Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
The Grand Complication
New York: Hyperion, 2001
As suspense novels go, this is not a bad one. It isn't remarkably good either, but great literature sets higher standards than mystery writers are expected to meet; so, we can be forgiving when characters fail to develop, plot lines become unrealistically and self-indulgently clever and the story line sometimes sinks in details.
In fact, it is in the details that the devil is said to reside, as does most of the fun of this novel. The story concerns the quest for a watch, and each page seems to provide snippets of tangentially related, intrinsically interesting and odd, offbeat facts about everything from player pianos and pop-up books to patent law, plus Marie Antoinette and the Breguet watch that was to be delivered to her before her death. Like most of his vocation, Kurzweil's protagonista somewhat obsessive New York reference librarian with more information at hand than good sense in mindseems besotted by the Dewey Decimal System and compelled to share his enthusiasm. This can be slightly bothersome (I am a Library of Congress fan myself). Still, there is enough amusement to be found in the boxes containing boxes containing boxes to carry a casually curious reader through.
The highest praise for The Grand Complication was published in the newspaper, The Independent. Therein, Graham Kaveney enthused that Allen Kurzweil "has produced a meditation on time, a critique of commodity fetishism and an analysis of the monomaniacal mind." Well, that might have been the intention but Kurzweil is not quite a synthesis of Einstein, Marx and Freud. Nor have we much right to expect him to be. What he has produced is a pleasant entertainment. Whether we take to it or not will depend on whether we take it as seriously as it is meant to be taken. If we try to make more of it than is there to be had, we will be disappointed for it will seem more "precious" than "profound". In the alternative, if read lightly and with good humour, it is an artfully arcane bit of work that can allow us to indulge as the naïve librarian assists in the pursuit of a curio on behalf of Henry James Jesson III, a wealthy, occasionally quaint and sometimes sinister library patron, a cardboard Captain Nemo of curiosities who takes us on a tour that, like any decent research project, is more often enjoyable as a journey than as a final destination.
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