Sunday, January 24, 2016

Abracadabra, Anyone?: Nosov’s Curly Brackets

I guess the best brief summary of my feelings about Sergei Nosov’s Фигурные скобки (Curly Brackets) would be something like “an enjoyable disappointment.” Enjoyable because I enjoy Nosov’s humor and am a sucker for some good existential, metaphysical comedy set at a conference in wintry St. Petersburg. But a disappointment because Curly Brackets felt a little flawed, structurally speaking. I don’t begrudge Nosov the National Bestseller prize he received last year: as I mentioned back when the NatsBest was awarded, he’s been a finalist for several prizes over the years, so the NatsBest feels more like an award for a successful decade than recognition for just one book.

And so. Curly Brackets concerns a mathematician, Kapitonov, who travels to St. Petersburg for a magician conference. These aren’t just any magicians, though, they’re micromagicians, people who do close-up magic (there’s a bit in English on Wikipedia) rather than events on large stages. Beyond that, our Kapitonov is mentalist, someone who figures out (literally) what two-digit numeral a person is thinking of. The conference attracts quite a group of characters, including The Architect of Events, The Devourer of Time, and Mister Necromancer. Nosov certainly did this reader a favor by making sure Kapitonov was as clueless about his colleagues as I: that gave Nosov a nice chance to explain micromagic in ways that feel organic to the book’s plot.

And then there’s the conference swag, which includes a little suitcase with a magic wand—the wand’s even labeled, probably because it’s just a run-of-the-mill chopstick, which makes it doubly magical, I suppose—and a copy of a book that surely must be Тайная жизнь петербургских памятников (The Secret Lives of Petersburg Monuments). None other than Sergei Nosov wrote a book with that title; Nosov loves slipping something meta into his novels. Beyond that, there are conference details, formal meetings and sessions, awkward conversations among people who don’t know each other, and Vodoemov, the somewhat mysterious and nefarious organizer who invited Kapitonov and tries to push him into a leadership position. What makes this conference unlike most others—beyond micromagicians showing off—is that there’s also a death that involves mentalism. Can comments from a necromancer be far behind?!

What didn’t work for me in Curly Brackets (and, yes, I’m oversimplifying here) is the chunk of the book from which the title is taken: while in Petersburg, Kapitonov visits with a friend, who gives him her deceased husband’s journal to read. He claims to have been taken over by an outside force and made into someone other than himself. He’s found a peculiar loophole, though: whatever he writes in triple curly brackets remains secret from that force. The journal has some moderately interesting moments—and feels like it had potential to become its own book—but, within the context of Curly Brackets, the novel, I found it utterly and immediately forgettable. I wanted to get back to the conference, its quirky little details, and its characters, all of which felt far more intriguing and more entertaining, thanks to Nosov’s ability to create a form of absurdity that’s simultaneously believable and fantastical, funny and tragic, and, somehow, very Petersburg, too. I suppose those contradictions that aren’t contradictions make my “enjoyable disappointment” feel all the more fitting.

Up Next: NOS(E) Award winners. Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom, which is already making me hungry to search up recipes for traditional Dagestani foods…


  1. The story within the story that distracts the reader sounds a lot like the style of Haruki Murakami.

    1. Thank you for your comment, clairemca! I've only read a couple Murakami stories so don't have any basis for comparison. (But this is helpful to know since I'm always thinking I should try a Murakami novel: story-within-a-story is not one of my favorite literary devices!)