Mr. Palomar is a novel about meaning. As the two-hundred-inch telescope on Southern California’s Mount Palomar pulls in the light from distant galaxies, so the novel pulls the reader into its text as an inescapable link in the infinite chain of observers observing observers. In the very act of reading the novel the reader must perpetuate Mr. Palomar’s attempt to draw meaning from his observations, to make connections between things, or events, or chapters. Though Calvino provides a structuring concept for the twenty-seven meditations, he never reveals the significance behind the triple triadic arrangement. Is it a Trinity of Trinities, an intimation of something godlike? Or is the author having his little joke with readers who find that they, too, cannot avoid interpretation?
Calvino’s prose, translated from the Italian by William Weaver, is deceptively forthright. Each short meditation is well crafted, seemingly translucent. Yet the reader comes to realize that any understanding of Mr. Palomar has come not through the detail of the text but through the connection and interpretation that the novel forces the reader to supply, with the help of Calvino, the fellow observer. The reader is wooed into believing that such connections must be found for the story to have the significance “intended” by the author, and with that, the trap is sprung. The reader becomes Mr. Palomar’s accomplice.
The meditations themselves are quietly human documents, blessed with a touching humor and a recognition of the pull of contrary desires. The visit to a Paris cheese shop raises cheese choices to the level of metaphysics: “Mr. Palomar’s spirit vacillates between contrasting urges: the one that aims at complete, exhaustive knowledge and could be satisfied only by tasting all the varieties; and the one that tends toward an absolute choice, the identification of the cheese that is his alone....” His deep interest in the edibles displayed before him perplexes the other customers. When Mr. Palomar is shaken from his reverie by the salesperson in front of him, the first words out of his mouth refer to a mundane and popular variety. With sadness, Mr. Palomar realizes that the consumer culture around him has triumphed again. There had been no opportunity to step back from the hubbub in the shop to learn the names and natures of the cheeses so that Mr. Palomar could place himself in the appropriate stream of cheese history. Mr. Palomar seems forever an outsider: At the zoo, the civilized-looking penguins make him shudder. He is attracted to the giraffe, symbolizing in its crazy-quilt appearance the kind of disharmony and incoordination at large in the world.
Most of Mr. Palomar’s meditations begin with the unspoken assumption that the natural world, or at least its surface as Mr. Palomar observes it, has something to “say,” though he is never certain of the message. Written in the present tense, each chapter promises imminent discovery: Tortoise sex, so outwardly dumpy, must signal the existence of an inner life of crystalline clarity; reptiles must be immersed in crocodile time, unhurried, geologic. Mr. Palomar, however, is overwhelmed with things to observe. Observation becomes obsessive. He longs for stability, the cessation of change which is death. Yet, ironically, even what one is in death is altered by the changing thoughts of others.