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Met Stetson and Gave Him an Earful
by Andrew Zornoza
In The Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, one of Gilbert Sorrentino’s characters describes his writing as “pushing reality so hard that it fell over on its back and became a kind of fantasy.”
It’s an odd roster of books that accomplish this: books such as The Art of Memory by Francis Yates; The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury; The New Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James. The flipside of this list contains works by Borges, Calvino, and Rodrigo Rey Rosa—writers who push the imagination far enough so that it becomes a kind of reality.
Alex Rose’s work belongs with this second group. His debut collection, The Musical Illusionist, is a compendium of riddles, mysteries, oddities, and paradoxes. These tiny tales are arranged as exhibits in an imagined “Library of Tangents.“
Some examples. . . .
From Topologies: A city, called Waldemar, that reforms itself based upon the paths chosen by its inhabitants.
From Neurographies: Dysanimagnois. A condition in which the afflicted believes certain people are not themselves, but doppelgängers, impostors.
From Horologies: A mathematician who wishes to invent a formula that can solve all paradoxes.
From Languages: An island community that speaks in a morse code like language—using rhythm rather than words to convey meaning.
From Microbes: A bacteria that relies on fear to transmit itself between humans.
Mr. Rose’s particular alchemy of fiction and non-fiction is quite brave. These collected tales have the fun, deadpan mystery of ghost stories. Any one of them would do quite nicely to jolt the conversation of a late night seance when the medium has gone cold. None of these stories are too long that they couldn’t be summed up nicely in a few sentences and none are boring enough to kill you.
The Codex Serpahinianvs
I do wish the author had pushed a little harder, however. Rose’s stories are observed, not inhabited. Some heavy-lifting is required by the reader to bring them to life.
This is not so bad: I have had enough hand-holding in fiction. The longer pieces do better. The eponymous title story follows the mysterious inventor/composer Lamark from his days as a medical student (“installing an accordion-like voice box into the throat of a cadaver” and experimenting with “a corpse whose shoulder blades had been rigged to large wings”) to his strange ascent through the Parisian music world. This is one of the few stories in the book that has both character and plot. And we’re better off for it—the idea of Lamark is given time to unfold and we are made richer for travelling through his narrative.
That’s not to say character and plot are necessary. “City of Infinite Bridges,” for example, works by the inclusion of a simple diagram. An elucidation of an old mathematical riddle (the Konigsberg problem), I stained the page with my grubby fingers: attempting to find a route across all the seven bridges without retracing my path.
Illustration of the Konigsberg Bridge Problem
Sounds interesting? Indeed, there are no clunkers in The Musical Illusionist. And it must be mentioned that the book is beautifully illustrated and just as well put together as Hotel St. George’s previous offering.
Still, several “exhibits” fail to live up to the promise of their premise. Culprit numero uno is the omnipresent narrator: a flat, drowse-inducing poorly done imitation of a flat drowse-inducing professor—full of empty phrases like “until fairly recently,” “without question,” and, “of equal concern.” The narrator may have been meant to be intentionally unobtrusive, but instead his cloud of dull saps the narrative of lightness.
I wish Mr. Rose had dispensed with him altogether, or given us a new-world Virgil: a point of entry worthy of these exhibits.
Virgil to Dante: Where are the impressionists when you need them?
Secondly, several of these stories seem to tip-toe around the fantastic—there is an aura of imaginative restraint: as if keeping the fantastic at arm’s length will make them seem more real to the reader. But a reader is a willing sucker and Rose might have done better saving his half-hearted energies.
Instead of convincing us of the realities of his subjects, he may have simply delved further into them. See drawings of the memory theatre of Giulio Camillo, for example; or, for that matter—nerd alert!—the Gary Gygax penned Dungeons and Dragons’ Monster Manual (or even —double nerd alert!—the oft maligned Fiend Folio).
These works are as flat as pancakes narratively speaking, with no character or plot: but with a complexity that hints at barbarian cosmologies lurking beneath.
Often the conceit of each tale in The Musical Illusionist is all there is to inspire. The details seem incidental. Each tale proceeds to its most logical, almost mathematical conclusion—without roadblocks.
But if these faults may seem crippling, they are not.
Borges wrote: “Every novel is an ideal plane inserted into the realm of reality.”
Alex Rose has given us many little, flat planes. And it seems to me that reviewers might do better steering clear of what’s good and bad about a book. Instead, we could use what’s interesting as a measuring stick.
If I listened to myself, I’d say The Musical Illusionist has interesting in spades.
Andrew Zornoza is the senior contributor to This Recording. He lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. His latest story is available here. His photo-novel “Where I Stay,” will be available from Tarpaulin Sky Press in early 2009. You can e-mail him at azornoza at gmail.com.
The Musical Illusionist’s playlist:
“Wonderwall” — Ryan Adams (mp3)
“Hope” — The Submarines (mp3)
“I’m Going To Love You Anyhow” — Elliott Smith (Live rare and acoustic, from FM 107.7) (mp3)
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