The author of the international bestseller Silk now delivers a ravishing and wildly inventive novel about friendship, genius and its discontents, and the redemptive power of narrative. Somewhere in America lives a brilliant boy named Gould, an intellectual guided missile aimed at the Nobel Prize. His only companions are an imaginary giant and an imaginary mute. Improbably--and yet with impeccable logic--he falls into the care of Shatzy Shell, a young woman whose life up till that point has been equally devoid of human connection .
Theirs is a relationship of stories and of stories within stories: of Gould's evolving saga of an underdog boxer and the violent Western that Shatzy has been dictating into a tape recorder since the age of six. Out of these stories, Alessandro Baricco creates a masterpiece of metaphysical pulp fiction that recalls both Scheherazade and Italo Calvino. By turns exhilarating and deeply moving, City is irresistible.
Baricco struggles to regain the magic that made Silk an international bestseller in this disappointing follow-up set in the U.S. and starring a precocious 13-year-old named Gould, who finds himself losing his childhood amid the demands of life as a mathematical genius. Left alone in the wake of a family meltdown that cost his mother her sanity, Gould turns to flighty, 30-ish Shatzy Shell, who becomes the boy's governess. Their friendship starts as an exchange of innocent fantasy stories, with Gould's consisting of a series of imagined fights involving a heroic boxer, while Shell chips in with her lifelong desire to make a Western. Baricco spends the bulk of the book exploring the effects of Gould's baroque academic life on his development. The climax involves a fellowship award allowing Gould to go to Europe to perform advanced research, but he buckles at the prospect of leaving his cloistered, quaint life and disappears, allowing Baricco to explore the boy's upbringing when his father arrives for an emergency visit. Baricco writes a few engaging, entertaining scenes, but he can't get the sparks to fly with his two protagonists, and the fantasy subplots used to explore their ambitions remain murky and lifeless. The author never delves into Gould's mathematical world, either, making his protagonist seem more like a helpless savant than someone with the intellectual capacity to dominate a complex field. This book has some touching moments, but as a novel it never quite comes together.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 16, 2003
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Excerpt from City by Alessandro Baricco
"So, Mr. Klauser, should Mami Jane die?"
"Screw them all."
"Is that a yes or a no?"
"What do you think?"
In October of 1987, CRB--the company that for twenty-two years had published the adventures of the mythical Ballon Mac--decided to take a poll of its readers to determine whether Mami Jane ought to die. Ballon Mac was a blind superhero who worked as a dentist by day and at night battled Evil, using the special powers of his saliva. Mami Jane was his mother. The readers were, in general, very fond of her: she collected Indian scalps and at night she performed as a bassist in a blues band whose other members were black. She was white. The idea of killing her off had come from the sales manager of CRB--a placid man who had a single passion: toy trains. He maintained that at this point Ballon Mac was on a dead-end track and needed new inspiration. The death of his mother--hit by a train as she fled a paranoid switchman--would transform him into a lethal mixture of rage and grief, that is, the exact image of his average reader. The idea was idiotic. But then so was the average reader of Ballon Mac.
So, in October of 1987, CRB cleared out a room on the second floor and set up eight young women there to answer the telephones and tabulate readers' opinions. The question was: Should Mami Jane die?
Of the eight young women, four were employees of CRB, two had been sent by the unemployment office, and one was the granddaughter of the company president. The last, a woman of about thirty, from Pomona, was there because she'd won an internship by getting the correct answer on a radio quiz ("What is the thing that Ballon Mac hates most in the world?" "Scraping off tartar"). She had a small tape recorder that she always carried with her. Every so often she turned it on and said something into it.
Her name was Shatzy Shell.
At 10:45 on the twelfth day of the voting--when the death of Mami Jane was winning by 64 percent to 30 (the remaining 6 percent maintained that they should all go to hell, and had called to say so)--Shatzy Shell heard the phone ring for the twenty-first time that day, wrote on the form she had in front of her the number 21, and picked up the receiver. The following conversation ensued:
"CRB, good morning."
"Good morning, is Diesel there yet?"
"OK, he's not there yet..."
"This is CRB, sir."
"Yes, I know."
"You must have the wrong number."
"No, no, it's all right. Now listen to me..."
"This is CRB. It's the poll 'Should Mami Jane die?'"
"Thanks, I know that."
"Then would you please give me your name?"
"It doesn't matter what my name is..."
"You have to give it to me, it's the procedure."
"OK, OK, Gould...my name is Gould."
"Yes, Mr. Gould, now if I can..."
"Should Mami Jane die?"
"You're supposed to tell me what you think...should Mami Jane die or not?"
"Do you actually know? Who Mami Jane is?"
"Of course I know, but..."
"You see, all you have to do is tell me if you think that..."
"Please, listen to me for a moment?"
"Then do me a favor and take a look around."
"Yes, there, in the room, please do me this one favor."
"OK, I'm looking."
"Good. Do you by any chance see a guy with a shaved head who's holding the hand of a big guy, and I mean big, a kind of giant, with enormous shoes and a green jacket?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Yes, I'm sure."
"Good. Then they haven't arrived yet."
"OK, then I want you to know something."
"They aren't bad guys."
"No. When they get there they'll start smashing everything up, and it's likely that they'll grab your telephone cord and twist it around your neck, or something like that, but they're not bad guys, really, it's only that..."
"Would you mind telling me how old you are?"
"Twelve...to be exact, twelve."
"Listen, Gould, is your mother around?"
"My mother left four years ago, and now she lives with a professor who studies fish, the habits of fish, an ethologist, to be precise."
"You don't have to be sorry. Life is like that, you can't do anything about it."
"Really. Don't you think so?"
"YesI guess...I don't know exactly, I imagine it's that way."
"It is that way, unfortunately."
"You're twelve, right?"
"Tomorrow I'll be thirteen, tomorrow."
"Happy birthday, Gould."
"You'll see, it's splendid to be thirteen."
"I hope so."
"Your father's not around, is he?"
"No, he's at work."
"My father works for the Army."
"Is everything always so splendid for you?"
"Is everything always so splendid for you?"
"Yes...I think so."
"That is...it often happens, yes."
"It also happens at the oddest moments."