Confronting Something and Not Quite Knowing Yet What It Is

(Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler As Slipstream’s Patient Zero)

by Ian Kappos

Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler has been cited by a number of contemporary speculative as well as “mainstream” authors as an influence on their work and literary aesthetic – John Updike, Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, Umberto Eco, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Angela Carter, Dave Eggars, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name but a few. The reason for this is, of course, that If on a winter’s night a traveler is often regarded as one of the most important experimental texts in the last several decades. Specifically, the novel has inspired a number of genre-bending works in the literary landscape, serving as a catalyst for a relatively recent, yet still obscure genre known as “slipstream.” Slipstream, which is defined in a multitude of ways by as many people, functions simultaneously as a genre in itself as well as a literary effect – simply put, it is a style of literature that makes one “feel strange.” In his groundbreaking novel – described by some as “interactive” in a way not yet attempted by prior writers – Italo Calvino demonstrates a variety of tools, aesthetics, styles, and effects that parallel the qualities of slipstream, and thus the novel, as a postmodern work, makes a strong case for itself as a prototype of slipstream.

Slipstream has been described as the genre of “cognitive dissonance” (Kessel & Kelly, I); in other words: the ability to hold two contrary thoughts in one’s mind at the same time. Throughout If on a winter’s night a traveler, the reader – very much “thrown into the text,” which alternates between second-person and first-person narrative, thus creating a disorienting vicarious experience – is coerced into this dynamic of cognitive dissonance. As in the passage: “Both, seeing themselves counterfeited, have a violent reaction and rediscover their personal vein” (Calvino, 170), the story’s characters are confronted with a dualistic, contradictory sense of identity. Moreover, from this excerpt, the reader may wonder, “Are these characters me? Am I rediscovering a ‘personal vein’?”

Admittedly, writers of speculative fiction tend to use the term “slipstream” more than “mainstream” writers, the reason for this being that slipstream tends to employ fantastical, or supernatural, aspects – thereby distancing itself from “mainstream” fiction, or, in other words, fiction in which nothing “impossible” happens. Bruce Sterling, the writer who originally coined the term, explicates:

The genre is not category SF [science fiction]; it is not even ‘genre’ SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’ or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of a Postmodern Sensibility…for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream'” (Kessel & Kelly, VII).

If on a winter’s night a traveler, often regarded as a postmodern work, shares some of these sensibilities, particularly in its at-times ambiguous fantasy aesthetic, in addition to its unconventional format. Indeed, some have opined that slipstream is merely the lovechild of postmodernism and ’70s “New Wave” SF/F, a la Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delany, JG Ballard, et al.

At the heart of the discourse on slipstream lies the general disagreement about its validity as a subgenre or category of fiction. Some argue that it is more of a “literary effect” than it is a “label.” Editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (of Feeling Very Strange: A Slipstream Anthology) expound on this dialogue: “‘This could be SF if the science was better’ or ‘This could be fantasy, except it’s not clear whether there’s really magic happening or not'” (Kessel & Kelly, pg. 38). Italo Calvino, in a cunningly indistinct manner, exemplifies this ambiguity in passages such as: “I say ‘should’ because I doubt that written words can give even a partial idea of it… This is not because one cannot employ an imaginary sensation to portray a known sensation” (Calvino, 129). Calvino implements this self-referential voice in order to achieve an effect that calls into question “reality of sensation.” Sensation, one could argue, is inherently subjective – therefore, sensation is not necessarily real. Throughout If on a winter’s night a traveler, vaguely fantastical literary devices achieve this confusing effect – a confusion that is also demonstrative of the postmodern canon to which Calvino is often aligned.

In keeping with the self-referential nature of If on a winter’s night a traveler, the novel moves into metafictional territory. In the Feeling Very Strange anthology, the editors claim that:

…what often gets called slipstream in the genre seems to me to be work that is not just situated in, or straddling genre. It’s work that’s also about the genre in a certain way. I hate talk of postmodern self-awareness because I’m a postmodern baby, and I think the term implies a callousness that is rarely present, but I think there is an astounding amount of play with conventions going on” (Kessel & Kelly, 181).

Ironically, the self-awareness mentioned here does not lie solely within the texts of slipstream works. Indeed, Jeff VanderMeer, in his essay “The Romantic Underground: an exploration of a non-existent and self-denying non-movement” talks about the trouble of assigning such genre designations to writers:

Authors being skittish at best, most apparently saw the umbrella as more of a trap and escaped without their names ever being connected to rumors of a vast but secret literary organization dedicated to the antithesis of anything popular, tidy, or, indeed, logical” (VanderMeer).

Exemplary of this seemingly wide range of self-reference and self-awareness that seems to permeate the study of these works (both postmodern and slipstream), If on a winter’s night a traveler toys with the tradition. Indeed, Calvino dares to insert his own thoughts about genre and story into story, such as in the following passage:

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told” (Calvino, 105).

