"The Grand Complication" by Allen Kurzweil

The latest novel from the author of "A Case of Curiosities" follows an intrepid librarian and his sinister boss on the trail of Marie Antoinette's stolen watch.

Published August 24, 2001 8:13PM (EDT)

For the work of a man named one of the best American novelists under 40 by Granta Magazine (in 1995), "The Grand Complication" is a peculiar book: So many of its claims on our interest lie outside the little fictional world a novel forms. For example, while this is a detective story in which the MacGuffin sought by several characters is an elaborate pocket watch commissioned for Marie Antoinette (but completed after her execution), the piquancy of that detail increases if you know that such a watch does in fact exist. And it was, like the watch in Kurzweil's novel, stolen from a museum in Jerusalem in the early 1980s and remains missing to this day.

Likewise, someone I know was persuaded to read "The Grand Complication" when he learned that, of the many mechanical devices described in the book, several have actually been built by the author and that he invented one of them himself: a roll-player, like those on player pianos, on which to read "books" printed on scrolls. (There's a patent pending notice on the copyright page for the gizmo.)

The novel's chief extra-textual connection, though, is its link to Kurzweil's celebrated 1992 bestseller "A Case of Curiosities." In the earlier book, a wooden case divided into 10 compartments, each but one filled with an enigmatic object, obliquely tells the life story of a fictional 18th century French artist and engineer who dreams of building a talking mannequin. "A Case of Curiosities" begins and ends with the narration of the unnamed contemporary collector who owns the case and has tracked down the tale behind each memento. That collector, now revealed to be one Henry James Jesson III, is a major character in "The Grand Complication." He persuades the narrator of this new novel -- Alexander Short, a librarian -- to join him in a quest to locate the missing item from the curiosity case: Marie Antoinette's watch.

Alexander accepts Jesson's offer of after-hours employment because both his job in the New York Public Library and his marriage to Nic, a French graphic artist specializing in pop-up books, have grown stale. The library is run by a martinet who can quote sections of the New York State Penal Code from memory and it's populated by an assortment of eccentrics who make for amusing minor fictional characters but trying colleagues. There's the fulminating leftist who oversees the Judaica department; the winking and nudging curator of the Center for Material Culture (an erotica collection); the persnickety Finster Dapples, guardian of the heraldry archives; and, worst of all, Irving Grote, head of Conservation, a man so protective of the library's volumes that he likes nothing better than to lock them up for months, safely out of reach of mere patrons, while they undergo endless "observation" and imperceptible "repairs."(Kurzweil had a fellowship at the NYPL's Center for Scholars and Writers.)

But if Alexander can be legitimately vexed by his co-workers, when it comes to his home life, Nic has griping rights. After an exceedingly bookish courtship conducted largely through the exchange of library call slips -- and a proposal effected when Nic handed him a slip requesting "Hints on Husband Catching, or a Manual for Marriageable Misses" and he responded by flashing "I DO! I DO! I DO!" on the library's indicator board (prompting a reprimand from his boss for "violation No. 12" or "Percussive Laudation") -- Alexander finds himself impotent. Nic first tries to resurrect his passion by giving him a pop-up version of the Kama Sutra and a topographical map of her naked body and then by lounging around their apartment in a black spandex catsuit with bulls-eyes chalked over her erogenous zones, but to no avail. She blames in part his obsession with writing things down in a "girdled" notebook attached, like the prayer books of medieval monks, by a strap to his clothes.

Bored at work and berated at home, Alexander jumps at the chance to help Jesson. The two men (and, clearly, their creator) share a fascination with collecting, secret compartments and old books. In Jesson's sequestered Upper East Side townhouse, where he retreats from such modern atrocities as ballpoint pens, computers and air travel, Alexander discovers all kinds of marvelous and antique objects, most replete with hidden compartments and all described in loving detail. Furthermore, the search for the watch proves to be an exhilarating exercise for Alexander's research skills. But Nic mistrusts Jesson, and soon Alexander finds cause to doubt his employer's honesty, too.

Packed as it is with historical esoterica (Kurzweil is famed for the amount of research he did for "A Case of Curiosities"), inside jokes and plays on words, "The Grand Complication" is a feast for a particular kind of reader -- the sort who delights in ferreting out hidden meanings and significant correspondences. The title isn't, however, so fabulous a pun as that of Kurzweil's previous novel, which pegged the book as both about a cabinet of oddities and a study of several types of inquisitiveness. "The Grand Complication" is not, when you get right down to it, really so complicated. For all his love of devices, Kurzweil can't seem to concoct what must be the most blatantly mechanical type of story line: a solid mystery plot. And often, his love of the elaborate conceit trumps psychological common sense. Jesson's ulterior motives strain credulity, and then there's that bit with the catsuit: it's clever, but not actually very sexy. Nic seems like the sort who'd know she'd have better luck with a good old-fashioned black, miniskirted maid's outfit. (She is French, after all.)

Furthermore, while the underlying message of "The Grand Complication" is that a passion for catalogs and other compartments can stifle the spontaneous, earthy side of life, it's really a book that foments that passion. Like "A Case of Curiosities," it's for people who like novels that half-try to be encyclopedias, lists or games. I confess to my own weakness for such romps, but they are hard to pull off, as the intermittently successful fiction of Umberto Eco demonstrates. While I suspect that librarians will fall in love with "The Grand Complication" (it is a paean to the joys of research), it -- unlike "The Case of Curiosities" -- lacks the expansive feel and intriguing factoids of everyday 18th century life to compensate for the faintness of its heartbeat. Like the automaton built by the hero of Kurzweil's earlier book, it doesn't strike quite the right delicate balance between the human and the machine.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------