upon waking as they do in nocturnal narratives and the person who represents a singular entity in sleep becomes an obviously symbolic amalgamation of strangers and forgotten friends once the dreamer is jarred into consciousness, the creation myths Calvino weaves into dazzling truths actually do hold up upon further examination, even if they do require the occasional suspension of disbelief; still, who’s to say the cosmos and the population that arose with it adhere to the same stringent reality we’ve come to accept?

While the formative years of the cosmic terrain -- the Earth and its lunar satellite included -- are decidedly alien in their lack of familiar concepts (just as our commonalities were novel then: "You understand? It was the first time. There had never been things to play with before. And how could we have played? With that pap of gaseous matter?"), the inhabitants' stumbling confusion about what's going on but solid certainty that whatever's happening is important didn't require a leap of imagination to understand. Calvino imbued his cast of nonhuman characters with decidedly human curiosity and incredibly human failings, which helps to ground an otherwise ethereal collection of interweaving tales in achingly relatable terms.

What struck me most about this book is how actively shameful impulses have shaped and driven self-aware creatures since, quite literally, there have been self-aware beings in a position to affect their environment. Those jealousies, those prejudices, and most of all those proud insecurities were allowed to reach a boiling point and bubbled into the external world. The effects weren't always catastrophic but they did leave lasting marks on the nascent universe. To consider that the universe as we know it (what we know of it, anyway) was crafted neither by a happy, scientifically explained accident nor the whim of just but avuncular deities, but rather some ordinary guy's selfish motives and a need to leave a cosmic "I wuz here" smear of existential proof is a perspective shift worth mulling over.

I still maintain that this is perfection in 153 pages. My second encounter with Calvino was just as fortuitous and spilled off the page into real life just as much as my first -- so much, in fact, that I bought another one of this books almost immediately upon finishing this one because I just want to glut myself on Calvino's unequaled prose. Simply, the man reminds me of what a magical experience a good book is and why reading has been one of my favorite pastimes for as long as it has. This is a quick read that demands the reader to pace him/herself to properly dwell on the densely packed splendor within.

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