Since histories are written by the victors, biographies by the unavoidably biased, and autobiographies and memoirs by the annoyingly selective, it pays to be wary of the truth-telling claims of much nonfiction. Correspondingly, outright fiction transcends concerns for facts while, ironically, seeking deeper truths.
The trade-offs are clear and apparently fascinating to Alex Rose, whose debut book of fiction is titled The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales (Hotel St. George Press, 143 pages, $15). His most obvious influences are the fabulist imaginings of Jorge Luis Borges, but he also enjoys spinning out philosophical ramifications like Milan Kundera and Umberto Eco and creating mythological and metaphysical what-ifs like the prose poems of W.S. Merwin. In other words, the whole gamut of post-modern literary permissions is his playground.
Regarding truth and falsity, the central indulgence Rose delights in here is the mind-expanding — and existentially accurate — opportunity to plunge readers down little three- or four-page rabbit holes, so we don’t know where reality leaves off and fantasy begins. As with the sometimes accurate, sometimes imaginary exhibitions of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, at every turn he wants us to feel as alert and curious as Alice.
We encounter a tribe on islands near Madagascar who have developed reasons to speak in sign language, although they are not deaf. We meet 9th-century algorist Hassan al Jafar, who attempted to refute Zeno’s paradox and other “accursed insolubles.” A man develops an “astigmatism in the nervous system” that renders him unable to perceive the music of Chopin, specifically his mazurkas.
Unless we are reading with an encyclopedia at our side or are Googling obscure names on every page, we’re left to our own devices to figure out what’s so and what’s spoof — and when that distinction really matters in this literary cabinet of curiosities.Since these descriptions and explanations are usually quite intricate, their brevity is as merciful as their subjects are intriguing — each tale grabs us like the ancient mariner latching onto Coleridge’s wedding guest, but we get a relative haiku instead of an interminable disquisition.
These concentrated packages of musings and running metaphors can make for pretty intense reading, but the writings are organized so that several together discuss an area of concern, such as language, the nature of time, or the overlapping of body and mind. They are collected as “Special Exhibitions” in a Library of Tangents, which is described as “a vast catalog of organized deviations — improbable histories, oblique paths, scientific anomalies — documents whose fidelity to truth remains elusive.”
As if to convince us that ideas are physical, tangible, the library — particularly its vast subterranean network of subway connections — is described in meticulous, Gothic detail. “You will pass over and between functioning railroad tunnels, seaweed-entwined bridge pilings, rocky caves, swinging faunal gardens, schools of undulating jellyfish,” we are told in one interlude between sections. Rose enjoys piling up images that bump into each other to poetical or at least surreal effect, such as “submerged canoe oars, wristwatches, tarnished handmirrors, deteriorating dolls, faded magazines, the shells of roman candles,” which in this case comprise riverbank flotsam.