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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Grand Complication

Allen Kurzweil

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To purchase The Grand Complication

Title: The Grand Complication
Author: Allen Kurzweil
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 360 pages
Availability: The Grand Complication - US
The Grand Complication - UK
The Grand Complication - Canada
Die Leidenschaften eines Bibliothekars - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : fun arcana, some nice details, but the story as a whole falls somewhat flat

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 9/8/2001 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph A 26/1/2002 Toby Clements
The Independent A+ 23/3/2002 Graham Kaveney
The LA Times B 9/9/2001 Brigitte Frase
Newsday A 29/7/2001 Polly Shulman
Newsweek . 13/8/2001 Jeff Giles
The New Yorker . 3/9/2001 .
The NY Times Book Rev. A 19/8/2001 D.T.Max
Salon C+ 24/8/2001 Laura Miller
TLS C+ 25/1/2002 Henry Hitchings
The Village Voice C 28/8/2001 Ed Park
Wall St. Journal . 10/8/2001 Abe Loomis
The Washington Post F 5/8/2001 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Most are quite taken by it, but a few think it a failure.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) rollicking, witty suspense tale (.....) With this novel, Kurzweil has so much fun in the library that he's sure to lose his checkout privileges. (...) Silly and smart, this is a book to make time for." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "These clever-clever devices could have fallen flat, and made for a repellently tricksy work, but Kurzweil is wonderfully offbeat, and wears his erudition with jaunty self-effacement. (...) This is not important fiction, but it is a very enjoyable diversion." - Toby Clements, Daily Telegraph

  • "Like James, Kurzweil is the master of the word kept back, his plot pivoting on the significant silence and ambiguous vignette. (...) He has produced a meditation on time, a critique of commodity fetishism and an analysis of the monomaniacal mind. What is most impressive is that he has done so while writing a novel." - Graham Kaveney, The Independent

  • "The reading pleasures here are all in the odd facts and the set-piece scene. (...) In my library catalog, The Grand Complication will be filed under Delicious Confection, a bit too runny." - Brigitte Frase, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Like A Case of Curiosities, The Grand Complication is as welcoming and accessible as an Advent calendar, offering its prizes to anyone who cares to pry open the tabs." - Polly Shulman, Newsday

  • "A cutesy, undercooked, overeager follow-up to Kurzweil's best seller, A Case of Curiosities." - Jeff Giles, Newsweek

  • "Puckish and erudite." - The New Yorker

  • "(A) satisfying, multilevel tale. (...) The Grand Complication should be approached with a mood of casual curiosity. Puns, obscure words, a quick course in library science, a world of boxes in other boxes whiz by. Try to go with the book and not master it." - D.T.Max, The New York Times Book Review

  • "For all his love of devices, Kurzweil can't seem to concoct what must be the most blatantly mechanical type of story line: a solid mystery plot. And often, his love of the elaborate conceit trumps psychological common sense. (...) Like the automaton built by the hero of Kurzweil's earlier book, it doesn't strike quite the right delicate balance between the human and the machine." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "The book's ostensible appeal is to the intellect, not the sympathies. The result is that the characters and their interactions are soulless and implausible. (...) The Grand Complication is a novel that begs to be taken seriously, but ultimately seems precious rather than profound." - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

  • "But in the end, The Grand Complication is less a novel than anxious prequel, companion piece, and footnote to (if not backhanded advertisement for) A Case of Curiosities. (...) A curio saddled with a repeater mechanism, The Grand Complication ticks out what amounts to a waste of time." - Ed Park, The Village Voice

  • "The Grand Complication unfolds in graceful, elevated prose that occasionally verges on self-parody (.....) Although The Grand Complication examines themes of hollowness and obsession, the author's touch is light and frequently funny." - Abe Loomis, Wall Street Journal

