A Grand Complication  by Allen Kurzweil

Hyperion 2001 360 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 


Allen Kurzweil became one of the most celebrated first novelists in recent memory with the 1992 publication of A Case of Curiosities, an arcane, puzzle-palace of a book set in 18th-century France.  He’s back this year with The Grand Complication  which easily lives up to its title.

Alexander Short is the energetic, curious, but neurotic Level 2 reference librarian for New York’s Center for Material Culture.  Alex, as we soon learn, is a maniacal note-taker, so much so that his French wife, Nic, designed a notebook that could be pinned to his garments.  According to his psychiatrist, Alex is a graphomaniac, a condition functioning as “a buffer against shame offering the precarious semblance of order to an emotionally blocked, obsessive young adult male.”

Alex’s life changes one day when a patron asks if he can “steal a minute” of Alex’s time.  Enter Henry James Jesson III, a sixty-ish, independently wealthy, bookish eccentric.  Alex tells him, “you do a good job of keeping your devices from view.” 

Jesson, a scholar of the obscure, enlists Alex’s help as a researcher.  Jesson has found a wooden box containing a group of objects.  “It turned out that each item preserved in the case marked a singular moment in the life of an anonymous eighteenth-century inventor.”  The only problem is that one of the shelves is empty. 

Alex’s task is to discover what originally resided in the missing space, and locate the object.  We soon learn that the object was The Grand Complication, a.k.a., the Everlasting, the Maria Antoinette, the Queen, a watch that was “famous and hot.”

Clues lie as far away as Jerusalem, and as near as the soon-to-be completed Frederick R. Stolz Arcade of Obsolescence.  “Three hundred thousand square feet of exhibition space and research facilities devoted to industrial archeology.” 

Alex is drawn to Stolz, for he, too, is a fan of anything mechanical—watches, and, especially automats.  “The chrome-framed cubicles containing cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and the brightly colored desserts so carnivalized the act of eating that it didn’t much matter that the food stunk.”

The mechanical clockwork of the sought-after watch is mirrored in the narrative.  This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel.  Kurzweil is so intent on the plot’s machinery that he neglects character development.  Alex’s wife, Nic, for example, exists only to illustrate another of Alex’s psychological conditions, neurosis of destiny, “a moral masochism in which the patient arranges his life to guarantee setbacks.” 

There is a Quixotean playfulness to the narrative strategy, in which the lines between what is real and what is invention become hopelessly blurred.  For example, readers of Kurzweil’s first book will recognize immediately the identity that eighteenth-century inventor.  And, in the course of his research, Alex comes across a French novel,  Le Coffret, whose English title is A Case of Curiosities , which Alex dismisses as  “damned to fatal cheapness.”

As a Yiddish-speaking acquaintance claims, “reading spurs writing, vich spurs reading, which spurs writing.”  Indeed, this “text” will prompt academics toward beaucoup blah-blah about intertextuality.  Civilian bibliophiles, however, can read it for what it patently is: a highbrow literary mystery infused with a sense of cerebral breeziness.