I don’t know why but it’s often the big glossy library sets in my bookcases that go untouched. While interspersed among them are these battered old trade paperbacks that I couldn’t bear to get rid of. Maybe with the big sets it’s the publisher telling you what’s important. But when you buy a trade paperback, it’s your own imagination that’s telling you what’s important.
Those trash-me-please books are easy to miss. Sometimes they’re almost invisible between five and six hundred page/pound masterpieces. But those old books, that wouldn’t be worth five cents at the Strand bookstore, are the ones that I love the most. It’s like passing through an old back alley of literature, where you haven’t been seen for years.
My copy of Buzzati has a yellow Barnes & Noble sticker on it from when I worked there. For all I know, I had stamped the book myself. The sticker reads “BARNES AND NOBLE NO REFUND W/0 LABEL 6 83 12.00”. Twelve dollars was a lot to pay for a slender trade paperback in June of 1983 but it was a quality North Point Press book. I must have splurged and didn’t know what I was buying except that I liked Italian literature. But I just checked online and that’s the first U.S. edition and it’s worth over 500 dollars.
The book has no barcode. It can’t be scanned. Imagine a world in which nothing can be scanned. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? In those days, Barnes & Noble cashiers would ring up each ISBN manually. Think long lines. Before that, inventory control was an index card. You merely bought the book, see?
In “The Falling Girl,” Marta, a woman of nineteen, is looking over the roof of a skyscraper. It would have to be the tallest skyscraper ever, at more than 150 stories. The building is mainly residential and the tenants on the upper floors are millionaires. This story was first published in 1966 but it sounds like something that might exist in my town within a few years.
From the first time I read this story, I couldn’t forget it. It’s elegance is dazzling. and the point of elegance is that it’s memorable. Think Audrey Hepburn. I guess that’s what I should expect from a story written during the Kennedy administration. In those days Italy was in La Dolce Vita mode and when the sun rose in the morning, the world was cool.
You can think of a story as a falling. You start at the top of your story and when you reach the bottom, it’s finished. Marta falls off the roof or jumps, it’s not clear. She falls all through the story, it takes all night, and at the end of the story, just out of its range, there’s a thud.
What can a writer make of such a simple device? You have to puzzle out why Marta is falling. What I come up with is Buzzati’s dazzling evocation of the city: a sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights…furs and violins, cars as glossy as onyx, powerful men and women who were even more powerful. That’s like, one fifth of Buzzati’s description of the city. You’d have to read the story to be presented with it’s full wallop. It’s like a bejeweled praying mantis resting on your wrist like a bracelet. That’s all I can come up with….something mesmerizing.
Marta’s dressed off the rack. But as she careens past the upper balconies the lights from the millionaires’ balconies combined with twilight make her look chic. Marta is gilded in light as she’s offered drinks and invited in for cocktail parties as she falls. But she’s in a hurry. She falls past before she can answer.
Towards the lower floors Marta flies past offices where the workers look up from their desks at her. When asked where she’s going she’s says that they are waiting for her “down there”. The wage slaves look envious.
Way down below but slowing coming into fine detail is the entrance to a building crowded with limos. Throngs of glamorous people are crowding the doors. It looks like Truman Capote giving one of those parties. All her life, Marta has dreamed of belonging, and that’s where she wants to belong…even if she’s had to leap for it.
But Marta looks up and sees another young woman, outclassing her in a glittering evening dress, defying the laws of Galileo and falling faster than she is. As Marta looks straight up, she sees that scores of women have jumped from the top of the building. The condos on the upper floors are more expensive because beautiful young women are so often to be viewed jumping off the roof. By the time they reach the lowest floors, they are old crones, hardly worth watching.
The Falling Girl depends on a striking metaphor to capture its readers. If you’re not arrested by the dream-like image of young women sacrificing themselves by falling off a luxury building that might have been designed by Robert A. M. Stern…a simple image standing in for a much more complicated kind of motivation..then you’re better off with reruns of Sex & the City or Mad Men…which can say similar things but take much longer to do it. Reading Buzzati is like communication by dream. Much faster and crazier, like a drink with a mickey.