Caitlin Horrocks

Alex Rose, The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, Hotel St. George Press, 2007

[Review Guidelines]

Rose's debut story collection is a museum catalogue for the Library of Tangents, an expansive subterranean space accessed by disused, secret subway cars, staffed by guards in lavender uniforms, and waxy-faced ticket takers who may or may not be automatons. Past the turnstile, the museum is arranged in a series of "Special Exhibitions" on time, geography, systems of writing and mysterious texts, microbial life, curious psychological disorders, and mathematics. The exhibits themselves—text combined with maps, charts, and anatomical drawings—include a sixteenth-century Bohemian town that rejects clocks; a culture that renounces spoken language so as to worship its gods in the gods' own silent, transcendent language; a Greek mathematician who rewrites the rules of perspective; a man deaf only to Chopin's mazurkas. The final section of the book, the title story, is about a man obsessed with "sonic alchemy," who creates musical illusions that induce smells, visions, feelings of rapture and nausea in their audiences.
     All of these exhibitions are detailed in a scholarly but detached narrative voice, like a world-weary anthropologist still capable, at moments, of awe. Of the Locarinithians, scholars who accidentally poison themselves trying to faithfully record the word of God and lose their memories, Rose writes, "they lost the ability to recite the scriptures, to observe the rules and to carry forth the teachings of their savior, and yet for the duration of their short lives, each citizen was redeemed."
     The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales has a kinship not only with Borges and Calvino, but also with the case studies of Oliver Sacks or the detailed imagination of Steven Millhauser. But Rose's project is specific and unique. He has not written stories in the conventional sense, and certainly a reader expecting the traditional pleasures of plot will not find what he is looking for. Even Calvino's Invisible Cities used human interaction to frame and motivate the vignettes; here the only impetus is the simple wonder of the tales themselves, the intellectual quandaries they raise as the reader is shuttled through them via mysterious subway. But the creation of the Library of Tangents allows Rose to engage ambitiously with a huge range of human ability and experience, natural phenomena, and mathematical (im)possibilities. The jacket copy calls these tales "parables," which seems to suggest reductiveness, cautionary stories with morals wrapped up at the end. These stories are anything but. Fantastic and fascinating, they raise far more questions than they answer.
     The speaker in the title story suggests that the world periodically repaginates itself, reorganizing in response to changing human concerns:

Indeed, the world has again...recomposed itself to fit another age, one in which there appears little place for grey areas, elliptical paths or blurred boundaries. What use have we for the recondite and enigmatic in a globalized, iron-fist marketplace?.... One hopes that things are not so irreversible...perhaps through a new crop of curious minds who will vivify our forgotten love of in-betweens, could-bes and not-just-yets.

Not irreversible indeed, since Rose's own book repaginates the world, restores and recounts it in its glorious ambiguities and impossibilities, and is certainly capable of invoking wonder in whatever curious mind slips through the turnstile.