Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mr. Palomar's infinite lawn

Italo Calvino's fiction embodies nicely the six qualities he outlined at the end of his life. Let me consider just one little volume, called Mr. Palomar.

A sweet little book. A transcript of Mr. Palomar's thoughts. Thoughts that move in an elaborate -- and playfully -- plotted way from the visual, to the anthropological, to the cosmic. A Rubik's cube of a book.

Mr. Palomar is generally perplexed to find himself overwhelmed by the most ordinary things: a cheese counter in a market, a gecko on the window glass, a jar of goose fat, a naked breast on the beach, a starry night, and so on. He describes what he sees. His descriptions become entangled with his thoughts, and soon he is swimming upstream in a universe that may or may not be infinite, only to be rescued at the end of most chapters by a sudden intrusion of the mundane.

Chapter 1.2.3., for instance. Around Mr. Palomar's house there is a lawn. The lawn consists of three kinds of grasses. And weeds. Mr. Palomar is weeding. Why is he weeding? Pull up one weed and he immediately sees another, then another, and another. Mr. Palomar briefly flirts with what might be called a scientific census of the blades of grass, the intruding weeds, perhaps by sectioning off a single square meter of lawn and devoting himself to its study. But the boundaries of the imagined square meter burst. The lawn itself adjoins the wild. Artificial and natural merge. What is natural? What is artificial? Mr. Palomar's mind has wondered. He is trying to apply to the universe everything he has thought about the lawn, "the universe, collection of celestial bodies, nebulas, fine dust, force fields, intersections of fields, collections of collections..." The lawn is infinite.

The lawn is infinite. Science can section and draw boundaries, dissect and parse. Still, the jar of goose fat is infinite. Flocks of starlings gather of an evening. The starlings are infinite.