Interstitial art of any sort—that art which falls between the established boundaries of popularly accepted genres or even entirely disparate artistic media—is and has always been difficult to process for critics and audiences alike. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—a text some might dub the most famous work in the history of interstitial literature—was, for instance, less than favorably received throughout the duration of its serialized publication. The bulk of Alex Rose’s work—writing which recalls other interstitial masters of the postmodern era such as Italo Calvino and J.L. Borges—blurs the line between not only fiction and nonfiction, but between any number of literary genres: traditional narrative literary fiction, prose poetry, historical research, scientific taxonomy, science-fiction, mythology, ethnology, music criticism, and literary criticism, to name a few. One cannot help but recall Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a text in which the reader is challenged to distinguish fact from fiction on virtually every page. Where Rose’s body of work is concerned, this syncretic technique is nowhere more evident than in his collection The Musical Illusionist—marketed as a collection of short stories, but downright defiant of even that broad description. Arguably, this collection contains only two actual stories.
Alex Rose’s short story “Ostracon,” first published in the esteemed journal Ploughshares, was not only included in 2009’s Best American Short Stories collection, it was named by The National Book Critics Circle as “best of the best.” This is somewhat surprising because it is in this piece that Rose’s well-executed, ambitious and freewheeling prose is most toned down, most bridled. And it is nothing short of remarkable when it is discovered that Alex Rose has apparently published only four short stories: “Ostracon” in Ploughshares; “Book of Glass” and “The Musical Illusionist” in the aforementioned collection which, significantly, was self-published on an independent press Rose himself started; and “The Plagiarist,” which is available on Rose’s Hotel St. George Press’ website. Perhaps this dearth of well-published work is indicative of nothing more than the fact that, until “Ostracon,” Rose had yet to send the right piece to the right editor at the right time—contemporary publishing is in many ways an industry founded on serendipity, kismet. But perhaps it is, rather, indicative of the industry’s systemic difficulty with and resistance to interstitial literature. Once one has explored Rose’s oeuvre—which does not, as of 2010, take long—it is inevitable that one will come down on the side of the latter. The thread which connects all of Rose’s work is not only his syncretic construction, but also his supposition that the world of writing has hyper-specialized to such a degree that mongrelized texts like Rose’s have come to be regarded as beguiling and problematic at best, and both off-putting and unpublishable at worst.
“The Plagiarist” is the simplest of Rose’s stories, but a close reading reveals an inchoate version of the complexly syncretic texts—both The Musical Illusionist and “Ostracon”—which followed its publication. “The Plagiarist” opens with a telling epigraph stolen from Nabokov’s Dozen. “‘I have often noticed,’” Nabokov comments, “‘that after I had bestowed the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would…[become] more closely identified with my novel than with my former self’” (Plagiarist). Indeed, in suit, “The Plagiarist” is a story about the difficulty of delineations when one fully engages any text.
Told in the second-person, the reader is immediately drawn closer than third- or first-person narration allows. In Book XIV of Odyssey, Eumaeus the swineherd—the ideal citizen—is addressed in the second-person, perhaps propagandistically: as an almost subliminal method of indoctrination by which the reader comes to more closely identify with, thus maybe eventually imitate, that ideal citizen. In Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City, the second-person is used to disquiet the reader, to make more visceral the experience of insomnia, decadence, and degradation. Regardless of its intended ends, second-person narration goes immediately to work in blurring the boundaries between inside and outside a text. A line of a sort is blurred with the first pronoun of Rose’s story. But this is just the first of many blurrings.
