By Wendy Lesser;
Published: Sunday, October 29, 1995
LAWRENCE WESCHLER’S latest book is a bit like one of those deceptive plays — by Pirandello, say, or David Mamet — in which you have to keep adjusting your sense of where you stand. At first you feel you are simply the recipient of straightforward information. Gradually it dawns on you that some of the characters within the drama are being fooled by other characters, but as a member of the audience, in cahoots with the author, you still feel privy to the master plan. Eventually, however, there comes a moment of revelation in which you discover that you too are one of the dupes. And yet, despite all the trickery and illusion, your final impression is that you have been exposed to deep and lasting truths.
The moment of revelation in “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” occurs about a third of the way through this relatively short book. For more than 30 pages, Mr. Weschler (who has worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than a decade) has been regaling us with detailed descriptions of the arcane exhibits at David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology: African stink ants that inhale spores, which turn, fatally, into unicornlike horns; scientific theories of memory and oblivion inspired by bizarrely named lieder singers; weird South American bats known as “piercing devils”; and other curiosities of that ilk.
Run by its eccentric proprietor out of a storefront in Culver City, Calif., the museum is clearly a modern-day version, as Mr. Weschler astutely points out, of the “wonder-cabinets” that sprang up in late Renaissance Europe, inspired by all the discoveries in the New World. David Wilson comes off as an amusingly Casaubonesque figure who, in his own little way, seeks to amass all the various kinds of knowledge in the world; and if his efforts seem random and arcane, they at any rate sound scientifically specific. Yet when Mr. Weschler begins to check out some of the information in the exhibits, we discover that much of it is made up or imagined or so elaborately embroidered as to cease to resemble any real-world facts.
The key to the pleasure of this book lies in that “much of,” for the point of David Wilson’s museum is that you can’t tell which parts are true and which invented. In fact, some of the unlikeliest items — the horned stink ants, for instance — turn out to be pretty much true. In the wake of its moment of climactic exposure, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” turns into an expedition in which Lawrence Weschler tracks down the overlaps, correspondences and occasionally tenuous connections between historical and scientific reality on the one hand and the Museum of Jurassic Technology on the other.
At the same time, we are offered a portrait of David Wilson as a character who is himself worthy of wondrous contemplation. On each of Mr. Weschler’s increasingly numerous visits to the museum “David would be there manning the desk, so that after a while I got to know him pretty well — which is to say, it felt like I got past the first layer of ironylessness to, well, maybe a second layer of ironylessness.” Given the general air of Borgesian fictionality surrounding this venture, one begins to feel that if David Wilson didn’t exist, Lawrence Weschler would have had to invent him. And indeed, Mr. Wilson fits in perfectly with the gallery of other characters (Shapinsky the karmic creator, Boggs the currency imitator, Robert Irwin the conceptual artist, and so on) that Mr. Weschler has already given us in his earlier books. They are all real people, and surely Mr. Wilson is too; but the tone of this book induces in its readers a deliciously vertiginous inability to be certain about anything. Like David Wilson, Lawrence Weschler has a talent for finding exactly those natural wonders that seem too good to be true, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology is one of them.
A MUCH-ABBREVIATED version of this book originally appeared as an article in Harper’s. Abbreviation, which magazine editors believe to be a way of increasing readerly interest, in this case did the work a disservice. One needs to go sequentially with Mr. Weschler through each intellectual discovery, savoring every observation and example, in order to enjoy the full flavor of “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.” A nonfiction writer with a poet’s ear, Mr. Weschler likes long lists punctuated by jazzy sentence rhythms; he revels in the sound of scientific language, the play of strange terminology against more familiar nouns and adjectives. Occasionally the book’s style veers toward the silly — for instance, I could have done without a line like “for a good century and a half after the discovery of the Americas, Europe’s mind was blown.” At this point Mr. Weschler has just treated us to three pages of Stephen Greenblatt’s scholarship on Renaissance wonder, and perhaps he wishes to show that despite his academic erudition he is still just a down-home guy. But if we are interested in characters like David Wilson and their works, we don’t need colloquialisms and italics to lure us in; sometimes it pays to retain the cloak of ironylessness.
As Mr. Weschler’s narrative progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that, as an artifact, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” resembles the museum it chronicles. About halfway through, we begin to get asterisked endnotes, which then become more and more elaborate, as if the profusion of interesting factual and mythical detail can’t be made to fit within the linear constraints of a straightforward essay. The book is like one of those false-bottomed conjurer’s boxes, for instead of one ending it has four: the last words of Mr. Weschler’s own narrative, followed by 35 pages of notes, succeeded by an epigraph from Italo Calvino and a lengthy acknowledgments-and-sources section, which, given the source-seeking tenor of the whole endeavor, is almost as important as the essay itself. And though the narrative concludes by sending us out into the world (“So, go figure” are its final words), the last words we get from Mr. Weschler tend the other way. “I resolved not to delve any further into the stuff about urine and grandmothers,” he says at the end of the sources section. It seems fitting that he should ultimately acknowledge the crucial need to refuse, on occasion, the acquisition of further knowledge.