Friday, November 16, 2007

The Musical Illusionist, by Alex Rose

This is a strange little volume of interconnected stories, published by a very small imprint of a small press. The book has grand designs: it consciously echoes Borges’ labyrinths and invented worlds, and it bears a strong resemblance to Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Yet, it stands alone, in the tradition of those authors, and not as a copy.

Rose uses a subway-ride through an imaginary “Library of Tangents” to connect his fictional histories of bizarre texts, silent languages, sensory illusions, mechanical and physical inventions, wonderful microbes and rare neurological disorders. Fact mixes with fiction in imaginative ways that ring true while simultaneously sounding like essays in code. His range is wide, from early Catholic gospels to cryptology, from Aristotelian philosophy to quantum physics, from Arabic algebra to renaissance scientists, from Freud to Feynman to Dada to Wagner to forgotten countries peopled with strange tribes practicing impossible customs and remaining hidden, somehow, from history. It all works, although some stories work better than others. “Book of Glass” and “Waldemar” are among the best, although as the reader progresses through the texts, intertextual similarities and connections begin to appear. When the final story draws to a close, it refers the reader back to one of the beginning stories, in a sort of infinite loop that should be expected, but isn’t.

I also enjoyed the color reproductions of old texts, maps, sketches, and graphs; they added to the verisimilitude and atmosphere.

This was a quick read, and that is both good and bad. I wanted some of these stories to be longer, more detailed, more developed. Others didn’t interest me so much, and I was fine with reading them and moving on. But now, having finished the book (almost in one sitting), I want to reread it and look for more connections and to try to discover more of the interior structure of the book. This is a great work of imagination. There’s more here than first appears, and it’s well worth investigating.

I’d recommend it to readers who appreciate Borges and Calvino, but also history, science, and liberal arts; book making and history; linguistics and philosophy. Virtually all topics are interwoven into The Musical Illusionist. It is a beautiful little book, not quite up to Borges or Calvino, but passionate in the same vein, and eager in the same passion.

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