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Walking amongst giants and geniuses: City by Alessandro Baricco

August 13, 2011

I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by Alessandro Baricco, but he is one of my favorite authors. His books are always filled with mismatched characters, trapped in their own lives, caught up in the events that they have almost no impact on. Much like the rest of us, right?

One of the two leading characters in ”City” is Gould, a 13-year-old wunderkind with a brain under forced cultivation by his professors, who are hoping for a Nobel Prize. His development in every other way is lacking. With his father away on secret government missions and his mother in a mental institution, he lives alone. He wets his bed, reserving the bathroom for devising an elaborate radio serial about an imaginary boxer. His only friends are imaginary: Diesel, a giant, and Poomerang, a mute.
Until he meets the book’s other unconventional character, a woman in her 30’s named Shatzy Shell who is insecurely employed as a telephone pollster for a commercial research group. Instead of getting her questions answered in the required 30 seconds, she falls into intimate half-hour conversations with the people she calls. When Gould calls the same thing happens. At the end of the call she gets fired, and Gould has invited her to dine with him and his two imaginary friends.
Shatzy has her own oddities. She keeps framed photographs of Eva Braun and Walt Disney and, since the age of 6, has been inventing ”westerns”: episodes she recites into a portable tape recorder. Nevertheless, she is a serious person and a rescuer. By the end of the book she will have rescued Gould from his fate as a genius. Meanwhile she’s shocked to see that he has been left with no one to care for him.

Gould had assured his father that he’d hired a governess named Lucy. Offering to let the senior Gould speak to this imaginary person by phone, he puts Poomerang on instead. ”But isn’t Poomerang a mute?” Shatzy asks. ”Right. Lucy’s a mute too.” This worked, Gould says. ”Poomerang is terrific. You know, it’s not the same listening to an ordinary person be silent and listening to a mute be silent. It’s a different silence.” …

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