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Book Review: The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil

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With The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil, author of the acclaimed 1992 novel, A Case Of Curiosities, has created a modern-day time-travailing mystery-lite along the lines of the Adventures of Mr. Peabody and his Boy Sherman, complete with metaphoric Wayback Machines and machinations, groan-worthy but sly puns and missed-that-day-in-school history lessons.

The main characters of this work of high imagination, erudition, adroit wordplay and repartee, however, prefer to think of themselves in Boswellian rather than Bullwinklian terms. Indeed, the oft-repeated allusions and self-deceiving comparisons to the 18th-century English critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell become tiring pretensions and affectations as we meet and get to know the fastidious reference librarian Alexander Short, and Henry James Jesson III, a “museum specimen” of a man.

Short is content to while away his hours with his studies of Johnson, and in his interests in lettering techniques and, more oddly, the subject of secret compartments and enclosures. He also is obsessed with “girdling,” writing minute observations in a little notebook. Set in his ways, Short at home has managed to alienate his lovely French wife, an artist who designs pop-up books. At one point she makes a relief map of sorts on her naked body, with a seductive invitation for an interpersonal surveying expedition, which Short finds so intoxicating that he starts to take notes. It’s no wonder she urges him to see a “shrimp” for therapy.

At his job at the New York Public Library, the able but browbeaten Short (he’s repeatedly threatened with the prospect of “driving a bookmobile through Amish country”) seeks diversions from the more mundane aspects of his job, those that cannot be met with companionship and interaction with co-workers, such as the janitor who’s a walking Dewey decimal card catalog, and a coarse library director nicknamed the “Librarian of Sexual Congress.” Short is especially weary of telephone duty, during which he is besieged with such questions as “How can I open a car wash in Istanbul?” and “Can you find me a history of wishes?”

Strangely enough, though, Short’s life is about to become a history of a wish come true – or maybe it’s a lesson in being careful of what you wish for. When enigmatic, wealthy and sixtysomething bibliophile and art collector Jesson enters the library and first approaches Short with an intriguing book request, also offering up a beguilingly rare writing style and a seeming interest in Boswell and Johnson, Short is bewitched and bothered. Then, after a couple other visits, comes the bewildered reaction – to an after-hours job offer. An impressed Jesson, who seems like a man “happier in the heretofore, with its ink pots and chamois vests, than in the here-and-now world of laptops and cell phones,” asks Short to become his “investigator, amanuensis, confidant, and sounding board” to “research and record all aspects of a special case.”

With an easily persuaded Short on board as “Boswell to your Johnson,” a tangled web of intrigue and duplicity commences as Short learns that the “special case” surrounds a special case: an elegant wooden box of curiosities chronicling the life of an enigmatic 18th-century inventor. One of the compartments is missing an artifact, but with a little detective work a resourceful and diligent Short has determined that the missing piece is the Grand Complication, a superb watch believed to have been commissioned for Marie Antoinette, before heads started rolling. This is based on a true story of a stolen masterpiece pocket watch by Abraham-Louis Breguet, a late-18th and early 19th-century French-Swiss craftsman.

That’s not quite the whole story, and not anywhere near the end. It’s more grandly complicated than that, though in subtle ways, in keeping with the hit-the-ground-sauntering mood of drawing room civility and library hushed-tone manners.

So cue the twists and turns – but hold the hairpin, breakneck force – and have more waiting in the wings after Short is thrown out of his house and he moves into Jesson’s townhouse of Old World elegance and, as it happens, under-the-microscope scrutiny. Cue the family-hour friends and foes like the wild ‘n’ wacky Marie Antoinette groupie, the nosy-neighbor-like watch collectors and the gruff but loveable businessman putting together an “Arcade of Obsolescence.” And cue the pulled-punch revenge, too weak-willed really to get you much in a dither or knock your ascot askew, let alone make you swoon with a case of the vapors and a call for smelling salts.

If at times the slightness and stiltedness of Complication is a little wanting and the ending anticlimactic, the journey, if you’re just along for the ride, is worthwhile. The eccentric characters, Dickensian situations and smooth episodes are enjoyable, quirky fun, ratcheting up the meanwhile-back-at-the- branch-library storyline about dry-as-dust antiquaries and arcana and the evolution of an “intellectual kismet.”

It may be telling that some of the most excitement in the book comes during the library “staff party” with games such as the call slip race and the “Class Struggle” name-that-decimal classification game, and chariot races with garbage skips around the Reading Room. (“`You don’t know beans about racin’ if you think a book truck will do the trick,’ grouses one old-timer.”) Moreover, the use of language and delicious wordplay not only amuses in itself (a Jesson-owned rollover contraption has the motto “Volumes of higher learning operated by a crank”), it exists at times as cryptic game-playing clues and plot devices toward the solution of the mystery. (A repeated phrase noting that the sages say paradise “can depress, oppress, and sadden – and has been known to betray” works on multiple levels.)

And despite an inconsequential and undeveloped misstep or two, such as a couple of oh-Huck-honey homosexual references suggesting underlying one-raft inclinations, Kurzweil conveys with intricate craftsmanship and detail his own enthusiasm and fascination, borne out from travels and research, and his yearlong fellowship at the New York Public Library. “By the end,” Kurweil has noted, his interests included “library cataloging, pop-up books, tattoos, security systems, secret compartments, the history of French watchmaking, bookbinding, and a dozen other matters besides.” All amusingly and duly classified, cataloged and cross-referenced, with the precision of a fine watch, in The Grand Complication.


In the vocabulary of the library cataloger, Jesson was still as infuriatingly N.E.C. (Not Elsewhere Classified) as he had been before I opened up. Each time I tried to push him to keep to his end of the bargain, he’d shift the conversation. I’d ask about schooling, he’d talk about foie gras. I’d mention his overtly literary name, he’d discuss the lettuces he’d grown on his Long Island farm from seeds purchased in Aix.

“Seeds, soil, and sun,” he said. “The gardener’s sacred trinity. I have a hothouse that you, as a student of enclosure, would adore.”

I kept up the pressure. “Has the farm been in your family long?”

“How do you find the beans?”

“Mr. Jesson, please.”

“If you’re so keen to know who I am, take a look around. My life is best narrated in the objects I collect. I’m a lot like the anonymous composer of the case – defined by the whenceabouts of things kept close at hand.”


“The stories behind the objects. What more typically is called provenance.”

Andrews entered with a fresh tin of cookies before I could work up a response.

“The rosquillas, at last!”

“Can we get back to your past, Mr. Jesson?”

“If only that were possible,” he quipped as he foraged through the tin.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Sounds fun! My “to read” list has just grown by one. Thanks.

  • Thanks Natalie–it would indeed be an quirkily enjoyable addition to your “to read” pile.