Allen Kurzweil wants to talk about lots of things: eighteenth-century erotic toys, enamel painting, the ethnography of pop-up books. But ask him why it took nine years to follow up his widely praised polymath's first novel, A Case of Curiosities, and he's at a loss. Back in 1992, he was already outlining The Grand Complication -- an erudite exploration of a librarian's obsessions -- promising he'd deliver it in two or three years. What happened? "My interest in so many different disciplines," he says deliberately, like a physicist struggling to express an elusive concept, "ended up taking me away from the actual writing."
Two years ago, Kurzweil was 800 pages into the book when a funny thing happened: He won a fellowship at the New York Public Library as one of the inaugural class at the Center for Scholars and Writers. Given his passion for libraries -- "I can remember just about every library I've been in," he boasts, "the way a food critic can itemize every menu in Paris" -- being a fellow there might seem like a boon to the "actual writing." But while adjusting to a sleek oak-and-glass office that came with an Aeron chair and a $50,000 stipend, the 40-year-old Kurzweil freely explored -- among other topics -- antique clocks, pneumatic tubes, the Dewey decimal system, Japanese tattoo patterns, and librarians' memoirs. Before long, his oft-tinkered-with novel's setting began to look suspiciously like the Beaux-Arts masterpiece on 42nd Street. "It enriched the narrative, but it slowed down getting the book done," he says. "In a sense, it screwed me up terribly."
Kurzweil's arcane fixations run deep. The Upper East Side-bred son of Viennese Jewish refugees, he hardly remembers his father, a mechanical engineer who died when Allen was 5. "He would spend all day in machine shops, designing apparatuses of one kind or another," Kurzweil says. "Then he'd come home and sit down with me, and we would sketch out these Rube Goldberg contraptions." Kurzweil, however, has nothing of his father's except for a pocket watch that once belonged to his grandfather. "But I would sign over my royalties for one of those drawings," he says.
Things changed when Kurzweil's father died. The family, which had been living in Italy, returned to the States. By the time Allen entered adolescence, his mother, Edith, had met William Phillips, the co-founder and, at 93, still officially the editor-in-chief of Partisan Review. She became an editor there, and the two eventually married.
"I can remember just about every library I've been in," boasts Allen Kurzweil, who researched his novel for nearly a decade, "the way a food critic can itemize every menu in Paris."
"William is a great man, but very difficult," Kurzweil says. "It was a fruitful but combative upbringing. The combative spirit that the PR crowd is known for was not exactly absent from our apartment. There was a lot of Maoist rhetoric in the house in the late sixties, and a lot of neoconservative rhetoric in the eighties."
After graduating from Yale, Kurzweil studied Italian Fascism for a bit but drifted back to his first love -- mechanics, which fueled his infatuation with Enlightenment Europe. But his version -- the one in his novels -- was governed by old-world father figures fiddling in archaic workshops.
A Case of Curiosities follows Claude Page, an eighteenth-century watchmaker's son apprenticed to an eccentric defrocked abbé. The old man teaches him how to make elaborate watches and toys -- the most intricate being pornographic pieces with names like Bucolic Frolic and Niece on Swing With Dog. In The Grand Complication, the mentor figure (the effete antiquarian Henry James Jesson III) lures the librarian Alexander Short away from a saucy French wife (whose passions include erotic pop-up books) and into a fruitless search for eighteenth-century watchmaker Breguet's masterpiece -- known as the Marie Antoinette.
Perhaps to prove his mechanical bona fides, Kurzweil himself built many of the objects in his new novel: some of those pop-up books (including an attempt at the Kama Sutra) and a player-piano-like machine for note-taking (for which Kurzweil is applying for a patent under Jesson's name). He even had his own French wife model a cat suit (with concentric circles chalked over her crotch) worn by the French wife in the novel.
"Machines have a bad rap," Kurzweil says. "There can be an almost haunting beauty to them." And there's something nostalgically simple about the machines Kurzweil futzes with. "I use a computer," he says, "but I have no idea how it works. The eighteenth century was the last moment in which anyone could presume to understand the world and how it worked."
Allen Kurzweil still wears his expired all-access fellowship pass to the lion-guarded library. Within the service area that bisects the library's Main Reading Room, a tiny metallic elevator takes us straight down through eight levels of books. As we walk through the stacks, pneumatic tubes and conveyor belts hum around us. Victorian marble and cast iron give way to a mid-century microfiche aesthetic as we pass through an inclined Kubrickian white corridor into a vast expanse of compact shelving. Finding the right row, Kurzweil presses a gleaming button, two shelves part, and an aisle opens before us. Pressure plates were added some time ago to ensure that roaming readers wouldn't be crushed by bookshelves. Kurzweil doesn't think anyone's ever been killed (though his novel leaves that open to question).
"Ah, here it is," Kurzweil says, pulling out D. P. Lindsley's The Note-Taker, second edition (1877). "This is basically the largest shorthand collection in the world," he says with a proprietary pride. Alexander Short composes diaries in Lindsley's obscure variant of shorthand. Kurzweil tracked down the last living Senate reporter to have used it and had him transcribe some text, which now adorns the book. Authenticity -- the kind that requires exhaustive research -- is just another obsession.
Packing up his work for the summer at Brown (where he's a visiting fellow), Kurzweil is reticent about future projects, but he hints at a serious departure from the historical arcana. "I've got a couple of much more contemporary projects," one of which will be nonfiction, he says, "a small study of an exemplary life." The next time I talk to him, though, he's troubled by a more immediate concern: "I lost that damn ID" -- his expired fellowship pass. "I have a sort of totemic relationship to it."