A novel about magic that could use some more.

SCREENWRITER AND NOVELIST Paul Quarrington, who has had little following outside Canada, offers up his eighth novel to US readers—a sprawling, rather jagged journey that follows the histories and careers of a pair of millionaire superstar Las Vegas stage magicians. Even if magic shows are tedious to you, the novel loads up with some irresistible metaphors and themes. After cheap card tricks are cast aside, what is magic, really? Is illusion necessarily a bad thing? How might magic be linked, if at all, to true miracles? The Spirit Cabinet (titled after one of Houdini's stage devices) is filled with these sorts of questions and also some interesting narrative techniques, but unfortunately the book's general clunkiness is a big drawback.

The Spirit Cabinet

by Paul Quarrington (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24)

Quarrington, who's written fiction and nonfiction about ice hockey stars and also a novel about an aging rocker, clearly enjoys detailing the lives of the rich and famous, an endeavor that initially seemed puerile to me; but to his credit he delves into real issues here, alongside his habit of repeatedly parading before readers a well-imagined mansion (complete with gym, massive bedrooms, and the like). We learn how the novel's temperamental Teutonic protagonists, Jurgen and Rudolfo, begin as young men learning the most basic of card tricks (the book explains how these are done), and eventually meet, become a couple, and finally ascend to immense popularity on Vegas stages with their flashy, illusion-laden act. Aided by a beautiful stage assistant who, nearly naked, diverts audience attention from the magicians' stage manipulations, the two lead a quotidian daytime life. Eventually Jurgen seeks true magic and transcendence via the teachings of Houdini, and begins to slip away from his partner.

IT'S INTERESTING TO see behind the illusory nature of magic acts, but often in portraying his heroes onstage Quarrington either forgets or abandons the convention of setting up scenes with descriptive details—a choice I found interesting in an almost-realistic novel. In fact, that's part of what this book struggles with: the schism and tension between what's real and what's not. Quarrington doesn't seem to take that tension too seriously, tossing off the less realistic parts lightly, comically, or ironically, though such moments would be ideal spots to deepen themes and make the narrative ring more eerily. As is, the two approaches are out of synch with one another. We've got a realistic scenario of performers probably based on Siegfried and Roy; we've got the shimmering, vibratory themes of disappearance and magic; alongside this, we've got an albino leopard (the performers' stage animal) who, as a prominent character in the book, thinks in full English sentences and watches cooking shows on TV, pressing the remote buttons with his teeth. It doesn't gel.

Quarrington also employs real-life "magic" scenarios which, instead of being atmospheric or rich, are just a little too cute: As Jurgen and Rudolfo begin to make love for the first time in a doorway on a Munich street, hailstones begin to pour from the sky: "Suddenly [Rudolfo's] nose was popped and bleeding. Rudolfo hadn't even seen Jurgen's fist move. Neither had Jurgen, mind you, because he hadn't hit him. As far as he could tell, a rock had fallen from the sky and bounced off Rudolfo's face. Jurgen craned his neck to look skyward and was alarmed to see a turbid black cloud filling the sky." Hailstones in biblical proportions proceed to pound the boys, landing upon them "with the power and enthusiasm of crazed football hooligans."

Quarrington's choices curtail possible metaphors and, ultimately, fall short. But this novel might work for some readers—it's sufficiently complicated and peopled by a rich lot of cheesy, jealous, fairly amusing Las Vegas types. And a bevy of weird animals also inhabits the book—bushbabies, civets, and other near-incomprehensible stage assets that are relegated to the sidelines and remain there, looking out with spooky eyes, somewhat unsettling.

The Spirit Cabinet is at its best when detailing the bizarre Germanic childhoods of its main characters and tracing how they remain vulnerably affected by their youths. Jurgen's hunger for transcendence, the thematic and structural backbone of this book, is rich territory, but the work as a whole, with its numerous off-kilter stabs at humor and surrealism, doesn't really rise to its potential.

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