In “The Plagiarist,” the reader is told that he or she works as a typist, inputting classic world literature into an electronic database. This lays the foundation for a typically postmodern work of metafiction, perhaps, but the story subverts that expectation and is more complex than that. You, the protagonist, struggle with the fact that your job has caused you to habitually refer to your own life in literary terms. You mention “a chapter of last night’s dream,” the wording of which, again, complicates matters (Plagiarist). Soon, it becomes clear that, by doing so, the titular plagiarist is you, the reader. “[T]he plot of your dream was itself a pale imitation of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Double, a gloomy book you’d recently uploaded,” the protagonist explains (Plagiarist). The protagonist then boards a train and spots an attractive lady reading a book, and he or she finds himself smitten. “Does she remind you of someone? No one in particular, anyway—more like an archetype or character you’ve come across. Why not give her a name?…Ylajali. It was the name Knut Hansun’s nameless narrator in Hunger gave to the beauty he kept spotting throughout the labyrinthine city” (Plagiarist). Already this story is a fiction (Rose’s text) about a nonfictional individual (you, the reader), who interprets his or her life in the idiom of fiction.
On a third level, one may infer from the story’s epigraph that Rose himself has lent to his characters and his fictional world elements from his own life—elements and characteristics which have perhaps for him, but certainly for his reader, ceased to have their primary significance in Rose’s own memory, instead becoming more closely associated with the world and individuals the story describes. What this boils down to is, by the second screen of type (“The Plagiarist” is only available online), Rose’s story is a fiction inspired by the life of a nonfictional individual (Rose’s own), about a fictional rendition of a nonfictional character (you, the reader), whose life has been hopelessly influenced by too much time spent reading fiction. Ylajali, of course, disembarks from the train, leaving behind the book she’d been reading. This text, entitled The Mystery of Mr. I (and fittingly narrated by the first-person’s “I”), complicates matters further, adding at least two more layers to this already tortuous description.
The tatty red paperback marooned on Ylajali’s seat turns out to be, more or less, a permutation of a pulp noir novel. Most of the text’s elements are staples of the genre: sultry widows, microfilm, skeleton keys, locked closets, broken bodies found in unlikely places, and tramp freighters. Each of these is left to fend for itself, out of context; each of these items or individuals, often described with a single sentence, is the germ of its own fiction—a trait which typifies Rose’s Musical Illusionist. Reportedly, The Mystery of Mr. I is terribly written. More interesting than its own prose, however, is its marginalia. “There are many underlinings and brackets and tiny cursive notes scribbled into the margins…[T]he work of at least three separate inks. Are these cryptic notes-to-self the product of successive readings by a single fan, or do they represent decades of varying ownership?” (Plagiarist). You, the reader, initially picked up the book as a way to maybe penetrate the consciousness of the beautiful woman who abandoned it, with whom you were momentarily tempted to commune. But what Rose’s reader finds is perhaps a plethora of consciousnesses—the notes range from simple inquiries, to literary allusions, to intratextual references, to pseudomedical suppositions.
After extended exposure to the paperback, “[a] strange thing happens as you read. Because you have been following the scrawled margin notes with the story itself, you begin to acquire the sense that you are reading one work; that both the novel and the comments on the novel are a single entity” (Plagiarist). The text within the text—The Mystery of Mr. I—has itself become confusing to Rose’s protagonist. Is it pulp or a more creative sort of literature? Or is it maybe a critical response to pulp literature? Can it be both simultaneously? “You have become suspicious of every sentence…[c]ould an author incorporate his own commentary into the very work?” (Plagiarist). This, of course, calls to mind Borges’ canonical “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”: a fictional piece pretending to be a literary criticism of a nonfictional text, the latter penned by a man obsessed with emulating not Cervantes’ fictional text, but the life of Cervantes himself, as understood by close reading of the original Quixote. It perhaps calls to mind the more recent postmodern work of both David Foster Wallace and Mark Z. Danielewski who both, through the use of extensive footnoting, create at least semi-syncretic texts: self-aware works of fiction or creative nonfiction which are simultaneously works of literary criticism—deconstructing themselves at the same time as they construct themselves. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, through intertextual marginalia, becomes both a memoir and a critical work.
