Whipping Boy: Of trauma and its aftermath.
Whipping Boy: Of trauma and its aftermath.
But Allen's real métier was fiction of a bookish and demonstratively inventive bent, as he soon proved with his dazzling first novel A Case of Curiosities (1992). In 2001, on the eve of the publication of his second novel, The Grand Complication, Allen offered me a private tour behind the scenes at the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. On the assumption that we had an exclusive, a top national publication assigned the story. As it turned out, the exclusive was in our minds, and we got scooped by what my irate editor regarded as a very minor player. Thus it was that my piece got pulled at 24 hours' notice. I share it now as we await the book-length Whipping Boy, the queasy but hypnotic tale of a victim stalking the bully who tormented him at boarding school decades before, excerpted in the New Yorker. This time, Allen's game is personal history, driven in part by themes that shape his novels, notably one very precious watch.
"Ray focuses on the future of technology," says Allen. "I tend to focus on the past." A few of his literary stars are the historians Robert Darnton, Jonathan Spence, Simon Schama, and Peter Gay—"phenomenal story tellers who know how to use material culture." In fiction, he feels affinities to Marguerite Yourcenar (for her novel of alchemy "The Abyss") and, yes, Calvino (for the graceful fantasy "The Baron in the Trees").
Allen's own ingenuity manifests itself principally in words, as readers of his second novel, out August 8, may discover. Principally but not exclusively. "The Grand Complication" (Theia: An Imprint of Hyperion, 360 pages, $24.95), as the new book is called, borrows its name from a watch created for Marie-Antoinette by that horological nonpareil Abraham-Louis Breguet. The timepiece figures in the plot of both novels, but the phrase also makes oblique reference to Allen's labyrinthine plot. Suffice it to say that in the second book (set in the present), one Henry James Jesson III, a devious gentleman author, is hard at work on "A Case of Curiosities," the novel Allen published nearly a decade ago. To finish it, Jesson needs Allen's alter ego, the reference librarian Alexander Short (Kurzweil, German for "pastime" or "diversion," breaks down literally as "short while"; "Alexander" explains itself). Jesson needs Alexander both for his detective-worthy research skills and as the living, breathing model for his fictional hero, the inventor Claude Page. Identity theft!
Wheels within wheels. Like "A Case of Curiosities," "The Grand Complication" dazzles with a host of mechanical toys and gizmos, one of which—a hand-powered "Roll-Player," made for reading scrolls—is Allen's own invention. (Sales motto: "Volumes of Higher Learning Operated By a Crank.") The copyright page of "The Grand Complication" carries the intriguing notice (perhaps unique of its kind): "'Roll-Player' patent pending."
You may consider that to register the gadgetry from your work of fiction with the Patent Office drives the notion of background research to rather an extreme. But perhaps no less was to be expected of a fabulist whose first novel, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle, did for the late 18th century "what John Fowles did for the 19th century with 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' and Umberto Eco did for the 14th with 'The Name of the Rose.'" The actual building of the Roll-Player was left to an engineer, Allen readily confessed as he extracted it from its foam-packed aluminum suitcase the other day. Still, the idea was entirely his own. "And actually going through the steps of filing for a patent helped me get into the world of the novel."
We were on our way to the nerve center of the New York Public Library system, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, where Allen completed "The Grand Complication" as a fellow of the generously endowed Center for Scholars and Writers. According to promotional material from the publisher, "much of the story unfolds in that very library."
Safe past Patience and Fortitude, leonine guardians of the steps, Allen and I rendezvous with Caroline Oyama, the library's manager of public relations, understandably aglow at the forthcoming publication.
"But the book doesn't say anywhere that it's set here!," she sings out in protest.
Well, where else could it be? The principal setting for the action is New York City. The inspiration is obvious—as are the fictional flourishes that make the library of Allen's imagination his own. The superscription above the entrance to the real Reading Room, for instance, is a long-winded bit of right-mindedness from John Milton. Allen substitutes a tag from the ancient Roman Horace: "Habent sua fata libelli" ("All books have their fates," in Allen's translation). The entrance to the stacks, in reality just an unmarked elevator door, in Allen's book bears the portentous legend from Dante, "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here!"
In the stacks. Detecting skills required.
Allen-Alexander is the one knows his way around, riffing on the zip tubes (still in use, more reliable than fax machines), juggling wooden blocks (still lying around from the old days, when space would be held for missing books), spelunking in the creepy "compact shelving"—mammoth lengths of moveable stacks between which the hapless or the unwary might be crushed to death.
"They can't crush you!," Ms. Oyama exclaims. "There's a safety floor, with pressure plates." After sending her back upstairs in the elevator, which she needs Allen to find, we investigate. Yeah, those pressure plates are pretty good. But a craft person could override them. A perfect murder in the stacks? Not, we agree, impossible. (The sheer drop to the ground from spiral staircases in the service area of the Reading Room might give you other homicidal ideas.)
It turns out that Allen had an Alexander, too: a reference librarian by the name of Rob Rucker, who later went on to organize a library somewhere in the Third World for the Peace Corps. "Rob took me down here before I started at the Center," Allen confesses. "In time, I got increasingly bold poking around in areas that are off limits." I observe that no one at any security checkpoint, least of all any guard in uniform, has paid us the least notice. Never have I felt more invisible. Allen grins: "Confidence plays a big part."
Here, Allen discovered the books on shorthand that proved so fertile an inspiration for "The Grand Complication." We finger the spines reverentially, then head for the conservation laboratory, operating theater and intensive-care unit for ailing books and documents. Nearing our destination, we pass a refrigerated vending machine loaded with Klondike Krunch bars and Good Toasted Almond pops—just the sort of viscous refreshment to warm the cockles of a conservator's heart.
Marc D. Reeves, head of the lab, is on the side of the angels, unlike the obstructionist Irving Grote, his demonic counterpart in "The Grand Complication." But like the God and Mephistopheles of Goethe's "Faust" (or God and Satan in the Book of Job), Reeves and Grote speak the same language. Books and documents consume them not only for the information they contain but the secrets that inhere in their very binding, ink, and paper. (They "read" with microscopes.) Not long ago, Mr. Reeves found a bee and an acanthus leaf sewn into the binding a medieval gradual: the models for illustrations in the book.
Ancient Mariner or Sheherazade? What spells our host weaves. But Allen and I had promised faithfully not to intrude on his lunch hour. I cast a discreet eye on my grandly uncomplicated Speedo watch.
"There's something I meant to show you," Allen as we regain the hallway. "It's on our way."
And back we go into the stacks, where he stops and gazes in awe—at what? "The wrought-iron shelving!" he says, eyes aglow. "Look! They're actually the structural support of the whole building. The shelves are the skeleton. The bookcase and the books are what actually keep the building standing. And the people who work here—they're its heart and soul."
The romance of libraries. Matter into metaphor. What makes this Kurzweil tick.