Apart from the speculative facets that entrench slipstream into the fantasy and science fiction ghetto, the genre does make use of decidedly more postmodern – moreover, “literary” rather than “fantasy” – tools with which to experiment. As Bruce Sterling asserts:

It’s very common for slipstream books to screw around with the representational conventions of fiction, pulling annoying little stunts that suggest that the picture is leaking from the frame and may get all over the reader’s feet. A few such techniques are infinite regress, trompe-l’oeil effects, metalepsis, sharp violations of viewpoint limits, bizarrely blasé reactions to horrifically unnatural events . . . all the way out to concrete poetry and the deliberate use of gibberish. Think M. C. Escher, and you have a graphic equivalent” (Sterling).

The M.C. Escher comparison is especially pertinent, as the artist’s disorienting style mirrors the surreal traits of If on a winter’s night a traveler. Although the following extract from the novel is more tepid compared to its more experimental passages, it does parallel the M.C. Escher analogy: “All this, in any case, solely as a frame for my moods: a festive abandonment to the wave of events, or of withdrawal into myself as if concentrating myself into an obsessive pattern, as if everything around me served only to disguise me, to hide me, like the sandbag defenses that are being raised more or less on all sides” (Calvino, 82). The meandering patterns, the geometrically dynamic aesthetic of Calvino’s narrative, meet all the criteria of Sterling’s further exploration of slipstream-esque narrative.

The fantasy element in If on a winter’s night a traveler is often subdued, ambivalent. Most frequently, it is accomplished in self-reflection, or ambiguously distorted perception:

You immediately realize that you are listening to something that has no possible connection with Outside the town of Malbork or even If on a winter’s night a traveler. You exchange a quick glance, you and Ludmilla, or, rather, two glances: first questioning, then agreeing. Whatever it may be, this is a novel where, once you have got into it, you want to go forward, without stopping” (Calvino, 73-4).

Similes and metaphors, as in any other work – “genre” or “non-genre” – serve as instruments to manipulate readers’ emotions and thoughts. However, the language here achieves a quasi-existential nature, setting a surreal tone. As Rudy Rucker points out in his essay “A Transrealist Manifesto”: “If, indeed, you are writing about immediate perceptions, then what point of view other than your own is possible? It is far more egotistical to use an idealized version of yourself, a fantasy-self” (Rucker). This, again, supports the argument that all experience is subjective; therefore, in a manner of speaking, all experiences – skewed as they are by unreliable perceptions – are, technically speaking, “fantasy.” For that reason, even when a fantasy element isn’t literalized in the narrative, it is nevertheless present.

In an online forum concerning the variety of fashions in which slipstream may manifest, Victoria de Zwaan argues that: “Many advocates of the term think of this new ‘genre’ as what Brian McHale calls ‘postmodernized SF,’ while others… focus on stylistic and formal features exhibited in different texts, some in and some outside of acknowledged sf [sic], and sometimes implying that slipstream could be a sub-category of sf [sic] (or any other genre)” (“Symposium of Slipstream”). While for the most part Italo Calvino in If on a winter’s night a traveler drifts more toward these “stylistic and formal features,” there are understated speculative “props” in the story, such as: “While outside, beyond the frosted windows, the world full of people and of things would make its presence felt: the presence of the world, friendly and hostile, things to rejoice in or to combat. … I think this with all my strength, but by now I know my strength isn’t enough to make it exist: nothingness is stronger and has occupied the whole earth” (Calvino, 245). The implication is that the narrator has tangible power over reality–and In typical postmodern fashion, the narrator’s trustworthiness is questionable. Of course, the notion that thoughts can manipulate surroundings is intrinsically fantastical.

More obvious examples of fantasy, though still indirect, arise in If on a winter’s night a traveler. The following excerpt, although seemingly metaphoric, interestingly enough does not employ metaphor: “Already she was sending me a message in which I could recognize her: that roiling of reptiles, to remind me that evil was the only vital element for her, that the world was a pit of crocodiles which I could not escape” (Calvino, 110). The passage contains reptilian imagery, the effect of which may feel metaphorical, but stylistically is not. As a result, the denotative connotation becomes opaque. Is the reader looking at reptiles, or is this merely a poetic description and nothing more? Indeed, Rudy Rucker asserts the principal intentions behind fantasy traits in any work, subtle or not, which satisfy this contemplation: “The familiar tools of SF – time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc. – are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception” (Rucker).

Although If on a winter’s night a traveler does not qualify as a work that conforms to a “linear” or chronological structure, the following quote from Bruce Sterling is nonetheless relevant in the study of Calvino’s novel as it pertains to slipstream:

Some slipstream books are quite conventional in narrative structure, but nevertheless use their fantastic elements in a way that suggests that they are somehow integral to the author’s worldview; not neat-o ideas to kick around for fun’s sake, but something in the nature of an inherent dementia. These are fantastic elements which are not clearcut ‘departures from known reality’ but ontologically part of the whole mess; “real” compared to what?’ This is an increasingly difficult question to answer… and is perhaps the most genuinely innovative aspect of slipstream” (Sterling).

