The book is oddly constructed, built from 56 chapters numbered and ordered sequentially. But, there are an additional 99 chapters, which can be inserted into the flow of the first 56, in an order suggested by the author in an introductory passage.
Aside from this bizarre structure, the story is about a bohemian writer named Oliveira, living in Paris in the first half of the book, and in Buenos Aires in the second. He and his associates form a pseudo-beatnik collective, who's activities and warm snobbery wouldn't surprise anyone who has ever frequented a liberal arts college campus.
The characters are really a bunch of jerks, but they are presented so adorably, and their dialogue and activities written in such an honest-to-goodness tragic-comic feeling, that I couldn't get enough of them. Of course, there is the appeal of a bunch of do-nothings who listen to jazz records, talk about obscure philosophers and historians, and crowd their dirtbag Parisian apartments with spent cigarette butts and wine bottles. But really, this sort of beat-itude aside, I found myself turning the pages to hear Cortazar tell me about them, or even better, let the jerks tell me about themselves.
Here is an excellent passage, from perhaps the second-most riveting part of the book, yet my favorite. In this scene, Oliveira is in one window, and his friend Traveler is in another, across an alley, three stories up. They have built a bridge from two boards, extending out of either window, and Talita, Traveler's girlfriend, is halfway across the alley, trying to give a small package of mate to Oliveira. It was Oliveira and Traveler's idea to build the shaky bridge rather than walk down the street and back up, on an extremely hot day.
"You're getting there," Traveler announced. "Get into position so you can tie up the boards, they're a little bit apart."
"Look at the good job I did of roping her," Oliveira said. "There you are, Manu, you can't tell me now I couldn't get a job with you people in the circus."
"You hurt my face," Talita complained. "The rope is scratchy."
"I can put on a cowboy hat, come out whistling, and rope anybody or anything," Oliveira proposed with enthusiasm. "The bleachers will break out cheering, a show that has few precedents in circus history."
"The sun's starting to get you," Traveler said, lighting up a cigarette. "And I've told you not to call me Manu."
"I haven't got the strength," Talita said. "The rope is too coarse, it keeps catching on itself."
"The ambivalence of the noose," Oliveira said. "Its natural function sabotaged by a mysterious tendency towards neutralization. I think that's what they call entropy."
"It's pretty tight now," Talita said. "Shall I loop it again? There's still a little left over."
"Yes, tie it around tight," Traveler said. "I hate things that are left over and dangling; it's diabolical."
"A perfectionist," Oliveira said. "Now come on over onto my board and test the bridge."
"I'm afraid," Talita said. "Your board doesn't look as solid as ours."
"What?" said Oliveira, offended. "Can't you see that it's a fine cedar board? Are you comparing it to that piece of pine? Come on, don't worry."
"What do you think, Manu?" Talita asked, looking back.
Traveler, who was about to reply, looked at the spot where the two boards overlapped and at the poorly tied rope. Straddling his board, he could feel it vibrating between his legs in a way that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. All Talita had to do was put down her hands, pull herself up a little and she would be over on Oliveira's side. The bridge would hold, of course; it was well built.
"Wait a minute," Traveler said doubtfully. "Can't you hand him the package from there?"
"Of course she can't," Oliveira said, surprised. "What's on your mind? You're ruining everything."
"Like he says, I can't hand it to him from here," Talita admitted. "But I could toss it, the easiest thing in the world from here."
"Toss it?" Oliveira said resentfully. "All this trouble and you're going to end up by tossing me the package?"
"If you stick out your arm you'll only be a foot away from the package," Traveler said. "There's no need for Talita to go all the way over there. She'll toss you the package and that's that."
"She'll miss the way women always do," Oliveira siad, "and the yerba will spill all over the street, not to mention the nails."
"Rest assured," Talita said, quickly taking out the package. "Even if it doesn't land in your hand, it will still go through the window."
"Yes, and it'll spill all over the dirty floor and I'll have to drink mate that's all full of dust," Oliveira said.
"Don't pay any attention to him," Traveler said. "Go ahead and throw it and come back."
This is why I think it is foolish that there are writers out there who would reject all use of metaphor instead for straight description, or dialogue. On this page there are four sentences that are not dialogue, and yet the metaphor is so rich, it almost ceases to function as one. Ignore the basic fact of a woman suspended on two planks held by the weight of two men--the scene is still so rich, merely in the way that they talk. You cannot avoid metaphor, because it is part of meaning. And no matter how hard you attempt to avoid anything smacking of meaning in writing, by the nature of the fact that you are using words, your text continues to mean--it continues to be metaphorical.
I think this is one of the lasting lessons of surrealism (though others would clearly disagree with me). Despite whatever you put into an image, despite whatever you believe should be in the image but is not, there is still meaning there, flowing out of the frame and into your mind. This scene is so silly. but still make me quake in fear as I read it. I can't help but take away real feelings from something totally absurd. Would the author really have Talita drop into the alley, while these idiots banter back and forth? Is that too obvious? Or would it be too obvious to have her escape unscathed? Why am I, like Talita, suspended between these two jerks bullshitting? Why do I read books like this? Is this something I do for fun? And as I ask myself these anxious questions, I continue to read, trying to get to the end of the chapter as fast as I can to find out, but still reading each word carefully, for fear of missing something, and losing my grasp on the text. It is secondary that there are men speaking, a woman suspended in the air, or any other myriad details. What is primary is that the words are begging to be read, pleading with the reader, ushering, pulling, and begging at your mind with every letter, word, and line.
This is good writing, when it makes me feel this way. A lot of readers and writers talk about "interesting characters" or "spell-binding plot", or "beautiful description". Yes, well and good. But an author's main character is always the narrative, the plot is always the building of phrases and sentences into paragraphs, and the setting is always the word being read, at that very moment. Because in reality, all metaphor aside, you are no where else, but within that word.