Fiction: A Literary Wonderlandby Karen Rester
Alex Rose, The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales (Hotel St. George Press, 2007)
A European city abandons all forms of timekeeping and is eventually forgotten by time. An entire island population, exposed to toxic waste, becomes so hypersensitive to light that a slight shock from a doorknob becomes “a splendid miniature lightning storm.” The amnesic DB, suffering from something called “intra-textual confabulation,” unknowingly patches the holes in her memory with snippets from the films and books she’s seen and read. The twist: that patients with this disorder who are asked to recall a novel they’ve read blindly fill in what they can’t remember with fragments of the memories they had lost and in this way are able to reconstruct their entire pasts.
In the title story, and the book’s most developed, the fictitious Phelix Lamark, a 19th century composer with polymathic tendencies, is obsessed with the intersections of musical instruments and sensorial systems, and by extension the endless permutations of science and art. He denounces the West’s tendency to atomize them into increasingly specialized fields and his theatrical performances, mystical fusions of music and mechanics, are attempts at subverting this. This is also one of the story collection’s central themes and Alex Rose, consciously or not, manages to create a similar effect with the book itself.
After gaining notoriety for his performances of “musical illusion,” Lamark’s ideas culminate in his masterpiece Chromatica, which, in its ability to evade mass representation, sounds like an anthem for post-modernism:
“People recorded categorically incompatible accounts of the same event—trenchant marching drums, biting piccolo jabs, whispering string glissandos, hoarse choral moans, thundering trumpets. Many vowed they’d heard nothing like it, though a few wrote of its strange familiarity—‘a haunting convergence of forgotten lullabies,’[…] One woman, later revealed to be color-blind, claimed to have heard nothing at all, and was stunned to see those around her so transfixed. No two people seemed to have heard the same piece.”
Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these anecdotes could spawn a library of novels, though unlike the former’s more focused effort Rose seems to have packed into his book everything that has ever fascinated him, and reading it can feel as dazzling and exhausting as a day at the museum. Not surprisingly, the stories are housed in something called the Library of Tangents, a maze of subterranean “exhibition halls” that act as the book’s framing device. A subway shuttles us from one story to the next through “a network of unused tunnels lying like roots beneath the city,” bringing to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s manifesto for rhizomatic fiction.
Also relevant: The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles whose bizarre exhibits are peppered with factual errors and assume the same ‘cabinet of curiosities’ aesthetic, and comics writer Alan Moore’s illustrated novel Voice of the Fire, which blends historical fact with large swaths of his imagination. Like Moore, Rose brings his visual acuity to Illusionist—he’s also a filmmaker—incorporating images of ancient maps, medical etchings and illuminations, such as work by Renaissance visionary Hildegard von Bingen and 16th century mystic philosopher Robert Fludd.
The Musical Illusionist falls somewhere between Luis Borges and Milorad Pavić in its blurring of history and fiction. Like Borges, Rose creates miniature worlds that read like allegories, lost histories or, in Rose’s case, the dreams of a mad scientist. He constructs geographies, invents microscopic life forms and sews together neurological disorders to create more fantastical ones. It’s the kind of apocrypha that cloaks itself in the voice of the detached scholar; though the whimsy is that of the fall of Icarus onto Bruegel’s canvas. Rose vividly and ingeniously rewrites history, like a cartographer redrawing the lines of a city—and imbuing it with the force of his imagination.