Before the rather abstract and fantastical ending of Rose’s “Plagiarist,” the protagonist encounters a text within the text within the text. “Scanning the text…there is an intricate and quite technical description of a puzzle—presumably…an excerpted historical treatise of some sort” (Plagiarist). This historical text has something to do with “Algebra, or in Arabic, al-jabr, literally…‘the reunion of broken parts’” (Plagiarist). It happens that, upon examination, sections of this text within the text within the text turn out to be factual. At this point, it becomes difficult to understand if and how this could complicate matters further. Regardless, Rose’s point is made: if fiction, reality, and analysis of either are taken in toto to be broken parts of what was formerly a less-specialized (less genre-defined) literature, then Rose’s “Plagiarist” is certainly a reunion of broken parts. By the end of a story no more than 4,000 words, Rose has seamlessly layered autobiography; traditional literary fiction, pulp noir, and metafiction (some would define “interstitial literature” as loosely as that which spans the gaps between two genres, which would include even the now standard “romantic mystery” novel); and nonfictional commentary about the history of mathematics. “The Plagiarist” is a complex latticework, yes, but it pales in comparison to the inscrutable and enigmatic reunion of broken parts which is Rose’s Musical Illusionist.
The Musical Illusionist is an oddity for any number of reasons—not least of which is the fact that it is marketed by its publisher, on its dust jacket, as fiction when in many places it is certainly not. It cannot be forgotten that this publisher is Rose himself. Obviously, all fiction comprises autobiographical and nonfictional elements and, of course, it’s not always clear what is and what is not fiction—this, in fact, may be the point of “The Plagiarist.” Illusionist comprises twenty-two short pieces, yes, but it is a stretch to call twenty of them “stories.” Rose’s collection is a reunion of broken parts in that it appears to be an unapologetic pastiche of history, biography, medical/microbial taxonomy, music criticism, fiction, anthropology, &c., and it makes little attempt to obfuscate that fact.
Early chapters truncate mostly true stories of ancient cartographers, mathematicians, and theories of cosmogony. “Francis of Gaul” is about the history of Christian distrust for mathematics and sciences—especially once the concepts of both zero and infinity made their way into European Christian usage. Its concluding paragraphs describe a clearly fictional province called Havraska and their reluctance to except time as metered out with consistency upon the invention of the clock—its citizens preferring subjective time, a phenomenon which itself is explored in a nonfictional aside discussing the ancient Greeks, who indeed believed in both objective and subjective time. In the end, “Havraska province had been eroded by surrounding Moravia, forgotten by time” (Musical 16). “Early Strange Loops” details the errors and curiosities inherent to Aristotelian planetary motion theory. It makes mention of early theories of God as the Unmoved Mover who set the planets into orbit and modern scientific knowledge about the actual mathematics of orbit.
The book’s third selection, “The Reunion of Broken Parts,” follows the format of the entries which precede it. There is no shift in tone. However, centering on logical paradoxes and closing with five-hundred words on the mathematician who claimed his destroyed manuscript contained an equation that would put an end to them all, one might be chagrined to discover that it is completely fabricated. Without fact-checking, one would not know this. Discussion of infamous logical paradoxes such as Zeno’s Arrow aside, “Broken Parts” is a fiction, if not a story. But without reading the text’s back jacket, one might not know that the essays which precede it—with the exception of the few sentences on Havraska—are historically accurate, if elegantly poeticized by Rose’s dexterous use of the English language.
The text’s next five selections—“Land of the Xhalal,” “Oaxaxghana,” “The Fifth Island of Japan,” “Fairos,” and “Santanzas”—continue on in that same detached and clinical tone. They do not feature characters or plot, in any traditional sense of either word. They are anthropological studies of imaginary places. Ethnographic treatises on imaginary people. None of the described lands or tribes are or were ever real. Still, one has yet to find a proper character—one who is developed over more than a paragraph—or a proper plot—one with conflict, rising action, climax, and perhaps some denouement. Further into Illusionist, one encounters a chapter entitled “Micrographica Esoterica,” an eight-page zoological treatise on extinct and rare bacteria. Some entries in this treatise describe microbes or biological phenomena that are or were actually real. Some do not. Without a comprehensive microbiology textbook, one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Well into the text, there are no stories, per se. Only possibilities.
