Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

A Case of Curiosities ()

Granta Top 20 Authors Under 40

Maybe the hype surrounding being named one of Granta's Best American Novelists Under 40 is inherently unfair, or maybe it's just that a wait of nine years between novels raises expectations to insupportable levels, but whatever the case, this novel is somewhat disappointing.  It's not bad, it's just overly cute, which is the last thing you'd expect somehow from a decade-long effort by a talented young novelist.

The story involves a librarian, Alexander Short, who is fascinated by calligraphy, enclosures and compartments, Samuel Johnson, puns, the Dewey Decimal System and various other unusual subjects.  Though married (inexplicably) to a seductive French artist, Alex has become quite frigid, to the point where he wears a notebook on a girdle, which serves something of the role of a chastity belt.  In this book he notes down (girdles) his daily encounters with anything that bears upon his topics of fascination.

Then one day an elegant older man puts in a call slip, in exquisite handwriting, asking for the book Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture.  In no time at all, Alex is lured into Henry James Jesson III's own set of fascinations, in particular his search for an Abraham-Louis Breguet watch that was designed for Marie Antoinette, the "Grand Complication" of the title.  A complication is a watch that serves additional purposes besides telling time, in this case the Grand Complication included such functions as a thermometer scale and a perpetual calender that even corrected for leap years.  Jesson wants it because he owns a curio cabinet in which it once resided and he's filled all the cubby holes with the objects the original owner kept there except for the one in which it sat.  The search is complicated by the fact that the watch was stolen from a Jerusalem museum some years previously, while Alex's life is complicated by his deteriorating relationship with his wife, by run-ins with officious library staff, and by his quickening suspicions that Jesson is not being straightforward with him.

Such is the basic set up for the book, but that's just the internal mechanism of Kurzweil's own complication.  Meanwhile, it helps to know that the Grand Complication is a real watch that was truly stolen, that Kurzweil received a New York Public Library Research Fellowship, and, most of all, that much of the action of this novel refers back to his first, A Case of Curiosities.  That tale is told by a narrator who seems now to have been Jesson.  The book starts with him telling the reader that he's purchased the cabinet, or "case of curiosities", and that he wants to share with us the life story of the cabinet's creator and the meaning behind each of the items within the case.  The creator turns out to have been Claude Page, an 18th Century French watchmaker who narrowly avoided the guillotine during the Revolution.  In what seemed at the time to be little more than one more period detail, the narrator mentioned at the end of that book that Page at one time owned the complication.

Given all this as context, this new novel can be perceived as an enclosure too, the prior novel embedded within it.  The intertwining between the two becomes somewhat complicated in its own right and the question of where Jesson and/or Alex end and Kurzweil begins comes into play.  Meanwhile though, the entire shaky structure is perched upon an uncertain foundation, the obsession of these three men (characters) with these antique devices and the literature and ephemera of the 1700s.  In A Case of Curiosities these subjects were unfamiliar and, since the main action of the novel was set during Page's lifetime, it seemed natural for them to be part of the story.  By the end of this current novel, the reader of both books has been subjected to over 700 pages of this stuff--that's a lot to ask for one cabinet full of mementos.

Further, Jesson and Short, because the action of this novel occurs in a contemporary setting just seem like oddballs, their obsessions little more than affectations.  At one point in the novel, Jesson says :

    If you ask an enthusiast of jigsaw puzzles to explain his habit, he'll tell you what he loves is the
    process.  Once all the pieces are in place, the puzzle retains little interest.

Likewise, the reader's enjoyment of this book will depend heavily on his enthusiasm for the process, an enthusiasm which for my part I found waning as this sequel progressed.  And the finished puzzle does hold little interest.

Were Kurzweil a first time author, of whom we expected little, these weaknesses would be more easily excused.  In fact, if you approach the book just hoping for a mildly diverting literary thriller, it is likely to be more than adequate.  But fans of A Case of Curiosities seem certain to be at least somewhat disappointed and there are troubling signs within the text that another sequel will inevitably follow.  That would be inexcusable.  We'll give him this one lackluster effort, but perhaps it might be better for Mr. Kurzweil to escape from this one cabinet and move on to some new story.


Grade: (B+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : The Grand Complication (Hyperion)
    -AUTHOR PAGE : Allen Kurzweil (Preview Port)
    -BOOK LIST :  Allen Kurzweil's 20 List (Preview Port)
    -PROFILE : A Complicated Case : For his novel The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil spent nine years researching everything from Middle Eastern museums to eighteenth-century watches to the Dewey decimal system. (BORIS KACHKA, Augiust 2001, New York)
    -PROFILE : Allen Kurzweil All That We See is Vision (Wendy Cavenett, Between the Lines)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication (D. T. Max, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication (complete review)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication (Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication  By Allen Kurzweil (Ed Park, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Grand Complication (Greenwoods)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Complication (MICHAEL PAULSON , Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Complication (Rumaan Alam, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of A Case of Curiosities (Tim Nordgren)
    -REVIEW : of THE GRAND COMPLICATION: A Novel, by Allen Kurzweil (BRIGITTE FRASE, LA Times)

    -Abraham-Louis Breguet
    -Abraham-Louis Breguet Keeper of Time
    -The Cabinet of Curiosities (Tim Sherratt, Australian Science Archives Project)
    -FILM INFO : Marie Antoinette (1938) (