Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Emily St. John Mandel on Hopscotch

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Emily St. John Mandel, the author of Last Night In Montreal. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun, will be published in May.

I have a lot of favourite books, but the one I come back to most frequently is Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. It's the story of an Argentinian writer, Horacio Oliveira, who lives with his girlfriend La Maga in Paris. Horacio and his circle of friends are uniformly poor and over-educated, philosophizing endlessly and listening to jazz and not quite getting around to writing their masterpieces in low-rent rooms in questionable neighborhoods. This is an oddly cold bohemia they inhabit, intellectual at the expense of heart and soul, and it takes a catastrophe to catapult Horacio out of it; after the death of a child and the disappearance of La Maga he returns to Buenos Aires, where he struggles to find his place in the world.

The writing is dazzling, and the novel has the strangest structure of any book I've ever read. It's essentially two books in one: you can either read it in the strictly traditional sequential manner, chapter 1, then chapter 2, etc., and so on until you reach the end of chapter 56, or you can follow a chart of chapter numbers at the front of the book, which requires that you start the novel at chapter 73. From there you proceed to chapter 1, then 2, then 116, then 3, and so on and so forth, hopscotching (sorry) around the text until you get trapped in a back-and-forth loop between chapters 58 and 131.

The basic framework of the story remains the same, but the two versions yield subtly different books; layers are revealed in the second version of the book that are only hinted at in the first. Every year I fall in love with a few more books and mentally add them to my favorite book list, but Hopscotch is the one that I return to over and over again.

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