Cosmicomics in the Classroom

This semester, I made a simple and (I thought) pragmatic decision. Despite my great love for his work, there simply wasn’t room in my syllabus for Italo Calvino.

I came to this conclusion for several reasons. This semester at Temple I’ve been teaching a cross-disciplinary creative writing course called Creative Acts, which asks me to teach three different writing disciplines, of which fiction is only one. This means that my fiction unit is only four weeks long. This four weeks contains student workshops, small group work, some lectures, and a little blog writing, which you can find here. This leaves just enough time to have full-group discussion on five stories, two short and three substantially longer, all of which are contained (for the class’ convenience) in the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.

My teacher brain thought: goodness – I’d better find four stories that model excellent fictional techniques while simultaneously gesturing toward the myriad possibilities contained in the genre, while also connecting in some way, shape, or form to the previous units of the course! There are many perils to being a fiction instructor, one of which is that we have a tendency to take our job slightly too seriously – or, at the very least, somewhat more seriously than a great many of our students.

So I picked George Saunders’ Sea Oak (which always opens the unit on a gleeful, profane note), Joanna Scott’s X Number of Possibilities (to investigate the nature of personality in narrative), Lydia Davis’ The Old Dictionary (to emphasize the productive intersections between essay and narrative), Aleksander Hemon’s The Life and Works of Alphonse Kauders (to show narrative as an alternative form of official history), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine (to emphasize how “realistic fiction” presents an elaborate simulacrum of the known social world).

I would not remove any of these pieces, necessarily. All of them created provocative discussion, and I think the students found them interesting. That being said, with the exception of Sea Oak, none of the students really used them as models, which disappointed me a little – I tend to measure a story’s true success by the number of students who find themselves subconsciously imitating it.

All of this is to say that as the unit went on I found myself missing Calvino a great deal – not only because I love his work, but because the stories the students were producing had a lot to do with the fictional project of his book Cosmicomics. Not that they were necessarily indebted to Calvino, specifically, but that they approached fiction from a similar way.

My students in Creative Acts aren’t English majors, by and large. It’s a Gen-Ed course, which means it fulfills a basic undergraduate requirement, and which means I get students from every school, every discipline. Their writing styles are similarly diverse. Some kids write lyrical pieces about childhood; others write steam-punk sci-fi. To put things mildly, not all of their styles are in my wheelhouse. I’ve certainly learned more about fan fiction during the course of this semester than I expected, for example – a good thing! I don’t have any illusions that this class (or any fiction class, really) ought to be about advancing a certain set of rules for narrative, and I’d like to think that our time together is about communally defining what it is fiction does to us, and what questions is asks about our own experiences, because if there’s one thread that connects all the student work it’s the attempt to model worlds in order to present ideas (conscious or unconscious) about the existences of those worlds, and therefore (if we’re successful enough) our own.

Which brings me to Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which is so uniquely well-suited to the questions of world-building. Take, for example, this excerpt from the story “All at One Point,” which concerns the lives of characters who exist before the Big Bang, and are therefore squished in an infinitesimally small sort of life:

Just with the people I’ve already named we would have been overcrowded; but you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there: all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe, now dismantled and concentrated in such a way that you weren’t able to tell what was later to become part of astronomy (like the nebula of Andromeda) from what was assigned to geography (the Vosges, for example) or to chemistry (like certain beryllium isotopes). And on top of that, we were always bumping against the Z’zu family’s household goods: camp beds, mattresses, baskets; these Z’zus, if you weren’t careful, with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world: they even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.

But the others also had wronged the Z’zus, to begin with, by calling them “immigrants,” on the pretext that, since the others had been there first, the Z’zus had come later. This was mere unfounded prejudice — that seems obvious to me — because neither before nor after existed, nor any place to immigrate from, but there were those who insisted that the concept of “immigrant” could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.

What makes those two paragraphs so delightful is the way in which they shift so quickly from attempts at scientific verisimilitude, in order to create the theoretical existence in a place so small it doesn’t even have space, to a gleeful rearrangement of the things of our world, like the eternal evil of anti-immigrant prejudice. What a delightful strategy: to establish the rules of narrative convention while also totally flaunting them. How it encourages rigor and also playfulness!

Which is why it’s worth teaching, and why students tend to engage with it, despite complaining about the “funny names.”

I was reminded of this story today when a student submitted an extremely funny story about a man who has lived in four dimensions, only to have a government ban on the fourth dimension force him to move back into a three-dimensional existence; poor fellow, he makes the transition almost entirely successfully, with the exception of his penis, which remains four-dimensional, and now when he pees he sometimes loses track of it, lost in a higher plane. He also loses all sexual potency, because three dimensions are simply no longer exciting.

I find my students’ work wonderful and endlessly fascinating, partially because, since so many of them come from disciplines other than English, they come at fiction with a different perspective, and produce work which is genuinely surprising.

The trouble came when I asked this student what the fourth dimension might look like. He responded with frustration – of course one couldn’t describe the fourth dimension – it was outside of human experience!

At which point I cursed myself: you fool! If only you’d provided him Cosmicomics! Then he would understand that there is no such thing as the indescribable, and that even if one’s description wasn’t quite perfect or “realistic” (whatever that means), it would still provide the reader with the sort of pleasure that a little intellectual world-building tends to provide.

In fact, it strikes me that Cosmicomics is uniquely suited to bridge the gap between my science and math students (who often produce hard SF, or some variant thereof) and my humanities students (who tend – although neither of these camps are by any means exclusive – to focus on character interior, relationships, and a certain amount of romance/drug use). It foregrounds the intellectual work necessary to build a continuous fictional world without skimping on the sort of “human” experience (or even sentimental pleasure, dare we speak its name?) that more social fiction provides us with.

Consider the ending of “All at One Point,” the very moment of the Big Bang:

We got along so well all together, so well that something extraordinary was bound to happen. It was enough for her to say, at a certain moment: “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows; we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed, at the same time that Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 was uttering those words: “… ah, what noodles, boys!” the point that contained her and all of us was expanding in a halo of distance in light-years and light-centuries and billions of light-millennia, and we were being hurled to the four corners of the universe (Mr. Pber^t Pber^d all the way to Pavia), and she, dissolved into I don’t know what kind of energy-light-heat, she, Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, she who in the midst of our closed, petty world had been capable of a generous impulse, “Boys, the noodles I would make for you!,” a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms, and she lost at that very moment, and we, mourning her loss.

When it comes to the intersection of astrophysics, human goodness, lost time, and sentimental romance, I can think of no greater performance – and such a joyful burst, attempting to mimic the release of energy in the physical world. I think my students would have loved it. Which is why I am making this promise now. Never again will I produce a fiction syllabus without at least a selection from Cosmicomics somewhere on the table.

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