The Size of the Universe by Joseph Cardinale
Famous as the tale never spun, always instead unraveled, the telling of the defeat of the Minotaur seems so often to forget its preamble: unnatural lust, seasonal sacrifice, the thirty-oared vessel that ferried the Minotaur’s meat from the mainland. Only Plutarch devoted so much as a paragraph to it. And yet, it is the boat’s innocuousness that, in the end, intrigues: the planks, the very pegs that held the craft together have become the subject of spirited debate in every intro philosophy class since Thomas Hobbes was an undergraduate.
The Ship of Theseus, as its theorists rechristened it, was preserved, following the Athenian’s triumph abroad, by replacing all broken boards with pristine planks. Surely, decades on, the ship that stood in the harbor had the form of the original. But did it any longer have so much as a single plank, a single peg that had sailed from Athens with Theseus aboard? Could it then still be called Theseus’s ship? Wasn’t it instead a ship in imitation of that original ship, notwithstanding its preservers’ purpose had never been to imitate or to replicate? If it is granted that this ship, relic, was no longer that ship, vessel, when did it become relic and cease being vessel? With which plank?
The I of Joseph Cardinale’s The Size of the Universe is never, it seems, without some plank or another extended like a life raft to the syncretistically-inclined reader, and yet such a reader, making the case that the Is of these six stories are all one would have his work cut out for him. Reading these stories is to look back at the fait accompli of an ever-renovating ship bearing not one original part. In the first story, “The Singularity,” the narrator, Sam, falls from a tree and dies. As the I ascends from his (now former) body:
Sam was not moving. I saw his body still where she held him in her lap. I saw a light fogged around her, glowing from a sun inside her, so bright that the crisscrossed branches seemed see-through as glass under me as I floated higher over the tree… I saw that she was thinking that he was dead and that she was alive and that she felt nothing still in her.
Already the I has separated itself from one physical iteration. When the next story opens, another is inspirited and we are once again made corporeal: “In the night we slept badly because it rained often and hard and we were afraid of turning over and falling dead in our sleep.” This is clearly not the Sam of “The Singularity,” nor the world of that story. Drowned, the world of “The Great Disappointment” extends no further than the second story of the narrator’s home, the attic above it -- a great expanse of water has covered all else.
The six Is of The Size of the Universe seem more Minotaur than ship, caught in webs they can’t escape, irremediably static. The son trapped in half a home in “The Great Disappointment” threatens departure but goes nowhere. “Action at a Distance” complains about its own stickiness; its characters, I and Marie, break up with each other but never leave their tiny, neighborless cottage. “Am I you?” the narrator asks Marie. “I think I am.” Any escape between stories turns out to be merely lateral: “Art in Heaven,” takes place in a third, lonely home, this one bounded by an impenetrable wooded barren. Somehow, even when these narrators are out in the open, they find themselves in labyrinthine cul-de-sacs without benefit of Ariadne’s aid.
Always there is the I, always we are aboard some sure ship. But is it the same one throughout? Even within the individual stories, that is rough sea. Quoting Johannes Kepler, one narrator says, “everyone is always someone else.” It is not always so easy to tell where one leaves off and other begins, as in “Action at a Distance,” as in “May I Not Seem to Have Lived.” In that story, the I, on a field trip with his astronomy class, is approached by the instructor:
His stare was softer than that of the students at the stars, and staring back at him, I began to sense that the space between us was no longer there, and that he was reading the words that were passing through my mind… The thought that he might indeed know what I was thinking struck me at the time as so disturbing that without deciding to I began thinking the word no over and over again, so that there was nothing else for him to hear.
The narrator, quoting his instructor, gives us the problem clearly: “Imagine I cut my hand off, he said, and moved the blade back and forth like the bow of a violin. And imagine now, he said, that after the wound heals I replace the old hand with a metal one.” Through a process of “deconstruction,” he is eventually completely metal; not a trace of flesh remains. Now the question I want you to think about, he said, is whether I am the same person now as I was before. If not, then I want you to locate the exact instant when I was born and the previous version of me disappeared.
Realize that the river that Heraclitus could not step in twice is itself a variant of this paradox (or the original -- the distinction, in light of the problem these parables propose, seems meaningless), yet another ship whose exchanged parts make it similar, but not quite identical, to the one wobbling in port at Piraeus. The orangutan of “The Great Disappointment” reappears in “Proportions for the Human Figure,” but shrunken and missing a dimension. Phrases turn up again and again in the mouths of the various Is. The variables and constants of the miraculous equation of “The Great Disappointment” are reused in “May I Not Seem to Have Lived.”
Things are exchangeable, Cardinale tells us, traits heritable. They are the boards of our leaking hulls, always in need of maintenance, even more fragile and perishable than we ourselves. Only animation, the inspiration that set us swimming, is constant. The reader who opens this book will not be the same reader who closes it, no matter how much or how little of Cardinale’s I has been absorbed in the sitting. Cells will have been replaced -- the dust that settles on the cover is the sawdust of the planks we lost while reading it. Not still the same I? Perhaps not, but still I, after all.
The Size of the Universe by Joseph Cardinale