Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Okay but not great
I was usually pretty good about reading books for school and as time passed I actually got better about it instead of worse. I read more of the assigned reading at the community college than I did in high school, more at the university than I did in the community college, and if I was in grad school I get the feeling that I would read every work by every author we discussed in a class because, holy shit seriously, books are so awesome you guys.
But there are periodical exceptions. I can't hang with Faulkner or Wolfe and so whenever I was assigned one of those books I'd make a token effort then give up in exasperation about fifty pages in. I was, however really surprised when the same thing happened with The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Calvino was the only author we really examined in my senior symposium and I adored If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and some of the other books we'd gone through, so it was a bit of a shock when Crossed Destinies didn't really grab me.
Now that I've finally worked my way completely through the book (three years after I was in the class) I can sort of see why it didn't call out to be read. Crossed Destinies is playful and very, very funny, but it's also contrived and pretty damn boring. Calvino himself said that it was a book he only wrote to be rid of it - the idea of making a tarot deck into a story generator had fascinated him for years before Crossed Destinies was published so he wrote the book in order to stop fixating on it. If the book was tormenting the author before it even went to print I can understand why it might be frustrating to readers as well.
The problem with the book (is it a novel? two novellas? a collection of short stories) is that Calvino's writing is brilliant but the device of using tarots is almost too twee to tolerate. The concept of a mashup between Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth is AMAZING but when it's set to a tarot deck instead of its own damn story it's really irritating instead of really awesome.
I kind of get why Calvino wanted to do this - it's so freaking tempting. Tarots are made up of recognizable archetypes and filled in with lovely little details that seem like the perfect plot outline for a story. But they only seem right for an outline - they're incomplete (which Calvino is quick to note over and over and over in the book) and unsatisfying.
The best piece in the book is "I also try to tell my tale," which is written from the perspective of a writer, or Calvino, or a King or someone who creates. It doesn't really matter who, and the details don't really matter either; what does matter is its examination of what writing is, which is the entire point of the story, the book, and the contrivance behind the whole thing.
So should you read it? Bits and pieces. When I first read it for school I think I got as far as the Vampire Kingdom and after that I lost interest. The first book of the two books (Castle as opposed to Tavern) has the more interesting and coherent stories while the second book (Tavern as opposed to Castle) is made up of more murky literary introspection. In the end all of it is worth reading, but some of the book is more fun to read than all of the book. If, however, this is your first time reading Calvino put the book down, back away and go get a copy of Mr. Palomar or The Cloven Viscount.
Calvino, Italo. The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Harcourt Brace & Company.
San Diego: California. 1979.