Eighteenth century deists compared the world to a watch, an analogy well suited to this historical novel, in which the main character creates ingenious mechanisms, including timepieces. The book thus reflects the age in which it is set; it is also very much a postmodern text, as concerned with its own composition as with the story it has to tell. This duality pervades the work, which emerges as at once art and artifice. Like the devices that Claude Page creates, the novel delights in two ways. On the surface, one can enjoy the movement of the figures, the characters’ actions, but one can also take pleasure in the elaborate construction, in a mechanism that produces life, or at least its simulacrum.
The twin aspects of the book expose themselves in the opening pages, in which the narrator describes his acquiring a case of curiosities at a Paris auction in 1983. In one sense, this case refers to a box in which a person places a collection of objects, often commonplace, that relate to important events in the individual’s life. This case of objects inoculates the narrator with a case—in a medical sense—of curiosity, so that he spends the next six years studying the life of the young man who had assembled these items. The account that results, a history presented in “a novel manner,” as Sebastian Plumeaux will punningly say late in the story, is itself about a character whose curiosity leads him into a curious life between the ages of ten and twenty.
The tale that follows unfolds in ten units. The decade of divisions corresponds to the number of years that elapse; it also reflects the decimalization that the French Revolution imposed on all facets of life, including time, which it sought to measure in ten-day weeks, ten-hour days, and hundred-minute hours. Numerology, especially relating to time, affects other aspects of the work as well. The book contains sixty chapters and 360 pages, though the last two are blank because Claude’s story is unfinished. Kurzweil appears to have stolen a (blank) page from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), doubled it, and converted it to a representation of Page’s blank. The story completes a circle of 360 degrees because in the last numbered chapter—there is an unnumbered postscript—Claude assembles the case of curiosities that the narrator buys in the preface. Claude completes his masterpiece, a talking head, in the year 1789; of its 2,199 parts, 1,789 are responsible for speech.
Each of the major divisions receives its title from one of the objects that occupy the box acquired at the Paris auction. The first item is a jar, which, like many other objects that Claude includes in the case, is object, metaphor, and pun. As the first, it represents the container holding the middle finger of Claude’s right hand, which is embellished with a mole that resembles the head of Louis XVI. Believing that the mole causes Claude pain, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Robert Auget, the local count, summons Adolphe Staemphli, a Geneva surgeon, to remove it. Unhappily for Claude, Staemphli, too, is creating a case of curiosities and wishes to improve his collection with this blemish. To ensure its preservation, he removes the entire finger. The amputation foreshadows the fate of the real head of the king and of Claude’s later curiosity, a head of another sort. More immediately, it jars Claude’s life, resulting in his leaving home to live with the count. As Kurzweil writes in one of his many examples of word play, “Amputation had brought about attachment,” the patronage of the abbé.
The title of the second unit, “The Nautilus,” once more assumes multiple meanings. The abbé loves the helix: His staircases, gates, and pillars spiral; he even peels his fruit helically. His house has a chambered conception with increasingly secret compartments, and he sees his life as “a series of hidden chambers. There is always one more waiting to be entered.” As Claude penetrates these physical and biographical compartments, he, too, grows, so that the nautilus serves as a metaphor for his life as well as the abbé’s. The nautilus represents not only development but also shyness: it “recoils in moments of terror and delight.” Claude and the abbé exhibit this characteristic, retreating rather than exposing their fears and hopes; this mutual concealment leads to misunderstanding and separation.
While Claude lives under the abbé’s tutelage, he learns much about watchmaking, his great passion. To raise money, the abbé must produce mechanisms more in demand than mere timepieces, “Hours of Love” with erotic scenes. “Nautilus” may pun on the “naughty lass” these pictures include. Among the commissions is a request for a bawdy scene incorporating the face of a young woman painted on an ivory cameo. Claude falls in love with the image, which he encounters in the third unit, “The Morel.” Morels move,...
(The entire section is 1998 words.)