Mr. Palomar is a group of twenty-seven mostly benign meditations on—or, more accurately, observations of—the natural world. There is no connected story line, though the novel culminates in the death of the central character, yet each thoughtful vignette does proffer some insight via Palomar himself. These are the observations of a man temperamentally unsuited for any scientific enterprise, anguished over the disconnectedness he feels between himself and the rest of the universe, and eager to discover some appropriate relationship. The reader is also part of that alien universe, since the only access to Mr. Palomar is through the third-person narrative; the reader is the observer of the observer.
It is left to the reader to notice a thematic index at the conclusion of the novel. Italo Calvino explains that each chapter contains various admixtures of three themes, and that its position in the index indicates the proportion. Primarily visual descriptions are indicated by “1”; those chapters which are most narrative are labeled “2”; “3” indicates speculative meditation. Each of the three major divisions of the book (“1. Mr. Palomar’s Vacation”; “2. Mr. Palomar in the City”; and “3. The Silences of Mr. Palomar”) is further divided into three groups of three chapters. The first chapter (labeled 1.1.1., “Reading a Wave”) is ostensibly the most visually oriented. The sixth chapter (1.2.3., “The Infinite Lawn”) is a mixture of description, story, and meditation. The fifth chapter of the second division (2.2.2., “The Cheese Museum”) is mostly narrative, and the final chapter of the third division (3.3.3., “Learning to Be Dead”) is the most speculative.
Is this index descriptive or prescriptive? If the former, there is after all a kind of movement in the novel, as if, in fits and starts, Mr. Palomar finds that he needs more and more abstract speculation to achieve harmony with the universe. In “Serpents and Skulls” (3.1.2.), Mr. Palomar visits the remains of a pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico. His unnamed Mexican friend spins artful tales of the god Quetzalcoatl while nearby a group of schoolchildren is told by their instructor that, though the ancient carvings can be described and even dated, no one knows what they mean. Mr. Palomar observes that somehow his friend has translated mere descriptions (facts) into something living (meaning). Mr. Palomar sees in himself “the need to translate, to move from...
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