The search for an antique pocket watch animates a surprisingly dramatic battle of wits and wills, in an engaging intellectual thriller, only the second novel from the formidably gifted author of the 1992 critical success A Case of Curiosities.
Narrator Alexander Short, a toiler in the reference department of the New York Public Library, finds his placid life interrupted one day by a dapper elder patron improbably named Henry James Jesson III. Jesson is an art collector and independent scholar with an agenda, for which he enlists Alexander’s investigative skills: the recovery of an (initially unidentified) object missing from an elegant wooden cabinet (another “case of curiosities,” as it happens) in his possession. Over the objections of his French wife “Nic” (who just barely registers as a presence in the story), Alexander is lured into Jesson’s web, consulting such odd people and institutions as a cupiditous watchmaker, a “curator of Judaica,” and a scholarly plutocrat’s Arcade of Obsolescence—discovering that what he seeks is a timepiece created for Marie Antoinette (and named, coincidentally, “The Grand Complication”). The intricacies multiply exponentially, in a deliciously mazelike house of fiction containing innumerable trapdoors, hidden compartments, and mutually reflecting mirrors—and Kurzweil takes it to a whole new level when Alexander begins to suspect he is not just Boswell to Jesson’s Johnson but, quite possibly, his employer’s creation: the unwilling protagonist of a story Jesson is telling to himself. This exuberantly brainy tale is further distinguished by a plethora of quaint and curious lore (relating to heraldry, horology, French history, library science, and miscellaneous arcana) and by suggestive echoes of both Oliver Twist and the Humbert-Quilty climactic confrontation in Lolita. And Kurzweil’s ineffably witty dialogue reads like the rich, strange fruit of an inspired collaboration between Henry James and Oscar Wilde.
Every bit as entertaining as it is sophisticated and elusive.