December 23, 2020: “The Musical Illusionist” by Alex Rose

Happy day to you, Story366!

We’ve had a major snooping problem in the household. Yesterday, I put my book dow on the couch in the receiving room, the one that’s right next to the Christmas tree. I went into the other room for something, then heard my youngest boy yell out, “Dad, are you going to read on the couch in the receiving room?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you read somewhere else? I want to do something in the receiving room and need to be alone.”

“Okay.”

His failing here was that I needed to retrieve my book from the couch. When I went in to get it, I saw him standing with a roll of Scotch tape, looking coy, looking guilty. I then looked down to his feet and saw one of his presents—the ones from us, which we’d put under the tree earlier that day. One of the corners of the package was clearly ripped, about two square inches, but was resealed with tape, sloppily, like a seven year old would do. I then examined his other boxes and they all had similarly patched leaks.

Our son had opened all his Christmas presents to see what was inside. He was also awful at covering it up.

It gets worse. One of our new cats, Wrigley, has taken to sleeping under the tree, on the skirt, and our son blamed this cat for opening all the packages. He was just taping them shut again so Wrigley wouldn’t get in trouble. That was his story and he was sticking to it.

I don’t know if there are scientifically acknowledged stages of snooping like there are for grief, but his denial soon morphed into bargaining. He knew what one of he presents was, thanked us for buying it for him, and later reasoned that since he knew what it was, there wasn’t any reason to wait until Christmas morning to just rip into it and play with it right there. That wasn’t happening for a variety of reasons, which then jettisoned him into the next stage: anger. He was actually mad at us for not letting him open and play with his Christmas present, on December 22, after he’d been caught peeking.

If you’re saying that we shouldn’t have put the presents out, two or three days early, maybe you’re right. At the same time, we’re not mad at him for snooping, as the Karen and I each did our own fair share of snooping when we were kids ( … and after). Sure, I wasn’t thrilled when he started yelling at me for not letting him open that package last night. Did I want to take some vegetables (or cat poop, as Karen suggested) and wrap them up after that, leaving them for him to discover later? Yes, but that would just waste wrapping paper (and my time), so we let him off with a warning, getting him to admit what he did and apologize this morning.

Overall, it’s just nice to have kids, to have something like this—innocence spiced with mischief—as a story to tell. One day our boys will be grown, gone, no presents for them under the tree anymore, nobody sneaking into rooms with Scotch tape or flashlights. Just glad to be here right now, with them all, ready for a nice couple of days together. Let’s make some memories.

Today I read from Alex Rose‘s 2007 collection, The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, out from Hotel St. George Press (a division of Akashic). This collection is hard to really describe as a typical “short story collection,” as it’s more of an interwoven smattering of fables, following a specific mythology that Rose has created for this project. There’s not even a table of contents, let alone the term short story anywhere to be seen. Still, I’m happy I read from this book today, discovering what Rose has created for us. Let’s discuss.

The book has a preface—one that picks up again after each story/chapter—after a diagram on the opening page that reads The Library of Tangents. The preface then explains what this library is—in italics, with the text stretching from the left page to the right page (took me a bit to catch onto that)—written in an encyclopedic voice, describing the library as a real place, but as a place of wonder. Just as interesting is the journey to the library, on a special train, through the woods, in an isolated and undisclosed part of the world.

The stories, then, read like entries in this encyclopedia-type presentation, called “Special Exhibitions,” and there are seven of them in the book, starting with “Special Exhibition I: In the Fullness of Time.” There is always a title page to lead things off, including a diagram, subtitle, and caption. Then the story begins, sometimes with chapter titles/subtitles, sometimes utilizing Roman numerals. “In the Fullness of Time” is really scientific, exploring some manufactured (but real-sounding) theories and people in the world of numerology and time. Take Francis of Gaul, who posited that keeping time, let alone having a number system, was blasphemous, to attempt to put order on something so natural. Francis’ theories took hold for a bit, giving his contemporaries something to think about, but eventually, he was dismissed and executed, as clearly, the world and the church liked having its numbers—think seven days of the week, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and other such damning evidence found in scripture.

The last story is the title story, “The Musical Illusionist.” This one traces the life and career of Welsch inventor Phelix Lamark. Lamark was credited with changing music, though eventually became forgotten, necessitating this story/entry at the Library of Tangents.

What Lamark did, more or less, is convert sound into color, into visuals. A son of a musician, Lamark was more interested in the science of sound than he was making sounds, in making music. He is able to, early in his career, find a connection between the senses, particularly between light and sound. He finds a sponsor, a rich Italian named Samson Peterdi. Peterdi’s money allows him to construct Elysium Laboratories, where he’s able to engineer machines and also form an orchestra. His first exhibit—note, not concert—gets mixed reviews, audience members hearing strange music coming from places outside the stage, while also smelling something foul (another sense touched upon).

Another exhibit—which is supposed to be a musical experience, remember—features a screen and a light show, something that reminds me of old psychedelic light shows, e.g., that river tunnel sequence in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. To note, the room is completely silent the entire time, save the audience’s reactions. Do people like this? No, not really, and eventually, Lamark is accused of connections to the occult (this is the 1860s, by the way).

Lamark’s legacy is tarnished, and if anyone remembers him at all, it’s not positive. He and his work receive a resuscitation in the 1920s, but in the end, music is music, not something we see (not until MTV, anyway), but the story’s a cool trip, reminiscent of Steven Milhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (which might be intentional, given the title), focusing on the rise and fall and legend of another kind of genius.

The Musical Illusionist by Alex Rose is certainly a different kind of story collection, an interesting exploration into what fiction can be. That’s a term I’ve used before, something I saw whenever I run across something different. But I’ll stand by it. The story aspect here is present in a broad sense, with Rose’s concept and straight-man voice the real stars, all of it an excuse to explore science, art, and religion, via his characters and their endeavors. Glad I ran across this book, experienced it for a bit.

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