Pieces for Small Orchestra

Cover art for Norman Lock's Piece for Small OrchestraNorman Lock (illustrations by Sasha Meret)

Spuyten Duyvil Press, April 2011
166 pages

On the surface, Norman Lock’s recent book, Pieces for Small Orchestra, is a collection of two novellas and two stories. Really, it’s a book of many books, all doling out the life (and dream-life) of Alessandro Comi, and showcasing everything that makes Lock’s work great: the vocabulary is demanding, the pages filled with meta-fiction, and the text ripe with ambiguous meaning.

The book opens with the novella-length dreamscape “A Swan Boat on the Nile,” the first line of which I came back to a dozen times:

The boat was wrecked and slid into the sea, its single stack hissing briefly like a cigar thrown into the water, its little red light put out.

There is a bear with a folding chair, a boat that hasn’t sunk—plus one that has—and a swan boat that the bear either owns or works for. This, and Comi not getting where he wants to go, even though the future is literally an open book before him, begins Lock’s cat-and-mouse meta-fiction.

“A Swan Boat on the Nile” sets up for us what Lock is truly doing here, playing, and the story “The Transfiguration of Alessandro Comi” includes Lock in the conversation, deviously speaking of Hilton’s Lost Horizon and Shangri-La. We are being brought in, or we are becoming Alessandro, or we are seeing through Lock’s own eyes—a literary Being John Malkovich.

Then comes Pieces for Small Orchestra, the titular second novella where a hotel is built or unbuilt, peopled or unpeopled. Again, all is laced with meta-fiction, and Lock’s own interjections become increasingly inseparable from that of Comi. Each segment in Pieces for Small Orchestra opens up a new character, a new faux-room in the architect’s delight of this non-hotel, a hotel that desperately wants to exist. This is Lock’s brilliant way of bending the standard rules of narrative while still remaining a story-teller:

There are no load-bearing walls, only cleverly painted screens that shift from day to day. I suspect the building is supported by the orchestra alone, by its playing or in its sleep.

The final story, “To Each According to His Sentence,” reads much like an author’s preface, though it comes at the end of the book and is itself muddied with secrets. And this is Lock at his finest, writing and unwriting and rewriting stories, asking us to decide what is fact and what is fiction, and which we believe in most—and how it is that we, as readers, live inside each book we choose.


J. A. Tyler is the author of A Man of Glass & All the Ways We Have Failed as well as the forthcoming The Zoo, A Going (Dzanc Books) and, with John Dermot Woods, the image / text novel No One Told Me I Would Disappear (Jaded Ibis Press). Tyler’s work has appeared recently in Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Diagram, Caketrain, and others.

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