In Allen Kurzweil’s first novel, A Case of Curiosities (1992), the narrator purchases, in 1983, a sealed box full of ordinary objects and then spends six years tracing the life of the owner, leading to the story of the adventures of Claude Page in nineteenth century Europe. In Kurzweil’s second novel, The Grand Complication, Claude’s story turns out to be the creation of Henry James Jesson III, an eccentric New York collector of books and objects and scholar of eighteenth century literature. Jesson bases Claude upon Alexander Short, a reference librarian at an unnamed Manhattan library. The efforts of Jesson and Short to find a stolen pocket watch serve as an intellectual, allusive, and charming entertainment with passing commentary about the nature of collectors and their collections and the strange, vindictive world of large research libraries.
Short meets Jesson when the distinguished older gentleman fills out a call slip for Secret Compartments in Eighteenth Century Furniture and the librarian becomes fascinated, as a student of calligraphy and shorthand, by Jesson’s painstaking penmanship, and, as one fascinated by enclosure, with the title being sought. Short’s French wife, Nic, who creates pop-up art, would say he is so concerned with enclosure that he has become repressed. They have not had sex in some time. Nic has made a notebook Short has attached to himself, in the manner of medieval monks, and whenever she makes advances, the inveterate list-maker thinks of something he must write down in his “girdle book.” Living up to his name, he comes up short in romance. However, with his investigative skills, his acute attention to detail, and unhappy home life, Short is just what Jesson has been looking for. When Norton, Short’s colleague, sees the title requested by Jesson, he observes, “A book about false fronts and hidden recesses. . . . Seems an awful lot like you.”
Jesson wants Short’s help in resolving several mysteries surrounding an elaborate cabinet kept in his antique-laden townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jesson has been referring to the cabinet as a case, which Short has taken to mean the kind of case investigated by detectives, one of numerous plays on words throughout the novel. Yet Jesson’s case does turn out to be the center of a case in the other meaning of the word.
The glass-fronted, wooden cabinet, later to be called the Case of Curiosities, is divided into ten compartments, containing a shell, a wooden doll, and other mundane objects. Its significance, according to Jesson, is that the contents register the life of its original owner, an anonymous eighteenth century inventor. Since acquiring the cabinet at a 1983 Paris auction, Jesson has sought to identify the one missing item. Short is intrigued that the ten compartments correspond to Melvil Dewey’s ten classes for classifying the contents of books and, by extension, the entire universe. Likewise, Jesson’s universe is incomplete without the tenth piece. One of the delights of The Grand Complication is how so many of its elements have counterparts. Kurzweil has clearly been influenced by the psychological doubles and symbolic curiosities found throughout Steven Millhauser’s fiction, and his puzzles within puzzles within a mysterious Manhattan recall Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1985-1986).
Jesson’s initial goal is finding out more about a book with a missing title page identified on its spine as Chronicle of an Engineer by Sebastian Plumeaux. An engraving in the book depicts Jesson’s cabinet, and the tenth compartment is also empty. Jesson acquired the book at the same auction house where he found the cabinet, buying it from “an overweight Mediterranean of suspect character,” one of many allusions to the world depicted in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929).
Finding a copy of the book with a title page is the first of several mysteries solved by Short, the reference librarian as detective. In A Dictionary of Revealed Authorship, he discovers Plumeaux is a pseudonym for Pierre Houdin, author of such novels as The Book of Hours, “narrating the life of a mechanical engineer through a collection of objects housed in a glass-fronted cabinet.” Short’s library even has a copy, but it has been locked away in the preservation laboratory by Irving Grote, one of Short’s enemies in the jealous, territorial world of libraries as envisioned by Kurzweil. In this later edition, a pocket watch fills the previously vacant compartment. Enlisting the aid of his friend Norton,...
(The entire section is 1886 words.)