The Secret Chambers


If truth rarely adorns itself in black and white, then Alex Rose’s new collection of short stories, The Musical Illusionist, serves as a canvas for the countless shades in between. Recalling the playful parables of Jorge Luis Borges, Rose delights in thought experiments that question whether we can ever follow Socrates’ admonition to know ourselves. Exotic maps and exquisite prints further suggest a volume passed down from an epoch much more enthralled with mystery than our own.

Like the pilgrim of Dante’s Inferno, we are led through secret chambers deep inside the Earth, though our destination is not the dwelling place of sinners but “an archive . . . of possibility” known as the Library of Tangents. Straddling the “rift between clarity and wonder,” the subterranean repository, with its Microbes Wing and Hall of Vanishing Manuscripts, celebrates the snags and side effects of progress. The tour might linger before an exhibit featuring a tribe cursed with faultless memory, unable to forget the most trifling details, then ponder the case of a castle where “time and destiny are a literal function of [its] entrances and exits.”

The proximity to Borges is both obvious and intentional; Rose displays the same uncanny predilection for masquerading whimsical invention as the most sober of facts. An ancient philosopher fulminates against numbers, fearing the result of having “calculated all that is natural.” In the title story, a composer experiments with auditory perception only to earn scorn for his preternatural harmonies. “What use have we for the recondite and enigmatic in a globalized, iron-fist marketplace?” Rose wonders as the poor visionary sinks into oblivion.

But despite the promise of most of these scenarios, Rose allows the voice of a bemused lecturer to dominate, neglecting basic elements-—narrative arc, for one—that would render such cerebral fiction a bracing read. The persistent lack of gusto is disappointing, because it detracts from an otherwise fine collection whose moral concerns are refreshingly modest for our infuriatingly strident age. Knowledge brings suffering; wisdom is incapable of redemption. Forgotten musicians and vanished civilizations only remind us how closely we tread upon the surface of the unknown.