Again, one might think of Italo Calvino, whose If on a winter’s night a traveler’s central conceit is that the book one is reading—winter’s night itself—is made up of a dozen mismatched signatures, the thirty-two-page inserts which are glued to a spine to create a book. Each signature is the opening chapter of a completely different book; the text is held together and made coherent by a second-person framing narrative which describes your frustration in being constantly confounded by beginnings with no end. Or perhaps one might think of writers’ workshop exercise books like Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand, or Bernays and Painter’s What If?, which provide springboards for stories, but leave it to the reader to complete the stories themselves.
So, the question is begged: What is The Musical Illusionist? The book itself barely resembles traditional adult fiction texts. It is interspersed with lush full-color plates bearing lively images of artwork, and photographs of relics; several pages contain mathematic graphs, musical staves, or paradigms for linguistic conjugations. Its format is part-textbook, part-tour brochure—it resembles the glossy-paged minitexts on history and culture and customs which tourists skim before traveling for the first time to a foreign nation. The latter resemblance is certainly not coincidental. Illusionist is set up as a sort of companion text that is to be read during the reader’s subway ride through a secret night gallery called “The Library of Tangents.” In this way, The Musical Illusionist defines itself, but this is of little help for anyone whose objective is to situate the work in any one genre or category, narrow or broad. “It’s said…that unlike a conventional library, it is an archive not of history, but of possibility. You’ve heard it described as a vast catalogue of deviations—improbable histories, oblique paths, scientific anomalies” (8-9). While admittedly intriguing, none of this, however, necessarily implies that one will ever encounter a traditional story, and it prompts questions as to whether or not fiction is more than just the creation of inert phantasms. But Illusionist, if pursued, actually contains two texts which (arguably) qualify as stories. And it is the first of the pair, “Book of Glass,” which allows readers to begin an understanding of the nature of The Musical Illusionist as a whole.
“Book of Glass” is a direct cousin of Arabian Nights’ story of Scheherezade. While still devoid of developed characters or a well-developed plot, its primary subject is the history and description of an anomalous dark ages text. This tome, entitled Lady Makura and the Book of Glass, is described as “[o]ne peculiar narrative, a 1,200-odd page Japanese text” which may have “clairvoyantly anticipated” the evolution of literary form (65). Rose opens the essay by explaining that “[t]he great scope of narrative form has undergone innumerable permutations since its first flickerings in the human imagination” (64). He elaborates on this with a paragraph-long whirlwind history of fiction. The “earliest surviving fictions reveal an overwhelming preoccupation with cosmogony…songs, epics, folktales and myths concerned the origins of the universe and the forces…responsible (64). He then supposes that, after cosmogony and creation myths were sufficiently engrained in human psyches or exhausted of interest, fiction moved to the study of cultures and strange lands. After that, “the next major epoch sought to examine the mind…[t]his fascination with the subjective reached its culmination with the modernists, and was soon followed by an interest in…narrative form itself” (65). This whirlwind history is extraordinarily significant, but this is less than completely clear until one completes the entirety of Illusionist. More on this below.
