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This odd first novel, set in 18th-century Europe, begins with the removal of an unusual mole (a collector's item for the surgeon) and ends with one ingenious mechanical object (a Talking Head) being severed by another (a guillotine): things, in other words, get as much play as people in a novel that sometimes reads more like a museum tour. Every tour needs a guide, and so we have an arch, long-winded, mock-erudite narrative voice to tell us the story of Claude Page of Tournay, Switzerland. It is 1780 when the ten-year-old Claude loses his mole (and middle finger); the valley's biggest landowner, the self-styled AbbÉ, is so shocked by the gratuitous amputation that he moves Claude into his mansion house, giving him a challenging if haphazard education, and part-time work enameling pornographic watchcases for Parisian clients. The relationship (it's the only real one here) between eccentric benefactor and respectful protÉgÉ ends abruptly when Claude believes he has witnessed the AbbÉ murdering a female harpsichord student. (Only much later does he learns that the AbbÉ was destroying his own flawed handiwork, a mechanical puppet: ""what collectors of curiosa...called ein Kurzweil. A pastime."") Claude lights out for Paris, becomes apprenticed to an unpleasant bookseller (the agent for the watchcases), and is seduced (unsexily) by a wealthy customer out slumming for a ""little peasant boy""; but picaresque adventure is always secondary to Claude's mechanical projects, which culminate in the much-exhibited Talking Head, a costly venture financed by an aristocrat who insists the Head declare Vive le Roi--hence, its post-Revolutionary rendezvous with the guillotine. A leaden exercise that (unlike, say, Patrick SÜskind's Perfume, another recent journey into 18th-century France) opens no new windows into the past.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0156012898
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich