February 2008

Andrea Chmielewski


The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales by Alex Rose

Starting on the very first page of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, Alex Rose makes it clear to the reader that he has crafted a different sort of fiction collection. Rather than introducing the reader to a world filled with fictional characters that will propel the book forward, Rose instead addresses the reader directly, positing a trip on a secret subway that will take us to the Library of Tangents, an underground archive of "organized deviations" that becomes the closest thing we will ever see to a real character within the book. This introduction, which breaks formal conventions by spreading across two pages and forcing the reader into the unfamiliar method of skipping across the margin between pages to complete sentences, is like being strapped into a roller coaster -- we can't see exactly what the track looks like, but we have a pretty good idea of what lies ahead by the way we are being prepared.

What lies ahead in The Musical Illusionist is a mash-up of nonfiction and fiction, the historical and the fantastic bleeding together in sections with titles like "Parablepsis," "Enchanted Looms," and "Picture This," representing the different exhibitions at the Library of Tangents. The reader must quickly learn to accept that trying to decipher any actual fact from the musings of the author will lead to nothing but disappointment; in order to enjoy the book, you must check any skepticism at the door. And then, even if you manage to eradicate every last bit of incredulity from your mind, your travels through the Library of Tangents will be a series of peaks and valleys, with exhibitions that range from the beautifully rendered to the merely benign.

Some of the most brilliant passages in the book come in the beginning, such as a passage in the second section (Special Exhibition II: Ultima Thule) that concerns itself with a race of people who all have photographic memories. We, as visitors of the Library, are asked to “imagine every trivial fragment of even one day’s worth of experience occupying a place in your mind. Your grocery bill. The obligatory chitchat with your neighbor… every beat of existence swallowed and inscribed forever in your brain.” Later, it seems as though the exhibitions devolve into the purely fantastical, and as the veneer or plausibility wears thin, it becomes harder and harder to sustain the air of whimsy that Rose wishes us to have as we move through his Library. When the author posits the existence of an ancient, lost text that “foreshadow[s] the course of future storytelling,” any joy in Rose’s creativity is lost in knowing that it simply isn’t true. As in more traditional forms of fiction, even the most extravagant plot developments must still have a kernel of truth to them in order to keep the interest of the reader. The best parts of the book are those where the whimsical notions fly like kites tethered to the ground with just the slightest string of reality. All too often, though, it feels as though that string snaps.

The Musical Illusionist reads like a collection of historical tall tales. If you are looking for a traditional fiction read, look on. But if the idea of jumping on a train and traveling through a museum in book form, catching glimpses of the fantastic as it passes by your window, strikes your fancy, then Rose’s debut collection might be the book you are searching for.

The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales by Alex Rose
Hotel St. George Press
ISBN: 0978910311
143 pages