In “Book of Glass,” Rose lays out a number of ingenious and unusual devices by which the unknown author of Lady Makura chooses to tell his or her stories—tales used to distract and soothe a repeatedly cuckolded husband. The earliest tales in the text within the text are indeed occupied with cosmogony and gods. In one, a monk attempts to climb to the heavens and the reader’s perspective of the tale changes with the monk’s perception of the earth below: the font shrinks until it is illegible. Another talks of a prince’s study of foreign cultures and customs—the reader is told that Lady Makura has been printed on paper pulped from the leaves of a foreign tree which, when examined by a fortune teller, told the story of that prince’s downfall. A later tale, presumably representative of that epoch of fascination with the mind, recalls Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and tells of a woman who has a hand-mirror in which her image remains the same while the world behind her changes. The text of this particular tale must be read with a mirror—it is printed backwards. “One was a murder mystery that only revealed the killer once its final page was folded into an origami pattern. Another was said to have contained only blank pages intended for the reader to imprint his own story” (67). As described, “Book of Glass” certainly sounds as if it anticipates the postmodern era of literature: a chapter of Danielewski’s prenominate House of Leaves requires a mirror to read; a short story in Dave Eggers’ collection How We Are Hungry comprises only blank pages and a title.
First and foremost, with “Book of Glass,” Rose suggests that there is room in literature for the interstitial, syncretic texts: the literary equivalent of griffins, manticores, chimeras, or hippogriffs. The story’s bigger purpose in the collection is only possibly realized (except perhaps by the very clever) once the sections of text which proceed after it have been completed. Illusionist has proceeded from entries on bizarre cosmogonies, to invented ethnologies, and the subway eventually ends up taking a pit stop, so to speak, in a section on mental deficiencies—psychoses and neuroses. Illnesses of the mind.
“Intratextual Confabulation” is a short essay detailing Korsakov’s Psychosis—a very real condition, and one which could make for fascinating fiction if fleshed out. The same could be said of “Dysanimagnosis,” which explores the titular condition, and its sister affliction, Capgras’ Syndrome. Then, as usual, Rose, in this section of his text, gets inventive. “Mnemonic Cartographia” and “Projective Multiple Personality Disorder” are entries which describe maladies nowhere to be found in the DSM-IV guide to psychiatry. Still, neither has plot or characters. Only possibilities. Illusionist concludes with the story “The Musical Illusionist”—a tale with plot, characters, development, and structure.
During the text of “Book of Glass” one comes to realize that the prose’s assertion is correct: Lady Makura and the Book of Glass appears to be a microcosmic version of the history of fiction. But it is also indisputably a microcosmic version of The Musical Illusionist itself: its sections containing confabulations—much like those of Korsakov’s sufferers—which are laid out according to this alleged structure of literary history. Cosmogony and creation; anthropology and ethnography; the mind, non-Euclidean mathematics, and the post-Darwin natural world; and finally, with “Illusionist,” literary form itself. One of Illusionist’s later stories, “Goliijo,” discusses the possibility of a city built like a fractal: each of its streets is a miniature version of its coastline, and each of its houses is shaped like a miniature version of its streets. It is a city of infinite regress. “Book of Glass” contains a miniaturized exemplar of a miniaturized version of literary history and it is, perhaps, the centerpiece of The Musical Illusionist, a text laid out in exactly the same fashion as “Book of Glass”—only slightly larger in scope. The Musical Illusionist and “Book of Glass” are both fractal literature, literature of (potentially) infinite regress, if such a thing is possible. “Book of Glass,” a central tale in the larger book, provides the keys to comprehension for Rose’s work and, perhaps his literary agenda, which is detailed by the book’s final story.
The book’s single semi-traditional story, “The Musical Illusionist,” takes place during the dawn of the modernist era. Its protagonist interstitial (music) composer Phelix Lamarck stands adamantly against the late-enlightenment’s unraveling of physics and metaphysics, astrology and astronomy which the narration calls “[t]he great movement toward specialization, quantification, and precision of measurement” (123). It is this movement toward specialization, represented in Illusionist by the sections on dementia and the late-enlightenment, which will eventually make the syncretic, the interstitial, problematic—taboo. The story’s protagonist Lamarck stages performances which are interstitial phenomena, each innovatively using the nontraditional to create some sort of spectacle. Usually, the theatre itself is an instrument: one performance seems to be a primeval version of surround sound which makes its audience dizzy and queasy; another has invented a method of distorting and amplifying the echoes of traditional instruments until they, the echoes, seem to be playing a completely different song, which sometimes overpowers the actual performers.
