Point and Line: Joseph Cardinale’s The Size of the Universe

Hilary Plum

Fiction Collective Two: Tuscaloosa, AL, 2010. 136 Pages. $13.50.

According to E.M. Forster, what defines plot is causality. The queen does not merely die after the king, but dies of grief: the one event causes the other. In his debut collection of stories, Joseph Cardinale shines a light into the troubled waters of causality and narrative, showing us how difficult it is to discern cause from effect, then from now, garden from fall. How can we say when the past ends? How can we speak of the self from one moment to another?

The collection comprises six stories, all in the first person. The back-cover text describes the work as a “novel in stories,” though I wouldn’t quite agree—the shared characters and themes didn’t seem necessarily novelistic, but as though the stories required a reduced vocabulary, something akin to the x and y of equations. (And, in fact, mysterious equations appear several times.) The “I” that narrates the stories cannot (quite) be said to be the same character. Rather, it is as though this “I” is a continually necessary hypothesis, a place needed to speak from and live in. In the opening story, “The Singularity,” the narrator, a young boy named Samuel, frames this problem as he considers his relation to his sister:

the boy that sleepwalked to her room in the night was not the same as the one that woke in her bed in the morning or stood for the photograph in the field. . . . No line connected one instance of that body to the next except the words that I remembered and the name that she called at me from the grass. And that was nothing.

The weight of this “nothing” is characteristic of the collection’s tender and relentless investigation. In “The Singularity,” the “I” narrates from beyond Samuel’s death, into a place where “it is all becoming the same”—an “it” that includes the narrating self. Or, as “May I Not Seem to Have Lived” describes:

The point is simply that the line between what you are and what you’re observing is erasable—that if you stare at an object all the way and without limitation you are no longer anything else. You’re everything.

Characters and ideas recur throughout the book, making us consider not whether these are the same people, but how we can ever say what is the same or distinct. “Samuel” appears again; in two different stories, the narrator’s lover is “Marie.” Words and gestures metamorphose—“orangutan” in one story is a term of endearment for a child, in another the physical form of a Christ figure, in another a word that a woman fading into dementia likes to see her husband write out. Throughout, the characters are arranged in a biblical lexicon: father and son, mother and son, husband and wife. Each family exists as if it were the only one on earth, the outside world muted, if it’s there at all—in one story, a mother and son are enduring a catastrophic flood, seemingly the only survivors.

The collection opens with an epigraph from Genesis and never fully leaves the scene this beginning invokes; even as The Size of the Universe probes questions of physics and philosophy, religion is always present. Cardinale’s incantatory prose creates moments in which these distinct realms may “become the same”—equally mystical, equally insufficient:

We were standing on the roof, that day, skipping flat stones across the flatter waves, and she was telling me that the stones were our thoughts and that the water was God. It all goes under. There was truth there. Not enough.

The stories’ plots, too, owe something to the worlds both of myth and of logic puzzles. Events seem more like proposition or allegory than definite history—formulations of if this, then that emphasize the if. So that in one version of the story, a boy will fall to his death; in another, he may push his mother into the floodwaters, or he may not; but, as the stories remind us, all this could have happened, or be happening, or someday happen, another way.

Occasionally these philosophical explorations strain against their fictional structure, and in some places one is slightly too aware of the mechanisms at work. But for the most part Cardinale’s mechanisms are simply mesmerizing, the stories that result rare and uncanny creations. In “The Great Disappointment,” as the mother and son persevere in their home in the floodwaters, they see “visions of the Savior walking on the water: a robed figure slumped forward and stumbling across the calm surface as if he were learning how to walk upright. . . . Always he would sink under again before I knew what to call him.” They try to map the Savior’s appearances: along x and y axes that represent the sea, with their own house at the center, they graph dots denoting where he was and for how long. The mother studies these graphs obsessively: “Holes, she said once when I asked her what she was looking for. Another time she said she was looking for the face of God.” In this strange world—its inexplicable flood, its Christ in the form of an “underwater ape”—the desires of our own world endure. Given the mysteries of the universe, we wish to know the truth—but also to be free to tell our own stories. To draw every map with the self at the center; but also finally to see more than ourselves, and be lost.

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