Hopscotch is a strange, surreal Argentinian novel from 1966 by Julio Cortázar (translated brilliantly by Gregory Rabassa.) I’ll try to give you some sense of what it’s about and what the form is like, but it won’t be easy: Cortázar was trying to write an antinovel, to break down formal structures and do something new, so there isn’t much to compare it to, or at least not much that I’ve read.
I should say right off that it’s possible to read the book in two different orders. You can read it straight through from beginning to end (which is what I did), but Cortázar also gives a different order of chapters at the beginning: 73-1–2-116–3-84-4-71-5-81-74-6-7-8-93 and so forth. He also gives you the number of the next chapter you’re supposed to read at the end of each chapter, sort of like choose your own adventure, only there isn’t a choice. You can see that the beginning narrative chapters are still in numerical order (1, 2, 3, etc) but are interleaved with later chapters in what seems like, but probably isn’t, random order. Now that I’ve read the entire book, I think this “hopscotch” order would be just as interesting and satisfying to read, and maybe even more so, but a huge hassle what with flipping back and forth.
Okay. So the book is about (or “about”) an Argentinian man named Horacio Oliveira who is living in Paris with his friends. They are all poor and artistic, they all drink and smoke a lot, they all discuss philosophy all night, the usual deal. Oliveira is sleeping with one of the women, who he calls La Maga, and who (unusually for this sort of crowd) has a baby son. La Maga isn’t an artistic or philosophical type. She asks a lot of very naive questions and struggles to understand the answers, which alternately provokes tenderness and exasperation in her friends. Oliveira knows that pity and love are literary tropes and probably just a lot of chemicals in the brain, so he tries hard not to get attached to her, but he slips up from time to time, until a truly horrifying event separates them and sends him back to Argentina. There, he finds a couple of old friends and a job, and tries to understand the trauma that happened in Paris.
So much for the narrative, such as it is. But this book has a narrative the way Zendaya had ropes in The Greatest Showman. The chapters flash around this thin line, doing whatever they please. There’s a long chapter in which the characters discuss jazz, and the chapter is structured like a jazz session, where different topics come and riff off of each other and drift off and solo for awhile but stay on the same general theme. There’s a (surprisingly long!) chapter where two different stories are interleaved line-for-line, so if you want to read one story you must read lines 1,3,5, etc and if you want to read the other you must read lines 2.4, 6, etc and by the time you’re done with both you realize they touched at several points. There are several chapters where an author in the story is writing about writing, and it’s clear it’s in some way about this book itself. There are chapters that are just quotations, or long citations from real or imaginary sources. There are chapters written in a kind of made-up Esperanto (here is just one place where the brilliance of Rabassa’s translation comes into play.) There are chapters that are only footnotes to footnotes to footnotes (take that, David Foster Wallace.) There are chapters of imaginary memoirs of people who aren’t even characters in the story.
It must be clear that this is a very experimental novel. I’ve read a lot of experimental novels (I’ve read plenty of Surrealists, and it looks to me like Cortázar was heavily influenced by them) and the oddest thing about this book is that it is so long. It’s over 550 pages! Experimental prose is usually quite short — it’s difficult to keep up the bursts of inspiration, the knocking down walls, for more than a couple of hundred pages at most. But the thing is, this book is really good. Not only is it interesting in terms of characters (though that sometimes flags), it’s just brilliant in its use of language and form. Chapters are mostly short, and each one is so different, that I kept reading even though the narrative was so slender.
The motif of hopscotch comes up several times in the book — early on, in Paris, and then again in Argentina when Oliveira has a job in a lunatic asylum. The idea seems to be that you move the stone with your toe, you hop, but it’s quite difficult to get to “heaven” — the final square. Whether this is a literary motif or an emotional one I am not completely certain. What I can say is that this book was deeply strange, and I’m glad I read it.