Lamarck’s entire artistic oeuvre is a nebulous thing which polarizes audiences and critics. He is entirely motivated by “the infusion of science with theater, illumination with fantasy” (125). His vision is syncretic. He wonders “[w]here [does] noise end and music begin?” (128). His final performances are experiments in synaesthesia—a psychological condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers a completely different sensory reaction: a noise, for instance, induces the visualization of color. And in fact, that is what his last performance does. It remains unclear to his audience which of the colors they see are being projected by hidden lamps, and which are hallucinated, provoked by the music. The narration says of him that, “None of Lamarck’s creations were meant to belong in any canon or repertoire, as they were all one of a kind events” (131). The fictional Phelix Lamarck does with his musical illusions precisely what Alex Rose does with his writing. Both experiences are reunions of broken parts. Lamarck believes noise and music should remain entangled and, in the end, he finds a way to (re)unite vision and sound. Thus, both “Illusionist” and Illusionist are clear in providing an answer to the question on which both end: “Have we hyper-specialized past the point where it benefits us?” (142).
Also at the end of “The Musical Illusionist,” there is a narrative passage which describes the more negative reactions to Lamarck’s interstitial compositions. “Strangely, it was the elite class, comprised mostly of artists and scientists,”—those most affected by and invested in what Rose calls specialization—“who found Lamarck’s work most disquieting. [B]oth groups were dividing and subdividing…fanning into ever-more specific schools…[while Lamarck] sought the very opposite, a synthesis of disciplines” (134). The phrase “synthesis of disciplines” describes Rose’s collection as well as it does the contents of the Lady Makura and the Book of Glass, and Lamarck’s fictional compositions. This idea, says the narration, was “a conviction which infuriated nearly everyone” (134). This synthesis of disciplines, in our postmodern age—a time during which so much is decided by abstract and decidedly non-artistic criteria such as commercial viability and marketability—when put into action, would perhaps not infuriate so much as it might alienate both publishers and readers (that is, if anyone published such material, allowing such negative reactions to take place).
Commercial publishers need to know what niche a work fills; on which shelf of the local Barnes & Noble will it be displayed? Fiction? Essays? History? Science? Or should it supplant the less-poetic poets, such as Bukowski, on the poetry shelf? Without a clear answer, they cannot market the text as a product to a generation of readers who are used to formulae—the police procedural novel, the tawdry romance, the loss and reaffirmation of faith narrative—and strict adherence to genre—essays, mystery, travel writing, and so on. Publishers do not know how to sell the syncretic, the interstitial; readers do not have a framework by which they can decipher it. Rose’s reunion of broken parts sounds romantic, revolutionary, and to some, ingenious. But perhaps he is right: the world has hyper-specialized to the point where there is no room for something so boldly interstitial as The Musical Illusionist. This is why “Ostracon” succeeded where, otherwise, Rose seems to have so far failed—in the commercial world.
“Ostracon” is neither so ambitious nor anomalous as the syncretic fractal undertaking that is The Musical Illusionist. It’s also not as labyrinthine as “The Plagiarist.” What it is, however, is both Rose’s most traditional story, and his most prestigiously published. Its protagonist—like “The Musical Illusionist,” it actually has one—is Katya: an old Jewish woman suffering from some form of dementia, very probably Alzheimer’s. But despite its restrained nature, the prose is still identifiably Rose’s. Aside from Rose’s trademark attention to assonance and alliteration, the text of “Ostracon” is most definitely syncretic.
