How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.

Americanah, or The Book That Got Me Blogging Again

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Three months ago, I started a job as a writer. And then, I stopped writing — for fun, that is. In fact, I doubt I’d even be writing this were it not for my long commute. Each day, I’m on the train for about two hours. That means I read voraciously, averaging about a book and a half a week. About 20 books’ worth of ideas have been rattling around in my brain for the past few months. And while I write about the Kardashians and the Best Movies To Watch With Your Boo (for example), I think about my friends between the pages.

So, why did Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie bring me back? Is it because Adichie’s sprawling book was the first to bring me out of myself in a while, to make me feel empathy and guilt and awe? Or could it simpler: That the protagonist, Ifemelu, makes her living as a blogger, and I was jealous? I used to do that too, I thought, and I should do it again.

So, here’s me, talking about Americanah, easing myself back into books.

Here’s the gist. Obinze and Ifemelu fall in love as teenagers in Lagos. But since the course of true love never runs smooth, their paths disperse in far-flung, foreign places. The city count in Americanah adds up: Princeton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, London, Nsukka.

Geography alters Obinze and Ifemelu. By the time they meet again in their 30s, they have to talk through the years— chisel away the calcified history — until they’re strangers no longer.  Something I especially admire about Adichie’s characterization is the notion that still, after all these years, Ifemelu and Obinze are fundamentally the same. Yes, they are enlightened and jaded and burdened by experience. But their chemistry persists because their core essence, the personality traits that cling stubbornly throughout their lives, still remains.

Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is a very good love story. It’s good in that it’s true: I believe they have what we all yearn for in a genuine way; they’re a good model for love. But that’s not why I’ll remember Americanah — after all, I’ve read other good love stories. It’s their time apart that was more eye-opening than their time together.

Both characters have terribly alienating experiences as immigrants in America and Britain. Ifemelu discovers race, as she says, when she’s first perceived as Black as a college student in Philadelphia (Adichie has said the same thing of her time in America). From her vantage point as an outsider, she’s able to observe race. To process her thoughts, Ifemelu converts her wry observations into blog form and begins a highly successful blog on race in America. Obinze, on the other hand, cleaning toilets in London, doesn’t have time for a blog. His time as an illegal immigrant in London is b l e a k, full of paranoia and green card weddings.

For me, so much of the immigrant’s motivation to move was succinctly explained when Obinze is at a dinner party with well-meaning but completely out-of-touch posh Londoners. Obinze, the son of a professor, had grown up comfortably in Nigeria. There was no pressing need for him to migrate, no blazing gunshots, no famine. And yet: He wanted to go elsewhere, desperately. This passage was the clincher.

“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

Adichie’s book dealt with two MASSIVE topics, race in America and the influx of migrants in Europe, with such truth. At no point in the book can you read the words and decide to ignore some bits because they’re unpleasant. She makes you face the truth of the book on each page.

Seriously: No one could read this book and think anything but, “Wow. We should take care of immigrants.” No one could read this book and react with anything but tremendous empathy. On so many levels, the book was a major wake up call. I recommend people of all races and backgrounds to read it, absorb it, and let it make you as uncomfortable as possible.

Americanah does what fiction SHOULD do, especially in divisive times like these: It reaches out and says, come, let me teach you what you might not have already known.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Some books I love because I can’t shake them off. I enter into the dense patchwork of prose and emerge altered. I love those books, though sometimes their barbs bristle and make me uncomfortable. Other books I love because they’re beautiful, and that can make up for many other structural foibles. There are other books I love because they are true, and others because they’re indulgent. And yet other books I love because I wish I’d written them.

9780571326105.jpgThen, there are books that I love because they come into my life at just at the right time.

On November 8 of 2016, I happened to be reading the perfect book. I had started it only a week before, heading to the bookshelf to choose the chunkiest paperback I could find for my first morning train commute. The book was called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As a sucker for epic books set in India (of which there happen to be multitudes), this novel had been on my list for a while.

That said, I’m happy I delayed reading the novel for the time of Donald Trump’s election. While on the one hand, I feared that my country was spinning so fast that we were all going to slide off the surface of the earth, I had a book that told me: it could be worse.

In A Fine Balance, the lives of four characters are thrust together when they all briefly stay within the house of Dina Dalal, an independent widow attempting to hold on to her old apartment by running an illegal clothing factory. She employs an itinerant uncle/nephew duo, whose comedic timing and camaraderie is darkened by an undercurrent of caste violence in their hometown. Then, they’re joined by the quiet student studying air conditioning, who feels adrift in the big city and longs to return to his father’s store in the mountains. Or, better put, to his childhood in the mountains, before everything changed.

