A couple of novels, of interest to magicians

Discussions of new films, books, television shows, and media indirectly related to magic and magicians. For example, there may be a book on mnemonics or theatrical technique we should know or at least know about.

Postby David Scollnik » 10/31/07 08:06 PM

Two novels of possible interest to some here. If anyone has read either, feel free to post a review.

This one has been out for about a year:

http://www.canongate.net/The-Bullet-Tri ... k-Hardback

The Bullet Trick

When down-at-heel Glasgow conjurer William Wilson gets booked for a string of cabaret gigs in Berlin, he is hoping his luck is on the turn. There were certain spectators from his last show who he'd rather forget. Amongst the showgirls and tricksters of Berlin's scandalous underground Wilson can abandon his heart, his head and, more importantly, his past. But secrets have a habit of catching up with William, and the line between the act and reality starts to blur.

Bringing the seedy glamour of the burlesque scene magnificently to life, Louise Welsh's deft contemporary tale is her richest and most macabre yet. A thundering thriller of Glasgow drinking dens, Soho clubs and Berlin backstreets, The Bullet Trick is also an adults-only drama of the heart, guaranteed to keep you guessing till its final explosive flourish.

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This one is hot off the presses:

SPANISH FLY

By Will Ferguson
Viking Canada, 389 pages, $32

When Jack McGready, the narrator of Will Ferguson's second novel, discovers that Spanish fly is actually a green beetle with no aphrodisiac properties whatsoever, he's a teenager sitting in the Paradise Flats Public Library. A young man in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the Great Depression, and the deck is stacked against him. His mother is dead and his erratic father has been bilked into handing over the family's savings; the impoverished world is lurching toward war; and Jack has no clue how to ask the beautiful Rebecca - the girl who shelves the books at the library - out on a date.

Thus, Jack virtually takes up residence in the library, reading everything he can get his hands on. For advice on how to think clearly, he reads treatises on deductive logic. Dating tips he gets from Ovid. In the returns cart, he one day encounters Contemplations on Pascal's Wager, a book that seems to suggest one should believe in God because it's a good bet. It's also in the library, while making his way slowly through the dictionary, that he concludes that Spanish fly is a placebo, a drug that works not on the body but on the imagination.

This bookish apprenticeship takes up about the first third of the novel, and not insignificantly so, for it prefaces and predicts Jack's later experiences with the real world. Like Dunstan Ramsay and Paul Dempster in Fifth Business, who hang around in a different small-town library, reading about palming coins and the lives of saints, Ferguson deftly uses Jack's early reading to place the novel within a wider textual and historical context. The people Jack encounters when he leaves Paradise Flats might never have heard of Pascal, "the Frenchman," as Jack puts it, "who thought he could cheat God," but they don't seem all that different from him, either. This will turn out to be one of the central insights the novel has to offer: A scam is a scam, no matter who's involved.

When it eventually does arrive, the world elsewhere takes the shape of two con artists, the slick Virgil Ray and the beautiful Miss Rose, who are on their way through Paradise Flats. Jack assists in a scam and receives an invitation to the open road. He does not look back. So begins the education of a con man.

Once he is in the car with Virgil and Rose, the book shifts gears and picks up speed as Jack leaves the library and the workaday life behind him. The novel moves in almost episodic fashion from scam to scam as the three travel from town to town. It's also in this middle portion of the book that Jack's voice becomes nearly taxonomic in its precision as he saturates the reader with the names and the details of each con, the particular risks and the calculated deceptions involved. There is the coupon spiel, the pedigreed pooch, the badger game, the sweetheart scam - too many to list here. The implication is that Jack finds himself a participant in a subterranean Great Tradition, an accumulation not wholly unlike the one there for the taking on the shelves of the Paradise Flats library.

Ultimately, Jack comes to understand the con artist is a fundamentally moral creature, that what allows a person to be conned is that he or she is trying to con someone him- or herself. The ambitions of those victimized by Virgil and Miss Rose, in other words, don't differ fundamentally from the philosophical position Pascal recommends. The person who will pay money for a known placebo like Spanish fly is the same person who'll believe in God because it's a good bet. "Everyone has something they can lose," Virgil tells Jack. "We just need to find it."

Many readers will, of course, recognize the name Jack McGready from Ferguson's first novel, Happiness{+T}{+M}, in which Jack is the irascible old man revealed to be the true author of a certain infectious self-help book from which the world must be saved. Spanish Fly is, in other words, a sort of a prequel; Ferguson aficionados will find in it echoes and allusions to Happiness{+T}{+M}. But it's not a requirement to have read the first book; Spanish Fly stands on its own as an eminently readable novel.

It's common enough to regard second novels as disappointments, particularly when it is the second novel of a writer like Will Ferguson, who distinguished himself so forcibly in the genre his first time out. But Spanish Fly is not a disappointment. It is also not at all the same book as Happiness{+T}{+M}. Though it's recognizably Ferguson at work, we see him tackling resonant social and philosophical issues in a historical novel where Ferguson's sympathies with the poor and poor in spirit mesh with the specific contours of the landscape provided by the Great Depression to produce a work of impressive energy and grandeur.

Like Robertson Davies, Will Ferguson has the gift of linkage, of letting unlikely novelistic strands interleave and thicken into a significant braid. And, also like Davies, there is at work here a moral impulse, an abiding conviction that the artist should not just entertain (though Ferguson does entertain), but also instruct.
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