“Ostracon” was traditional enough to make the Best American series—with the exception of Best American Non-Required Reading, the series is an institution which rarely embraces the experimental. In fact, in the anthology’s introduction, series editor Heidi Pitlor says specifically of Rose’s story that it “juxtaposes one moment in an elderly woman’s life with snippets about the history of medicine, the Hand Dynasty, and World War I. So much conflict! Too depressing! Doesn’t flow!” (Foreword x). But she then praises it for its “perfect rhythm” (x). Pitlor also says—though not explicitly in reference in reference to “Ostracon”—that it “pushed voice to some limit” (ix). And of its author, she says she was “thrilled to watch [him] quiet [his] years of grammar lessons and writing workshop rules about showing and not telling” (ix). “Ostracon” proceeds in fits and starts, chronologically, but unevenly, and it is accurate to say that it does a fair bit of “telling” where most writers consider anything other than “showing” verboten. Yet Rose’s story manages all of this in a way that alienates neither publishers, nor readers.
“Ostracon” opens with two small sections related to the main story. The first is a picture of a confused Katya searching for her misplaced glasses. The second is a description of an infrastructure-revealing hole cut by repairmen into the ceiling of her old house—by the end of the story, a well-developed symbol for Katya’s brain itself. Even between these sections, both of which are eventually connected and revealed to be part and parcel of the same main narrative, there is a leap. Even the simpler narrative segments of “Ostracon” are abstruse. But even more startling is the interlude which comes after the ensuing asterisk break. “Writes the Russian neurologist,” it clunkily begins, “Alexander Luria: ‘I shall never forget a case in which a man wounded…could easily read his surname “Levsky”…but was completely unable to read the much simpler word “lev” (lion) which was not fixed to the same degree in his memory’” (Ostracon 276). Immediately followed by another asterisk break, the central story resumes. This is jarring and bizarre at first to readers unfamiliar with Rose. What do the obscurer facts buried in back issues of Russian neurological journals have to do with Katya or her repairmen? There are nine of these interludes, each an oblique speed bump of obvious nonfiction in the road of Rose’s more sentimental fictional story.
If diagrammed, “Ostracon” looks like this:
A=Sections about Katya and her husband, in which some are flashbacks.
B=Sections about the workmen repairing the roof.
Interlude #1: Russian neurology
A B A
Interlude #2: The English medical lexicon
Interlude #3: The Han Dynasty
Interlude #4: Italian alchemy and chemical stains to detect degenerative diseases
Interlude #5: Machine guns on World War I fighter jets
Interlude #6: The English medical lexicon
Interlude #7: Electronic brain stimulation experiments
A B A A
Interlude #8: How memory works
A B A
Interlude #9: A gardener’s documented description of losing his mind
A A A A
This looks extraordinarily strange when laid out as such, but Rose does, in “Ostracon,” strike that functional rhythm for which Pitlor credits him. This rhythm, it turns out, is the result of Rose’s fabled reunion of broken parts. After that first medico-historical interlude, a second is interjected, dealing with the entry of the noun “reflex” into the English medical lexicon—a reader willing to suspend disbelief and give the story a fair shake might say that those two are connected. But the third interlude is an encyclopedia-style data dump about the cultural practices of ancient Chinese soldiers. “During the Han Dynasty, Chinese soldiers wore mirrors over their breastplates to ward off wicked spirits. If the mirrors broke, the warriors would grind up the shattered glass and ingest it, so that its magic would protect them from within” (277). This is true, unrelated to the story, unrelated to any of the other interludes and, seemingly, totally out of place. Except that it is not.
Rose’s familiar interstitial method is particularly well-suited to tackling a story about the nature of a degraded memory. Interlude six describes the entry of the word “synapse” into the English medical lexicon and makes it clear that what syncretic structure like this compels the reader to do: he or she is expected to read these interludes as invaluable synaptic connections between the sections which tell Katya’s story. They are, on first blush, astonishingly random and unrelated to the story or each other. But, when one looks closer, there is indubitably a certain rationale which links them.