Accompanying Mistry’s four main characters is a chorus of vivid, fantastic ancillary characters who are just as memorable. There are characters lurking the backstories and memory, usually cloaked in nostalgia. And boy, are there villains. There are villains who raze entire settlements; people with violence in their guts; the erosion of soul that occurs from a prolonged lack of kindness.

 “The human face has limited space. If you fill it with laughter there will be no room for crying.”

The greatest villain in A Fine Balance, however, is everything that is done to the four main characters without their consent. Aka, the economy. As it turns out, no matter how lovely and fantastic your personality is (and they are all so lovely), they are at mercy of external circumstances. And external circumstances in India in the 1970s were just, well, not so great. Mistry’s world is bursting from the seams with detail — Dickensian detail — and that makes the status quo all the more horrifying. The nephew and uncle, for example, are completely bound in by their class and status. It haunts them with violence and injustice for the rest of their lives.

Individualism — people’s personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, what makes them human — is steamrolled under Great Economic Forces. Only in Dina’s confined apartment can the four characters live in a briefly society free from the pressures, assumptions, and that govern the outside world, especially for the poor.

As the best fiction does, A Fine Balance made me get outside myself. It showed me more convincingly than any non-fiction ever could that it could be worse.

 “Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.”

My DT-induced anxiety, while bad, was tempered by this incredibly realistic account of India as it crawled towards independence. As in: my family didn’t face violence for trying to vote. As in: I wasn’t sleeping on doorsteps, or confined to the whims of my demanding older brother, or my home wasn’t being deforested by the British.

In A Fine Balance, being an individual is only possible if you have money. Otherwise, you’re crushed under the wheel of corrupt, conniving, and indifferent bureaucracy.
And what makes the book so damn effective is that in Dina’s apartment, we see these four characters — lambs to the slaughter of the economy — in their full individual glory. I highly recommend reading this book. It’s an exercise in empathy.

For a more in-depth analysis of this incredibly plotted novel, check out this blog post.

Pond by Claire Louise Bennett & Why Likability is Overrated

Let me be honest with you: I struggled to get through Pond. Not because it wasn’t brilliant. It was totally brilliant. In this book, Claire Louise 1-0fuwyaqn8bbil2ihjukppwBennett does what the best writers do with language: reinvent it. She slams together such strange pairings of words together that, while reading, I felt my brain sweat and pant to keep up. It is a thrilling, dark little gem of a book. And yet I struggled to get through it.

Maybe that’s because the book is so deeply rooted in voice, not in plot. The entire success of the novel is predicated on her narrator being entertaining enough to entertain us through perspective, not moment. And it works! In strange, detailed, exacting language, the narrator constructs her world and her body through words. The narrator’s rural Irish cottage becomes enchanted through her unique perspective. It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s utterly genius.

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.”

But though it’s a thrill, it isn’t a pleasure. And that’s probably my own close-minded fault. It isn’t a pleasure to read because, well, the narrator is — gasp! — unlikable. Sometimes I thought to myself, oh god, if I have to spend another moment in your cold witty grasp I’ll just have to binge an hour of the Kardashians to recover.

Yet the narrator’s “likability” doesn’t get in the way of my judgment of the book. Because guess what? That shouldn’t matter in determining the merits of a book. In fact, I recommend you all to go pick up Pond and read it. Because the narrator isn’t likable, but she’s herself. She’s just a person whose rich, twisted inner life is made penetrable by the page.

“I only wish you could spend just five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.”

There’s such a glaring double standard when it comes to unlikable characters in literature. We delight in Raskolnikov and Holden Caulfield. We gladly skip along journeys with the most curmudgeonly, horrendous men we’d never want to be friends with in real life. And hey, that’s because books aren’t real life. They’re windows into lives that aren’t hours. What a joy to read, if ever briefly, the story of someone who’s brave enough to be unlikable.

Take this quote by Claire Messud, which sums this up quite succinctly: “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?”

So even if I cringed while reading this novel, cringed at a narrator so unabashedly (and occasionally disturbingly) herself, I celebrate her right to exist. I celebrate the idea that a character doesn’t have to be “likable” to land on the page. Put simply: if books were entirely composed of likable characters we would have a lot of boring books.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

When A Sport and a Pastime was published in 1967, the New York Times Book Review said: “Fiction survives through minor novels like this one.”Reading this book fifty years later, I’m testament to that statement. 

