Review: The Grand Complication

Written by Allen Kurzweil
Published by Hyperion, 2001, 360 pages

The search began with a library call slip and the gracious query of an elegant man.
“I beg your pardon,” said the man, bowing ever so slightly, “Might I steal a moment of your time?”

So begins Allen Kurzweil’s The Grand Complication. The book’s narrator and protagonist, Alexander Short, is a reference librarian at a Manhattan library, very much like (wink, wink) the New York Public. Through his job, Alexander meets and is, in effect, seduced by the impressively named and impressively wealthy Henry James Jesson III, who wants the young librarian to help him “with a case.” The “case” turns out to be an actual box – an incomplete cabinet of curiosities put together by a mysterious 18th-century inventor. Alexander resists the offer at first, but eventually gives in, and the rest of the novel involves his search for the cabinet’s one missing object – a magnificent timepiece supposedly made for Marie Antoinette.

The Grand Complication is a mystery tale and, as in any good mystery tale, along the way we learn that many things are not exactly what they seem. Mr. Jesson’s story, the legendary timepiece, and Mr. Jesson himself turn out to be much more complicated than at first we might have suspected – well, at least more complicated than Alexander suspected. So we end up unraveling more than just the secret of the queen’s magnificent pocket watch.

This book has drawn mixed reviews, and I have to admit Kurzweil doesn’t produce the most sparkling prose. But I enjoyed it very much – it’s a fast-paced read, with a lot of humor and many surprises sprinkled throughout. There’s also a nice love story included – the courtship and rocky marriage of Alexander and his French wife, Nic.

Then there’s all the library arcana – my favorite part of the book – and Alexander’s fascination with “objects of enclosure” and with the Dewey system of classification:

The system lets the well-trained librarian synthesize a hierarchy of people, places, and things, of ideas and phenomena. What’s more, it encourages that hierarchy both to grow and to be remembered. Familiarity with classes, divisions, and sections means this: that if a reader walks up and requests, say, The Study of Arab Women: A Bibliography of Bibliographies, a librarian who knows the system can direct the inquirer with confidence to 016.016305488927. [Chapter 55, p. 319]

Ultimately, I suppose I was attracted to Alexander because he’s such a meticulous list-maker. At one point, he admits to Nic that his ambition is “to compose lists,” prompting her to ask if he wants to set them to music. He collects library call slips – his own and those of other library patrons. He even goes so far as to wear a journal (hand made by Nic) fastened to his clothing, for making lists and notes – in imitation of the “girdle books” employed by medieval monks. Now that’s a man after my own heart.

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