  • "Instead of a firecracker novel, Kurzweil (...) has published a real dud, a major disappointment. How does it irritate? Let me count the ways (.....) In fact, The Grand Complication isn't so much complicated or grand as very, very slow, interminably, relentlessly slow: Nothing happens for the longest time, and when something finally does it's inconsequential." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Grand Complication Allen Kurzweil indulges in his fascination with artful contraptions, collections and collectors, arcana, libraries, and sundry odds -- and ends.
       The narrator is a New York reference librarian, Alexander Short. When a patron requests "a book about false fronts and hidden recesses", a colleague observes: "Seems an awful lot like you." As it turns out, the quite naïve Short isn't the character with the falsest fronts.
       The patron who makes the aforementioned request is Henry James Jesson III, and he goes on to enlist Short to assist him in some research. The wealthy Jesson is a collector who isn't entirely comfortable in contemporary times. Short notes that, for example, "when it comes to popular culture he scores a perfect Dunkin' Donut." But Jesson is certainly what would be considered a cultured man, and he is a collector of refined tastes.
       Short welcomes the opportunity to help the rich eccentric, an agreeable change from the often dreary and sometimes oppressive library life he otherwise leads. Many of Jesson's passions mirror his own (suspiciously many, as Short eventually discovers), and Short is quite taken with Jesson's prize pieces and carefully kept library. Particularly prized is "a case of curiosities":

(...) a treasure chest of picaresque adventures. It turned out that each item preserved in the case marked a singular moment in the life of an anonymous eighteenth-century inventor.
       Unfortunately, the case is incomplete: a piece is missing. Short is to assist in discovering what the "fugitive object" was, and in retrieving it.
       The hunt isn't straightforward. But research is conducted and some pieces fall into place. However, the pieces don't fit together perfectly. Jesson, in particular, turns out to have more hidden away than guileless Short might have suspected. Complications ensue.
       There are cat and mouse games, some subtle blackmail (as Short's librarian-career is threatened by a favour done for Jesson), and all manner of tricks and deceits.
       Kurzweil has some fun with how Short is used, and then how he turns the tables. He especially revels in the research-expertise of Short and those Short turns to to help him (though much of this amateur detective work is surprisingly amateurish, and some of it embarrassingly so). But romps through the Dewey decimal classification system only go so far, and Kurzweil doesn't get that much farther. The other games remain fairly childish, even crude, making for a somewhat clunky and clumsy resolution. In the end, he has amassed a mass of clever details and incidents, but he has not by any stretch of any imagination come close to managing to make the dull sublime (as Short is eventually accused of having done).

       The strength of The Grand Complication is in the details. There is fanciful invention here: neat antique contraptions (and some modern technological wonders as well), lovingly described. Also evident is a great love of books and libraries, and Kurzweil is at his best in the library scenes. From the Dewey system to query quotas to the games played at the staff party to how Jesson arranges the books in his private library Kurzweil seems in his element, and it is here the book flows best.
       There are other fine touches: the significant Frederick R. Stolz Arcade of Obsolescence, devoted to "industrial archeology". And there are the fantastic pop-up books that Short's wife, Nic, designs.
       Unfortunately, the novel never quite escapes being a "case of curiosities", a sometimes entertaining display with too meagre a narrative (and too much of that narrative) to hold it together. In part that is what Kurzweil means it to be, but that doesn't make the final product any better. Indeed, if Kurzweil had focussed more on building his "case of curiosities" and not worried about inventing goings-on outside it (including everything from glancing descriptions of domestic strife to a weak mystery) it probably would have been a much better novel. Had he never let Short leave the library it might have been a very good one.
       It often seems that Kurzweil reins himself in, not allowing himself to wallow in his passions -- intricate clockwork detail and obscurities -- and forces himself to focus on cobbling together a narrative. The underlying story-idea isn't that bad, but the presentation is fairly disappointing. Kurzweil's prose isn't truly clumsy, but the writing often feels overworked and he does lapse into the precious. Throughout, he tries much too hard.
       Some wordplay he can (just) get away with. Short's French wife, bemoaning the fact that they have no money, says: "But we are broken" -- and there are indeed any number of cracks in their marriage. Elsewhere, the word-games just sound forced. It isn't in the least convincing when a colleague asks Short to recount his latest adventures by saying: "Start downloading."
       Perhaps Kurzweil is really being incredibly clever with the dull, unconvincing tone of his narrative. The intricate inventions of the great watchmaker Breguet are the inspiring paragons behind the novel. And, as Jesson notes:
Breguet's complicated watches possess a host of virtues, but they all share one significant flaw. A flat-sounding sonnerie. That dullness is a hallmark of Breguets.
       Kurzweil manages in much of the novel to echo a similar dull tone -- a dubious achievement at best.
       As long as he is dealing with objects Kurzweil (through his mouthpiece Short) does fine, but once other people are involved the narrative rarely rings true. There are some promising starts: the story of how Short met his pop-up artist wife, for example. But in her appearances thereafter -- usually only involving fits and bursts -- Nic is strictly two-dimensional.
       Other figures also have little depth to them. At best they are exaggerated caricatures -- so, for example, almost all the library folk. Short's own transformation -- from man who goes around with girdled book in which he lists everything, trying to impose an order on his life, to a supposedly more well-rounded character is also quite unconvincing. Kurzweil does make quite a lot of this personal growth; indeed, The Grand Complication is certainly meant to be a Bildungsroman of sorts. Unfortunately, Short's transformation and growth isn't particularly convincing -- and, as is, he is far more interesting as the eccentric obsessive than the figure he turns into.
       Throughout Short is also not a fully realized figure. The promised "false fronts and hidden recesses" prove far less interesting (as well as simply far less) than one was led to believe. There are a few tantalizing bits of biography. Short has, for example, a "fascination with objects of enclosure", which leads his wife to construct a cage of sorts for him -- which, to him, is not a prison but a refuge. Eventually comes the revelation that he was a premature baby, put in an incubator, and that he was essentially orphaned at birth ... but Kurzweil makes fairly little of these titbits and background information.