With a reputation in the writing community as a “writer’s writer,” each of James Salter’s sentences reads like an instruction guide for how to write the correct sentence. IMG_3318.JPGWhile reading this book, I experienced a similar sensation to how I felt while reading John William’s novel Stoner, also published in the 1960s. In both of these novels, the prose is controlled and very hemmed in. They wrote before the days of “show, don’t tell.” Williams and Salter tell — and they do it well. “Telling” lends the story even more of an element of control. The novel is, under no pretense, a real life. It’s a controlled narrative.

And the concepts of narrative and control couldn’t be more applicable in the case of Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The novel is technically about the love affair between a young Yale dropout and a French girl. But things aren’t that straightforward in this book, which is just as much about memory & construction & archetypes & the way we mythologize people as it is about romance (and lust). The story is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who, aside from some brief lunches and dinners, is not actually present during the novel’s action. Instead, it’s constructed from his imaginings. As the unnamed narrator simmers and stews in his lonely apartment in Autun, Phillip Dean is driving through the French countryside with Anne-Marie. As the narrator longs for the woman who lives across the street, Dean’s raw sexuality lands him straight into the heart of every woman he encounters. Dean becomes an amalgamation of everything the narrator wishes he was. He is not a real person. But the narrator is. And the narrator creates a warm garret where Dean and Anne-Marie briefly carve out a world — the numbered days of a love affair ticking down with the thuds of a beating heart.  So accurately and perceptively does Salter document the rise and fall of a connection that I questioned the uniqueness of my own experiences! Fiction: to know we are not alone.

“His devotion is complete; he is beginning to sense the confusion that arises from the first fears of what life would be like without her. He knows there can be such a thing, but like the answer to a difficult problem, he cannot imagine it.”

So, in addition to having some lurid and beautifully rendered sex scenes (it turns out the 60’s were pretty racy if you know where to look), the novel is chock-full of philosophy about the act of remembering. To make the story more complicated, the narrator is telling this story from years in the future. In the end, we find that the inspiration of the story comes from a place of memorial.

“Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.”

I won’t say that this is an easy book to get into, because it’s not. The novel’s written in immediate present-tense, a sea of choppy sentences that convey the exact weather and place and time. Then, interjected throughout this immediacy is the narrator’s long-winded admissions that this whole thing is a dreamscape, a projection of his own inadequacies. Luckily for us — or for me — what I am left with is not the cold, sterile narrator who says no to life. Instead, there’s Dean. Dean in the car, Dean the Jack Kerouac of France, Dean cold and wandering, a sieve to emotion, a life without constraint.

It’ll stay with me, this book. Quietly, yes, but it’ll be there.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The year is 1976. The Lee family is the only Chinese — or, well, half-Chinese — family in their small Ohio town. And for unknown reasons, Lydia, the family’s 16-year-old middle daughter, has just been discovered in the bottom of the town lake.

In Celeste Ng’s slim novel, the backbone of a death isn’t suspense or who-dun-it. Rather, the story is held together by intricate, deep-seeded family dynamics of miscommunication and good intentions gone awry.

everythinginevertoldyou-celestengThat’s because the how of Lydia’s death is tragic, but not much of a surprise. The why — that’s the interesting part. And it’s not just Lydia’s “why,” but her parents’ and her siblings’. In this story, each family member is equally important in shaping the circumstances for Lydia’s death. In a narrative arc that jumps back and forth in time, exploring important moments in each of the characters’ formation, Ng lets the reader in on each characters’ secret yearnings that dictate their choices. The mother who wanted to become a doctor, and is constantly disappointed by her accidental pregnancy that derailed her plans. The father, the son of Chinese immigrants, who wanted more than anything to fit in — and exerts that same desire on his children. The older son, whose dreams of astrophysics (and his whole personality!) are overlooked by his parents, who are focused on Lydia, their favorite. Lydia, who forges a mask of a personalty under the weight of her parents’ expectation. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, who takes to surreptitiously collecting her family’s possessions because they don’t really notice her.

