Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lunar Fields

(Note: Although the story mentioned is available for free online--see the link below--I intentionally left the major parts of the story vague in the interest of analysis. My hope is that you read it before getting into my thoughts.)

In a wonderful example of perfect timing, the February 23rd issue of The New Yorker published a previously untranslated story by Italo Calvino, entitled "The Daughters Of the Moon." Since my last post was a look at If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, I was excited to see some new material (new in the sense of "available," since Calvino has been gone since 1985), doubled by the fact that I've only read novels and essays written by him. I've been meaning to get into his available short stories, a format that, at first assumption, would be among the better showcases of his style. Since Invisible Cities and If On a Winter's Night a Traveler are composed of short, vibrant chapters, it only seems natural that he would be able to pack a lot of imagery into a story that stands as its own piece. Besides, it would be wrong to look at just a single chapter of a Calvino novel, since each one is connected (almost scientifically) as more than the sum of its parts.

The word I used above, imagery, can sometimes be an easy go-to placeholder in literary criticism. However, it applies perfectly to "The Daughters Of the Moon." Calvino creates acute landscape descriptions, including a New York skyline that is minimalist, yet tells a lot given the story's structure:

"These cities grew in approximately the same places as our cities do now, however different the shape of the continents was. There was even a New York that in some way resembled the New York familiar to all of you, but was much newer, or, rather, more awash with new products, new toothbrushes, a New York with its own Manhattan that stretched out dense with skyscrapers gleaming like the nylon bristles of a brand-new toothbrush."

A passage like this highlights Calvino's primary designations as a fabulist and a storyteller. "The Daughters Of the Moon" is narrated by a first person narrator, but one who, while involved personally in the events, remains as detached as possible, remaining confused at best, at least until the climax. In the future, the moon, with its age and meteoric erosions, does not fit in with the shiny, consumeristic society to which we're accustomed. The titular daughters of the moon, the almost fairy-like nude women who attempt to halt the moon's destruction. However, even they are not detached from the problems of rampant consumerism, which is a prevailing metaphor in the story, a metaphor that seems drastically different than the Calvino I'm familiar with:

"Everything was scattered on the grass around the bench: her clothes, a stocking and shoe here and the others there, her earrings, necklace, and bracelets, purse and shopping bag with the contents spilled out in a wide arc, and countless packages and goods, almost as if the creature had felt herself called on her way back from a lavish shopping spree and had dropped everything, realizing that she had to free herself of all objects and signs that bound her to the earth, and she was now waiting to be assumed into the lunar sphere."

As the passages I've cited hint, the story reads almost like a science-fiction piece, in addition to the metaphoric shame of consumerism and rape of the earth, which comes to a head in the stunning final paragraph. Since so much of the planet has been changed since the advent of industry, once the technology is available, would humans attempt to change the features of outer space? This also reminded me of the ideas of a vastly different writer, George Carlin, who more or less hinted at the same themes, imagining the colonization of space, complete with microwave hotdogs and trying to explain to extra-terrestrials the logistics behind embarrassing human behaviors.

Of course, Calvino is not without hope. As the daughters of the moon attempt to salvage the lunar destruction, by sheer magic (or so it seems), the problems begin to right themselves, both physically and socially:

"Following this moon that had been saved from the scrap heap, all the things and all the people who had been resigned to being tossed in a corner started on the road again."

Thus far, I have not formed any real opinions on the story itself. I found it beautifully written, futuristically atmospheric, but was somehow left feeling that there was more that could have been expanded. "The Daughters Of the Moon" reads as if it could have been a chapter in one of Calvino's novels, a more modern take on a city from Invisible Cities. Perhaps I'm committing a faux pas and not taking the story at face value, combined with the fact that I have not read other Calvino stories. However, one of the passages of the story serves as a wonderful metaphor for this new English-language addition to Calvino's canon, especially given its form as a story as opposed to a novel. I'll close with it:

"This was the landscape that we hardly managed to glimpse before the sphere swiftly receded into the sky, and the more minute details were lost in a general impression of freshness and lushness. It was dusk; the contrasts of the colors were fading into a vibrant chiarscuro; the lunar fields and woods were now just barely visible countours on the taut surface of the shining globe."

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