`If...' is an almost permanent fixture on `Top 100' book lists, and is also a favourite amongst some of my friends. However, I had previously read one other Calvino (`Cosmicomics'), and not particularly enjoyed it because, in part, I thought that it sacrificed story for cleverness without being quite clever enough. I had avoided reading `If...' because I thought that the same might apply. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.
To describe the story of `If...' in a few lines is nearly impossible. That is because it isn't an example of fiction (in which you - the reader - read about events happening to other people), but meta-fiction (in which you - the reader - read about reading about events happening to other people). But it isn't even that simple. Are we reading a story? A story about a story? Are we reading about reading a story about a story? Calvino plays with these various levels of story and meta-story, dizzyingly switching between you (the reader), the heroes of the meta-story and readers of the stories, and the stories themselves. Just when you think you know what is going on, one of the readers will appear in the story they are reading, and the levels become confused again. If anyone has read `Godel, Escher and Bach' by Douglas Hofstadter, they may have some ideas about levels, meta-levels, meta-meta-levels, etc, and also the mess than cam emerge from confusing them. Calvino exploits this expertly, always in control of the chaos he creates, managing to pull a touching narrative out of it all concerning the relationship between a male and female character.
I enjoyed `If...' a lot, and am a big fan of so-called post-modern fiction. I think perhaps some of the hype about this book would be damped down a little if people realised that Calvino's book isn't unique, and that other (occasionally better, in my opinion) writers have similarly tried to play with the idea of what a narrative actually is (Borges, Eco, Andrukovych, Pelevin spring to mind, but there are more). I am still not a huge fan of Calvino's writing, but `If...' is undeniably a remarkable achievement. It is a mental workout with a classic narrative hidden amongst layers of deception by the author. If you like your fiction to challenge, then you won't go far wrong with `If...'.