“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”

The catch to such well constructed characters? Each member of the Lee family has a distinct history and personality that dictates all of their actions. While this means the plot flows swimmingly — aka each action makes complete sense, given their history — it also meant that I didn’t buy it. Yes: is was a beautifully, achingly written book. In lyrical prose, it portrayed the pressures of being different and the repercussion of inter-racial relationships — two subjects I can relate to especially. But I also imagined Ng’s characters swerving along a clear-cut track, entirely blinded to the needs of their family members, existing in a bubble. In every instance real-life people could have had a conversation and explained their inner lives, Ng’s characters repress, ignore, pretend. In other words, they felt like characters — not real people.

Maybe I just have too high expectations for people’s communication skills. Maybe the Lee family, each with their hidden lives, is really what many families are like (I acknowledge not everyone has a loud Mediterranean family like I do). But I couldn’t help but think: all of this could have been avoided by a few key conversations. And hey, maybe that’s the point of the book.

While I thought the characters behaved in mechanically cruel way at times, that’s not to say I don’t recommend the book. I totally recommend the book. A family is made up of the same story told through many different lenses. In this book, we see the fractals, the way the life of one person is changed utterly by another. And we see this great tragedy: our intentions, once received, are sometimes stripped of their goodness. Without proper communication, our good intentions can go sour, punch people in the stomach, push girls (inadvertently — I’m not giving anything away!) into lakes.

Oh Goodness…

Oh goodness, it’s been a long time gone without writing.

Which is really a shame, because the whole time, I’ve been reading. And reading. And reading! Good books, bad books, interesting ones, disappointing ones. Although it’s not fair to boil down works into one adjective, just like it’s not fair to assign one adjective to a person and leave it at that. That’s why I really should be writing a post for each book I read.

This summer I worked at a literary agency. I spent my mornings reading query emails from writers hoping to be published. Even if I didn’t like all of their work, I respected them all tremendously. Writing a novel, no matter the apparent “quality,” is a real act of devotion and discipline. It’s a worthy endeavor. And so the least I can do is to write more frequently in this blog to encourage other people to read — because someone spent days holed inside, turned down plans, spun around and did years worth of somersaults in their minds, all to bring you a story. WHAT a world! I’m so happy to exist in a world where people tell stories just because they damn well don’t want to do anything else. That’s why though I love Bob Dylan and get it, I get why he won, I hope it’s the last time a songwriter wins. Writers don’t get enough pats on the back for thankless work, for lonely days.

I’m going to get into the books I’ve read in more detail in further blog posts, but some of the HIGHLIGHTS of the summer include:

  • Wise Children by Angela Carter, who is hands down the scariest smart witty wonderful woman writer and there must be some conspiracy against why EVERYONE doesn’t know about her, because everyone should.
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, which made me take hour-long lunch breaks just so I could get pulled back into the intoxicating paragraphs and larger-than-life characters. On my walk to work, I’d take a pit stop at a small community garden just so I could sneak in a few paragraphs. Yes, I was an addict for this book.
  • Happy City by Charles Montgomery, a book that explores how urban design impacts our general happiness and quality of life. This book made me furious about cars and urban sprawl, and terribly excited about the possibilities of more green cities that have public transportation, public space, and ways of bringing people together. I don’t read much nonfiction, but this book was so well-written and exhilarating that I blew through it like a novel. And, since I knew I was lEARNING something, it was almost more gratifying.
  • Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson, because I could read all of her books five times and still find sentences that make me swoon. Was reading this next to my boyfriend and he asked why I was smiling and I said sorry, this book will give away too many women secrets, you can never know. Which isn’t altogether true, of course, but this book made me angry and proud in the best way.

Okay, I realize these are all vague sum-ups that explain the reading experience instead of the actual book, but I’m really just using this post as a warm up for when I do my summer in review post.

Right now I’m reading An Unnecessary Woman by one of my favorite authors, Rabih Alammedine, and sometimes it makes me fall asleep and sometimes I really like it. But one of the best parts is that the protagonist, a woman who relies on literature more than food for sustenance, throws in great quotes. So I’ll end with the ending of an Edward Hirsch poem she loves that describes joy:

“My head is skylight / my heart is dawn.”

With that, I leave you. But I will be back tomorrow. Maybe I can be disciplined enough to make this a daily thing? Hm…let’s not get TOO ahead of ourselves, now.

Playing with the Novel: Calvino and Bolano

Going back to a regular ole novel is going to be strange after reading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño and If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino in succession.