Sterling uses the word “dementia,” which perhaps best characterizes the following sentence from the novel: “Perhaps it is this story that is a bridge over the void, and as it advances it flings forward news and sensations and emotions to create a ground of upsets both collective and individual in the midst of which a path can be opened while we remain in the dark about many circumstances both historical and geographical” (Calvino, 80). Sanity, insanity, authentic experience, imagined experience – because of these imprecise attributes of the text, none of these is ever settled upon; thus, “departures from known reality” establishes itself as a primary thread throughout the book.

Perhaps the strongest identifier of the slipstream “seed” in If on a winter’s night a traveler is the narrative’s focus on physical surroundings in an impersonal yet ontologically poignant manner. As Sterling ascertains: “Slipstream is… marked by a cavalier attitude toward ‘material’… Frequently, historical figures are used in slipstream fiction in ways which outrageously violate the historical record. History, journalism, official statements, advertising copy . . . all of these are grist for the slipstream mill, and are disrespectfully treated not as ‘real-life facts’ but as ‘stuff,’ raw material for collage work. Slipstream tends, not to ‘create’ new worlds, but to quote them, chop them up out of context, and turn them against themselves” (Sterling). An example of this in Calvino’s novel: “For many years Cavedagna has followed books as they are made, bit by bit, he sees books be born and die every day, and yet the true books for him remain others, those of the time when for him they were like messages from other worlds” (Calvino, 98). This excerpt presents a break in the narrative that follows a different character, adopts a different voice (borderline “journalistic” or “historical” in tone) that further illustrates the “holistic” approach to various writing styles that Calvino dips into from time to time throughout the story.

While indisputably postmodern, and by turns matching up with the qualifications of a slipstream work, If on a winter’s night a traveler nevertheless encapsulates the primary identifier of slipstream fiction: “It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’ These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which are ‘futuristic’ or ‘beyond the fields we know.’ These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life'” (Sterling). Just as often as unordinary events happen in the story, unordinary-ness is effected through the narrator’s perception of events. In addition, Sterling concludes that: “[s]lipstream does however have its own virtues, virtues which may be uniquely suited to the perverse, convoluted, and skeptical tenor of the postmodern era” (Sterling). The perverse, the convoluted, and the skeptical are all present in the flurry of narrative, in ways that not only represent the loci of postmodern fiction, but also the DNA of slipstream fiction.

It would be challenging to have a conversation about slipstream without referencing Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which in so many ways qualifies as a work of slipstream (retrospectively, of course). The style, the surreal viscera, the uncertainty of reality, the ambiguous fantasy elements, the inherent subjectivity of perspective, the multidimensional postmodern approach to storytelling in the book – all these speak to a type of literature that pushes the envelope, that makes for an entirely new reading experience. And if there is one thing that Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and slipstream fiction have in common, it’s just that: they are entirely new experiences. But as has been showcased in both test subjects – experience does not equal reality. Due to these pronounced philosophical and aesthetic similarities, If on a winter’s night a traveler indeed makes a strong case as a prototype, however liminal, of slipstream fiction.

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Works Consulted

Calvino, Italo. If on a winter’s night a traveler. New York: Random House, Inc., 1981. Print.

Kelly, James Patrick & John Kessel, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. Print.

Sterling, Bruce. “CATSCAN 5: Slipstream.”

Kelly, James Patrick. “On the Net: Slipstream.” Asimov’s Science Fiction, issue #31.2 (2014). Web.

Rucker, Rudy. “The Transrealist Manifesto.”, n.d. Web. 28 April, 2015.

“A Working Canon of Slipstream Writings: Readercon 18, July 2007.” Web. 28 April, 2015.

VanderMeer, Jeff. “The Romantic Underground: an exploration of a non-existent and self-denying non-movement.” Infinity Plus. Web, 2005. 28 April, 2015.

“Symposium of Slipstream.” Depauw, n.d. Web. 28 April, 2015.

Rossi, Umberto. “Valerio Evangelisti: The Italian Way to Slipstream.” JSTOR., 2013. Web. 28 April, 2015.

ninebelow [Lewis, Martin]. “What is Slipstream?” Ninebelow, 26 Feb 2006. Web. 28 April, 2015.

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Ian Kappos has had over two dozen works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry published in online and print periodicals in the US, Canada, the UK, and Spain. In 2013, his short story “In the Leper Colony” was recognized by Ellen Datlow as an honorable mention in her anthology The Best Horror of the Year Volume 5. A founder and editor of the magazine Milkfist, he lives, writes, studies, and plays in punk bands in Sacramento, CA. Find him online at

“Confronting Something and Not Quite Knowing Yet What It Is” (© Ian Kappos) was published in Issue 5 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.