When we think of libraries, images of dark, musty-smelling rooms lined with
rows of bookcases and reading tables come to mind. Librarians check books
out, check books in, and put books on shelves when nothing else is going on.
They sit at desks waiting for the next patron to raise his or her voice
above a whisper, shush that person and then continue reading a book or
answering an occasional question.
But in his novel The Grand Complication, author Allen Kurzweil convinces
readers that libraries have come a long way since those days, and that
librarians are far removed from the meek spinster-type Donna Reed played in
"It's a Wonderful Life." Today, librarians need graduate degrees to work in
any community library, much less The New York Public Library where
Kurzweil's narrator, Alexander Short, is employed. Short's graduate work comes in handy as he makes use of the library's
resources to uncover the mysterious disappearance of a watch known as the
Marie Antoinette. Moonlighting for the rich and eccentric Henry James Jesson
III, Short risks losing his day job, as well as his marriage, when his
methods for locating the watch go beyond normal library research.
Far removed from Kurzweil's successful first novel, A Case of Curiousities
(Kurzweil must like the title for he managed to work it into this book),
which took place in 18th century Europe, The Grand Complication's high-tech
world of research can be mind-numbing. The intricacies of computer programs
and cataloging systems can leave the layperson feeling much like Ms. Reed's
character would had she been catapulted into the 21st century and charged with finding a job. Even with a copy of the ALA's (American Library Association)
handbook, finding a way around the library, as well as Kurzweil's story, can
prove overwhelming. Having spent much time at the New York Public Library
(Kurzweil received a fellowship from the Center for Scholars and Writers at
the New York Public Library), the author may have forgot about his readers
whose use of library facilities amount to browsing shelves and checking out
a book or two a month.
Kurzweil's glimpse into the world of library science is given reprieve from
time to time thanks to the author's obvious humor. But his numerous
references to works of literature, much of which is unknown to the common
reader, can leave one feeling, well, a little stupid. One has to wonder if
The Grand Complication is not merely the title of a simple story about a man
looking for a watch, but also a true example of the author's wit.