Arcane Games

Included in the cast of Allen Kurzweil's first novel, 1992's A Case of Curiosities, is a hack writer "partial to narratives based on contrived structures." It's an inside-out nod to the leisurely tale's 10 sections, each of which derives from an object—jar, nautilus, button—reposing in the mysterious case purchased at auction by the unnamed narrator. The book wears its metafiction loosely, though, as it lovingly details an Enlightenment France full of chiasmus and corsets and clockwork contraptions. Kurzweil's follow-up, The Grand Complication, suggests a nearly decade-long interim spent boning up on player pianos and secret compartments, pop-up books and tachygraphic shorthand. Since Kurzweil is an author who excels at lucid digressions on nifty arcana, this is welcome news. But he has also contrived to turn his first book into material for his second, and this is a problem.

In horological terms, a complication is a watch with features beyond mere timekeeping: a perpetual calendar, for example, or a split-second chronograph. The novel's eponymous complication is an actual Breguet watch known as the Marie Antoinette, which was stolen from a museum in 1983. The timepiece may be the missing element in a memento hominem (the same Joseph Cornell-like box from Case) owned by a man of leisure and letters named Henry James Jesson III—who, it seems, is the author of A Case of Curiosities. Or is he?

Complication's fastidious narrator is a librarian named Alexander Short, whom Jesson hires as an assistant in his quest to fill the case's one empty compartment. An inveterate list-maker, Alexander monkishly sets down his observations in a small notebook tied to his belt, an activity he calls "girdling." Compounding this emasculation is the fact that he's been slack in the sack since his wedding night, to the frustration of his Piaf-blasting French wife, Nic—a state of affairs that mimics an impotence scandal in Case, though its hysterics sound a bit out of touch in this age of rampant Viagra.

Alexander plays Boswell to Jesson's Dr. Johnson, learnedly bantering while luxuriating in the latter's sumptuous townhouse, all Hogarth engravings and antique globes. As eggheaded as a Nicholson Baker creation, if a shade dorkier, Alexander uses his bibliotechnical training to track down essential books and documents—not to mention his patron's identity. (Kurzweil, a recent fellow of the New York Public Library, has a field day with the setting and its denizens, as when contestants at an employee Christmas party try to guess the call numbers for titles like Depression among Unmarried Southern Yemeni Women.) The pace is brisk enough, though the stabs at dialect sometimes slip into caricature. Kurzweil's high-low take on literary larceny is pitched somewhere between The Aspern Papers of Jesson's namesake and Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series, and can render even the more sedentary aspects of Alexander's research (Lexis-Nexis, anyone?) reasonably dramatic.

But in the end, The Grand Complication is less a novel than anxious prequel, companion piece, and footnote to (if not backhanded advertisement for) A Case of Curiosities. Jesson's ulterior motives involve cribbing from Alexander's diary and girdle book to flesh out a character whose story he hopes to write—i.e., Case's "Claude Page." "Your narrative succeeds where my notes and poems fail," Jesson explains. His heartfelt confession rings false, though: The imaginative and resourceful Jesson would hardly need to hire someone to supply artistic inspiration. The convoluted setup makes the rest of the book seem arbitrary.

Barely more comprehensible is why Alexander's revenge for this oblique crime should take the form of writing his own book—called, naturally, The Grand Complication. It is, of course, the one whose pages we have been turning, with increasing disappointment; that Alexander's enthusiastic audience (at a library reading) urges him to continue orating his account sounds like wishful thinking. When coworkers ask him, "Is this your book or his?" the answer could hardly matter less. Circularity, the partial magic of books within books, the friction between fictional authors, are all part of the modern novel's permanent furniture, from Don Quixote to Philip Roth, but here their centrality to the plot backfires. (Even last year's sloppy experiment, House of Leaves, with its extravagant layout and competing type sizes, at least interrogated the overlapping-authorship motif with a measure of cracked gusto.)

Readers unfamiliar with A Case of Curiositieswill find the emergent Möbius strip puzzling, even annoying; devotees may smile at the allusions, but as the mirrorings between old book and new multiply, they may rightly wonder if nine years was too long to wait for what is at best a mildly amusing in-joke. Worse, in poking fun at its predecessor ("some pathetic novel that has zero hope of ever getting published," grumbles Alexander), the bland Complication diminishes the author's genuinely impressive debut.

Repetition is a virtue in clocks, one extended to the total aesthetic of this very chronometric chronicle: Alexander explains that the text's 360 pages are a deliberate echo of a clock hand's circuit, its 60 chapters reinforcing the conceit. Even the font and dingbat, designed by Nic, have their raisons d'être. Given such paratextual fetishizing, perhaps Kurzweil (or is it Alexander and Nic?) should stitch together a deluxe, single-volume edition of Case with Complication, interleaving the similarly paginated novels so that text and backstory come into immediate conflict (something like the astonishing double-entry sequence in Maureen Howard's Natural History). Still, it's not hard to guess which pages would go unread.

Kurzweil might have spun a better yarn by holding back on the self-reference, instead resolving the mystery surrounding the theft of the Marie Antoinette (the intrigue has been completely neutralized by book's end). But though watches are circular, time—hélas—is not, and a stronger denouement for this long-aborning novel might have eluded the author for an unthinkable year or two or ten. (A recent article mentioned that an earlier version had burgeoned to 800 pages.) A curio saddled with a repeater mechanism, The Grand Complication ticks out what amounts to a waste of time.

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