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The Fourth Wall

Is it a neverending story if it actually doesn't have an end?

Night after night, it sat there ... tormenting me.

“Go ahead, turn out the light,” it taunted. “Try to get some sleep.”

It wasn’t a shadow on the wall or a monster under the bed; this time at least, it was something far more intimidating ... a book.

When we, as mere mortals, enter into a relationship with other people’s artistic endeavors, we make a pact. They present their talents for our inspection, and we absorb them.

Most times, at least.

We’ve all had those moments where we are tempted to pull a Jerry Seinfeld move — who memorably threw up his hands, chuckled and left the theater in the middle of an ill-fated performance of “The Producers” during an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

We know that feeling. We’ve shelled out 20 bucks for movie tickets and popcorn ... then become so disappointed in what we’re seeing that we’re tempted to walk out. We’ve changed the channel on the car radio when some cloyingly commercial song attacks our ears.

Heck, it’s the reason the remote control is considered one of our greatest technological achievements.

But this feeling of deciding that an artist is just wasting our time — time better spent kvetching about how said artist wasted that time before we decided to move on — is different when it comes to books.

Perhaps it’s just their physical presence. Books will sit on a shelf, in a pile on the floor ... on a nightstand ... and just wait you out. They don’t get in your face, the way a movie or TV show does. They don’t make a sound.

They know that once you’ve bought them, they can remain still and silent — knowing their time isn’t over when theater lights go up, or the little white dot recedes into the void of the screen.

Those of us who love not only books themselves, but the notion that books still matter, understand what it takes to get one written, then accepted, then published, then produced in sufficient quantities to find itself in a physical or virtual store ... before wending its way into our hands.

It’s a journey comparable to salmon returning to spawn — heading into the currents, surviving the pitfalls, the misdirection and the dangers in its path.

Given all that, how can you decide to turn your back on a book once you’re knee-deep in its waters?

I have more than a few unfinished tomes scattered about the house — novels and non-fiction that, for various and sundry reasons, I’ve moved on from while leaving a veritable coven of Virginia Woolf bookmarks from Bloomsbury to mark the point of departure.

But those, I keep telling myself, I will return to at some stage. They hadn’t raised my hackles; they’ve just returned to the waiting room.

Rarer, though, is the book with which you engage in battle. That you lift the cover with anticipation — based upon an intriguing premise, critical success, or the recommendation of someone whose opinion you trust — only to find yourself in a war of wits as the work dares you to give into your impulse to show it the door.

Which brings me back to my nightstand, and the page-turning struggle to get the better of “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” a 1979 cult favorite by Italo Calvino.

It had been on my list to read for some time now (for all the reasons stated above), so when the 1981 English translation by William Weaver was re-issued, it seemed like the appropriate time to approach and announce “en garde!”

Immediately, I realized that I’d brought a paper straw to a swordfight:

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.”

That’s not from an introduction; those are the opening lines. Here was a novel that a) knew it was a novel; b) dared you to read it on its own terms; and c) seemed to know exactly who you were.

Half the book — every other chapter, in fact — addresses its reader as Reader in a second-person narrative and thrusts you into its story of not only the purpose of books themselves, but a mystery as to why the novel you started never ends.

The alternating chapters are a series of beginnings of separate stories set in distinct worlds, and written using the themes and styles of individual genres. Each draws you into a moment of conflict or drama ... then stops.

As your frustration grows at these interrupted narratives (think “The Canterbury Tales, if the tales had no conclusions), you realize that you are becoming the Reader of the other chapters — desperate to discover what is going on.

It takes, I came to believe, a suspension of disbelief beyond what we normally allow art, to read a book such as this that openly and wantonly toys with your expectations.

These days, we’re accustomed to narratives that break and characters who speak to their audience. It doesn’t jolt us anymore when clever twists or portals into new dimensions rear their heads.

Calvino, however, led his Readers onto this rollercoaster 40 years ago and — while some of the narrative points show their age — the gears still work and the mechanics are still solid.

So, would I recommend that you embark on taking on “If on a winter’s night a traveler”? Sure. Maybe. Perhaps not. I will say that when I reached the final words on the final page, I discovered that I was thismuchahead of my Reader counterpart.

It felt like the battle had been a draw; but, when I turned out the light, I had my doubts.

Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin leaves readers hanging at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

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