Umberto Eco has published a new novel.According to my schema, Numero Zero has at least one thing going for it: it’s written in the first person.It’s also his shortest novel by far.The idea behind the book is intriguing enough that I could wish that it were longer, but I doubt that it would ever really have gotten where it is headed.Numero Zero reads like a sketch of an Eco novel that has been entirely taken over by a longwinded character.
Milan (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The novel begins, like Foucault’s Pendulum, with a man in fear for his life.Then we find out why.In this case, the main character is a writer, a self described loser (and losers “always know much more than winners”) who seems to have caught a minor break when he lands a strange ghostwriting job.He must write a history of a newspaper which will never print its first issue.Though our hero is in on the ruse, there is small ensemble of journalists working on the paper who are not.One is Maia, a sympathetic woman with whom the narrator strikes up a relationship.Her strange conversational habits almost become a plot point, before unfortunately being dropped, as far as I can tell.Another is Braggadocio, whose name is explained by his grandfather’s being raised in an orphanage where bureaucrats handed out surnames at whim.He is the longwinded one, by means of whom a sort of plot is carelessly ladled into the book like soup into a small bowl.
Two of Eco’s three good novels, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana are more or less autobiographical.Now he has a trilogy.Loana revels in a boy’s view of Italy in WWII, partisans meeting pulp fiction.Foucault is the intellectual Italy of the sixties, where shrewd publishers meet at smoky, zinc topped bars.Finally we have Numero Zero, a nihilistic, slightly cracked satire of Italy corrupted by Berlusconi’s media, or some forerunner thereof.It’s too bad I never managed to read more of Eco’s Hot Wars and Media Populism.The conversations of these unfortunate hacks, and their cynical conclusions on the irrelevance of journalism are interesting enough that I may reread some of them.But Numero Zero hardly feels like a complete novel.
I had an odd moment recently when Courtland Gamboge, the cynical and murderous antagonist of Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey, got mixed up in my mind’s eye with Tom Sawyer. Shades of Grey is a unique dystopian fantasy by the author of The Eyre Affair. You should read it. In the book, natural color perception is rare and society is obsessed with artificial pigments. This conceit was carried through with such thoroughness that it warped my imagination and my reading life, triggering a craving for color words and leading to my rediscovery of the poetry of Andrew Marvell and George Herbert. I can only hope, most fervently, that Fforde musters the strength to see his bizarre project through.
The resonance of Gamboge, menacing scion of a powerful and corrupt yellow-perceiving caste, and the mischievous archetype Sawyer only appears strange. Gamboge is seen through the first person narration of the naive hero Eddie Russett. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn we see Tom Sawyer from a similar first person perspective, most importantly at the end, when Tom shows a really diabolical side to his love of fun and games, such that he not only torments Jim and Huck, but hijacks the novel.
I’ve been thinking about first person narration. I mentioned that the best of Umberto Eco’s novels are written this way: The Name of the Rose, Foucault, Loana. In fact I’ll take a wild stab and say that the best novels generally are narrated in the first person. Maybe other narratives stop short of the ultimate reason for reading novels, not only to be somewhere else, but to become someone else? Consider Jane Eyre vs. Wuthering Heights. Jane Eyre is first person and W.H. is a farrago. Tom Sawyer is not first person; it’s a children’s book and a didactic one at that. Then Twain switched and wrote the incomparable Huck Finn. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time. Everything of his I’ve read since has been terribly frustrating. (I read the whole Baroque Cycle…) Guess which of his works is written in first person. Moby Dick is first person. So is Notes from Underground, which is all the Dostoevsky anyone really needs. I’m sure there is a technical reason for all this, and that writers know very well what they are doing and why certain narratives should be the way they are. It’s still striking.
Nicholson Baker was at my local bookstore the other night promoting his novel Traveling Sprinkler. It was a free talk, and I went in more interested in the author than the book, which is a sequel to another I haven’t read, The Anthologist. I didn’t bring anything for him to sign. I was surprised. Baker sold me his book, and he seemed to enjoy doing it (I sometimes worry about the toll these things take on people’s work). I guess that’s a good book event.
Baker is versatile. He’s written a controversial book about World War II called Human Smoke. He’s also written several books of ridiculous, explicit, very literary porn. His interview with Stephen Colbert provides a glimpse of what it’s all about. You shouldn’t judge the genre just on Fifty Shades of Grey.
I’m still undecided about the novel, most of the way through it. If I remember, Baker didn’t use the word “storytelling” when he talked about writing. Instead often said something like “but you could put it in a novel”, meaning the things he finds beautiful and neglected, like the ingenious mechanism of the title. It seems like he’s less interested in writing a novel with a gripping plot that plays to the usual taste for violence and drama. Instead we have classical piano and pop music, pacifism, the theory of metaphor. Nicholson Baker’s life, in other words, which could work, because he’s an interesting guy. I am still sold on the idea, but I imagine it requires a hell of a lot of work and some extreme choosiness to pull off, and I’m not sure it was there.
I’ve read all six of Umberto Eco’s novels. I guess this qualifies me as a fan and I should say something about them.
I read Foucault’s Pendulum first, and was sucked in immediately by his description of the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. It’s a tour de force. The museum where the titular pendulum resides is a menacing mechanical phantasmagoria that overwhelmed whatever very important symbolism I’m sure it possessed. I was crushed to find that the museum today bears no resemblance what Eco described. After that I read The Name of the Rose. I love libraries, which is a reason this is probably my favorite, although seldom does one feel so incapable of forming a competent opinion of a novel. A while later I read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I found on remainder. I would say it was middling if it weren’t for one surprising, heart pounding thrill, and, of course, the illustrations.
That’s it for what I refer to as Eco’s three good novels. I wonder if anyone else has observed that they are also narrated in the first person, and I wonder whether any other writer’s oeuvre seems to break up this way. Until I went back and checked, I had convinced myself that The Prague Cemetery was written in the third person, as Baudolino and The Island of the Day Before actually are. In any case, I doubt I’ll spend much more time with those three. They had their good points, but I found them devoid of narrative drive. Something else that strikes me is that after The Name of the Rose, Eco’s best have prominent autobiographical themes: Aging and memories of wartime Italy in Loana, intellectual life and radical politics in (I think) sixties Italy in Foucault.
So that’s my take on Eco. It seems odd to me that while Eco does strike me as a novelist of ideas, it is his more personal writing that I actually like. Any thoughts?