After discovering the joys of my college library’s stacks, which contain every novel *ever* (okay, slight exaggeration–let me rephrase: every novel I want to read), I took home a bunch of books to read over break. These were two of them. Neither disappointed. They were two of the most fantastic literary experiences I’ve ever had. And perhaps what I appreciated most about the “novels” were that they weren’t really novels: they surprised me. Both authors challenge, but most of all play, with the idea of the novel. And literature itself! Calvino more obviously, but Bolaño as well.

Seriously–if you want to think about narrative and novels in surprising, exciting ways, read these novels.

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The Savage Detectives chronicles the rise and fall of visceral realism, a fictional poetry movement, in Mexico City from 1975 through the ’90s. At the heart of the novel is a search for Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, visceral realism’s founders. Lima and Belano, too, are searching for Cesàrea Tinajero, the founder of visceral realism’s first incarnation in the 1920’s.

The novel is flanked on either end by Juan Garcìa-Madero’s journal entries. A 17-year-old law student and aspiring poet in Mexico City, Garcìa-Madero is swept up into the visceral realism clique by Belano and Lima. We meet the core gang of poets–the Font sisters, Enrique San Epifanio, Luscious Skin (worth reading just for his name), Rafael Barrios, among others–in this first section. Belano and Lima are an inseparable pair, but seem to enter and exit the story as mysteriously as they appeared in Garcìa-Madero’s life.

And now for the fun part. The second mammoth section consists entirely of monologues from characters dispersed over the years and in a wide array of settings, from Paris to Mexico to Israel. Bolano juggles over 40 NARRATORS (!!) in this section. They all refer to experiences they had with either Belano or Lima. Miraculously, I was not confused when switching between narrators. Bolaño lovingly gives each character his or her own voice, as though they were really speaking and he is just copying down what they are saying. As this section moves forward, we see parts of Belano and Lima’s futures mapped out: their loves, their travels, their mistakes. Always wanderers, the two separate and lead very different lives. We hear from our beloved friends from the first section, and some incredibly entertaining, others incredibly heartbreaking, narrators. Bolaño essentially is conducting a symphony of voices in this feat of a second section.

Through the cacophony, through the kaleidiscope perspective of Belano and Lima, the reader is actually unable to piece together a cohesive picture of visceral realism’s founders, though the two are arguably the novel’s protagonists. At the center of this symphony of voices swirling through space and time is a gaping hole: that of Belano and Lima. The reader never gets an objective portrait of them, but rather one colored by opinion, experience, and personality. And to me, that sounds more like life than like reading. 

The Savage Detectives surprised me because searching for Belano and Lima felt like a true experience unlike one I’d ever encountered in a book. I didn’t have just one unreliable narrator, I had 40. And I didn’t want reliable. There is no such thing as a reliable narrator. And there is no possibility of ever fully knowing Belano and Lima, or knowing anyone! So what Bolaño gives us are not two characters, but two people.

We search for Belano and Lima just like we search for the characters of the people in our lives: by piecing together stories and experiences, we try to fill in the gaping holes of our perceptions of them. We may never know people, but we’ll be able to at least shape a perception. When I finished The Savage Detectives, I didn’t know Belano and Lima. But I certainly perceived them. In the respect that Bolaño allows the reader to fill in blank and construct their own Belano and Lima, they were the most real characters I’ve ever encountered. It didn’t feel like reading, but piecing together lives. More like living than reading, really.

So you can tell what I mean by deconstructing the novel! 

The best way to imagine this novel: books within books within books....

The best way to imagine this novel: books within books within books….

Moving on to Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler is truly a deconstruction of the novel. And that’s what it’s intended to be. It seems as though Calvino laughs as he tears up the reader’s expectations of the novel. Meta-fiction at its finest.

The novel consists of the first chapter of 10 novels either destroyed or taken away from the Reader before they could be continued. Along with these novels that cut off at their climax are alternating chapters of the experiences of the Reader himself, who is a character. Or is he you? Narrated in second person, Calvino invites the reader to immerse him/herself into the story/ies. The Reader’s search for the missing chapters lead him into the arms of the Other Reader, Ludmilla. They go on this great adventure to try to piece together the novels, and really, it’s just a helluva fun book. It’s not an easy book, but it’s an amazing one.

As a college student I also appreciated Calvino poking fun at the university way of reading with a purpose. Kind of like ruining books because you’re reading it with a certain slant in mind, instead of letting the narrative speak for itself.

If on a winter’s night a traveler was designed for people who love to read and love to talk about reading. So for people like you and me!