The story’s titular ostracon—a stone tablet upon or into which a story has been painted or carved—is broken and stored in the couple’s armoire, their own Library of Tangents. Inside the armoire, Rose lays out items a number of odd relics. Within, there are “fragments of pre-Columbian textiles, a beetle entombed in a bulb of amber, a lock of Madame Curie’s hair…a vial of perfume recovered from a sunken barge, an open letter postmarked to a Ukrainian village that no longer exists…a jar of gallstones…[a] bullet from one of the revolvers used to shoot Grigori Rasputin. A diamond smuggled from Kiev in the stomach of a boy who’d swallowed it in a ball of wax” (277-8). In The Musical Illusionist, each would certainly have merited a chapter of their own. Instead, Rose bridles his interstitial style and restrains himself, allowing just this single luxuriant paragraph describing these items. Relegated to decoration in a more traditional short story, they become irresistibly idiosyncratic detail.
Displayed centrally in the armoire is the ostracon. It is old and broken. Rose describes its surface: “There is a narrative of some sort running across the grid of panels, though the events aren’t clear, not with so many sections missing” (279). Here, with the ostracon, Rose has found a traditional fiction writer’s use for one of the curiosities that play protagonist in most of the selections of Illusionist. It reflects the degraded state of Katya’s own synapses—the narrative of her own life is increasingly impossible to descry with so many sections missing. What both Katya’s memory and the ostracon need to be complete is to be rejoined with the pieces they are now missing.
“Ostracon,” though undeniably bridled when considered alongside of the rest of Rose’s oeuvre, still serves to further his agenda of syncretism. It is not as forthright about its resistance to hyper-specialization as is The Musical Illusionist, but perhaps it is, because of this, a more effective way to argue his point. Katya’s memory told an interesting story which, in the end, has become tragically incomplete and, thus, less interesting. The same could be said of the ostracon. But with his award-winning story, Rose demonstrates a method of meliorating the losses which come in tow of the former problem. He can tell Katya’s story because he reunites broken parts. Call the interludes glue, or shims, or grafts—whatever the metaphor. Regardless of one’s desired analogy, what allows the plot of “Ostracon”—a very familiar one for avid readers of contemporary literary fiction—to move forward in a way which feels fresh, uncontrived, defamiliarized is the segments which, according to the unspoken artistic rules against which both Rose and his Lamarck have struggled, don’t belong there. And to do this—to reinvigorate an increasingly hackneyed story (perils of dementia)—Rose has had to farm in help, so to speak, from outside the genre. A specialist’s telling of this story would have been detrimental to its essence. What it required was the synthesis of disciplines ordered by Phelix Lamarck.
With this newfound subtlety of technique, Rose has earned for himself a place in contemporary literature’s fickle spotlight. If he takes advantage of it while it lasts, and keeps producing stories which incrementally introduce marketing departments and the reading masses to interstitial literature, he may yet make some progress in his crusade for anti-specialization. Stories like “Ostracon” open the metaphorical door just enough that a beguiling light is allowed to trickle into a dim and dusty, if well-organized, room. For some of the curious, this will be enough: these bold souls will follow that meager light and discover enthralling texts that bend every rule in the book. But with just a couple more well-published texts like “Ostracon”—gentle nudges allowing more and more of that strange light to flood that fusty room—Rose and others like him might clear the way for a generation of bold interstitial craftsmen. Perhaps that detrimental specialization that picked up startling speed in the late-1800s is not irreversible after all. If Rose succeeds in his perceived agenda, if the syncretic became even marginally acceptable, then maybe, at least, the next author of a collection as adventurous as The Musical Illusionist will not have to found his own press to disseminate his words.
Pitlor, Heidi. “Foreword.” Best American Short Stories. Ed. Alice Sebold. New York: Houghton
Rose, Alex. The Musical Illusionist. New York: Hotel St. George Press, 2007.
Rose, Alex. “Ostracon.” Best American Short Stories. Ed. Alice Sebold. New York: Houghton
Rose, Alex. “The Plagiarist.” HotelStGeorgePress.com. http://hotelstgeorgepress.com/2007/10/ the-plagiarist.