As with visibility, it’s easy to see how Mr. Penumbra exhibits Calvino’s quality of multiplicity. For one thing, Clay has to tackle the mystery from multiple angles, both high and low tech. He enlists the help of Oliver Groan, archaeology student, to sift through Penumbra’s ancient files and computer system; Grumble, a mysterious hacker who provides him with a makeshift book scanner on short notice; Kat, who has access to Google’s virtually unlimited resources; Neel, who finances most of the crew’s operations; and Penumbra, who is Clay’s window into the world of the Unbroken Spine and the Festina Lente Company.
In addition to the multiple ways to solve a problem, the novel does an excellent job of illustrating the many different methods of acquiring and storing knowledge. It begins with Manutius and his incunabula and ends with Kat and the Google Knowledge Graph. Mr. Penumbra resembles Calvino’s encyclopedic novel in that it explores the way information and language, and the way we process those, change over time and adapt to new technologies and environments. Like the LEGOS I mentioned in my earlier posts, a finite number of letters combines to create a multitude of words and meanings. Mr. Penumbra celebrates this multiplicity of language in its many forms, both print and electronic.
As I mentioned previously in my blog, there is a direct correlation between exactitude, natural language, and computer programming. Nowhere is this more evident than in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. We see it especially it Kat and Neel’s work: Kat’s knowledge of code allows her to solve problems with the utmost precision, while Neel’s skills enable him to make an accurate model of the human body using software.
Exactitude is not the sole domain of digital technology, however. As Penumbra explains to the three friends, Aldus Manutius and others like him developed the first book printing technologies, which required specialized knowledge and attention to detail to operate. He pioneered the field of data science by making information available to readers in a concise, portable, easily replicated format: the book.
As a novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore pays homage to the pioneers, both past and current, of exactitude in language. As a work of literature in itself, the novel hopes to bridge the gap between the study of print and electronic media by bringing the precision and speed of computers to bear on the wealth of knowledge and history accumulated in print books.
In the novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, Sophie learns about the Greek philosopher Democritus’s theory of atoms by playing with LEGOS. She realizes she can create an infinite number of objects from a finite set of building blocks. Further, the blocks themselves cannot be broken down into smaller parts, just like atoms.
LEGOS, like atoms, can teach us a lot about multiplicity. The universe is made of just a few basic elements, yet they combine in various ways to create stars, water, plants, animals, entire worlds. The universe has not exhausted itself; it continues creating and creating. We don’t know exactly how it began, nor do we know exactly how it will end. All we know is that we can learn about it during our lifetime. Our knowledge will be incomplete, like Calvino’s encyclopedic novel, but the quest for knowledge is a worthy end in itself, and a work of art.
88 Constellations for Wittgenstein by David Clark possesses Calvino’s quality of multiplicity. Starting with a single subject (the biography of German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), Clark leaps off into digressions about tangential subjects. Connecting the dots between the stars to create constellations parallels connecting the disparate elements of 88 Constellations to create a mosaic of a single subject: Wittgenstein.
On the webpage, 88 Constellations is described as “a really well-made independent documentary, but one which swerves from seemingly normal biographical reportage into visual puns, fantastic associations, and quirky digressions.” This could well be the definition of Calvino’s encyclopedic novel: an attempt to capture all the knowledge of the universe in a single work of art.
In his memo on multiplicity, Calvino conceives of the contemporary novel as “an encyclopedia, a method of knowledge, a network of connections between the events, people and things of the world.” Recognizing the impossibility of completing such an exhaustive, all-encompassing work in the span of a single lifetime, Calvino acknowledges that these types of novels are unable to find an ending. Additionally, these works give rise to a multitude of different interpretations, which may all be valid. However, Calvino asserts that the future of literature lies in these overambitious projects, which attempt to “weave together” all the different forms of knowledge into one vision of the world.
While this type of literature is incomplete by definition, it is also constantly evolving: as we learn more about the world, so we must attempt to assimilate this information into our unified vision of the world. By reading (or writing) the encyclopedic novel, we ourselves become part of the encyclopedia which is the universe.
When I think of Calvino’s description of the encyclopedic novel, the first thing that comes to mind is The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. The narrator, who both is and isn’t Sebald, goes on an extended walking trip through East Anglia. As he journeys through the landscape, he shares his musings on the various country houses and failing seaside towns he passes through. He draws analogies from sources as diverse as Chinese history, the biology of silkworms, Renaissance medicine, and the writings of Joseph Conrad. All these disparate topics cohere into a mosaic of Sebald’s own melancholy; each example ultimately relates back to his preoccupation with death.
This picture is of the skull of Thomas Brown, a 17th century English doctor whose remains are kept in the museum of a hospital Sebald visits at the beginning of the book. The photographs are all Sebald’s; they serve as touchstones for his multifaceted writing. To me, it symbolizes the multiplicity of Sebald’s novel: he starts with something as simple as a skull, and from there, he encompasses all the tragedy of the human experience.