       The Grand Complication is a decent read. There are enough choice titbits to amuse, even if the story itself falls somewhat flat. The Grand Complication isn't a failure, but it isn't nearly as good as is it could or should have been.
       Nine years after the publication of his debut, A Case of Curiosities (1992), Kurzweil's new novel isn't a case of a sophomore slump. Indeed, those that enjoyed A Case of Curiosities should enjoy this novel too, because it is very much simply more of the same. A different story, to be sure, but with the same strengths and weaknesses.
       Kurzweil has shown surprisingly little growth as a writer over the years. It might have been understandable if this title had followed hot on the heels of the first; it is less so given that nearly a decade has passed. His literary skills are limited (with certain strengths and some glaring weaknesses), and he has not expanded on them at all. Unfortunately, he does not play to his strengths here, but rather undermines them. He loses himself beautifully in minutiae and even in some of the everyday scenes (especially at Short's workplace), but most of his plots and scenes and voices here don't ring true.
       Certainly, Kurzweil's strength -- like Short's -- lies in compartmentalizing, collecting, listing, getting the details: that is what he does best in his novels. And like the character he creates, Short, he does not fully convince as a novelist. He is nowhere near to being able to present or even suggest the full richness of human experience, only a small (generally technical) sliver thereof. Perhaps one of the reasons he makes Short's final triumph a literary one is to reassure himself. But Short has not convincingly made that transformation: he is not believable as a novelist, despite the applause of colleagues and acquaintances. And Kurzweil hasn't yet written the book that would make him believable as a novelist either. (He would appear to have the talent: channeled (and perhaps edited) correctly he could surely produce some marvelous works.)

       Note: There is also an annoying failure of the clever specifics of the book -- the stuff that Kurzweil otherwise gets down fairly well. It has to do with the presentation of the book. It is a thoughtful, attractive presentation, from the typeset to the endpapers. Kurzweil (like Short) even goes so far as "to tweak the pagination to come full circle on page 360", along with dividing the book into 60 chapters -- appropriate for a variety of reasons. But the tweaking of the pagination is a tweak too far: the story does conclude on page 360 -- but it only begins on page 11, not making for a full circle.
       The book proper can be said to begin on page 1. This would correspond to -- if it were numbered -- the first title page, followed by the second title page (p.3), dedication (p.5), acknowledgements (p.7), and epigraph (p.9). The story then begins (along with the page-numbering) on page 11. If pages 1 through 10 are counted (as one can argue they should be), then, however, so must those that follow the final page of the story (p. 360): the pages with additional acknowledgements (pp.363-4) and a concluding page describing typeset, endpapers, the space-break symbol, and the fate of the missing object (p.367).
       Kurzweil can't have it both ways: either the novel covers pp. 11-360, or pp. 1-367. And either way it is only a rough circle, not a full one.

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The Grand Complication: Reviews: The Marie Antoinette (the Breguet watch): Allen Kurzweil:
  • Allen Kurzweil as Fellow at The New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers ("named by a distinguished panel after a rigorous selection process")
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American Allen Kurzweil is author of A Case of Curiosities and The Grand Complication

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© 2001-2008 the complete review

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