The Spirit Cabinet
by Paul Quarrington
Published by Random House Canada
304 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Magic in the Box
Reviewed by Jay Currie
Whether or not Paul Quarrington has written a brilliant novel about tricks, I will leave to people who know magic. He has revealed some of the art of tricks -- how to make a girl or a tiger disappear is a matter of mirrors and very small spaces. And he has been criticized for giving away a few secrets. But this is not the point of The Spirit Cabinet.
What Quarrington has done is imagine that there is real magic underlying the world of illusion. Think about that idea. Consider what the sleight of hand distraction masters of Las Vegas would do if all of a sudden, actual, inexplicable magic was discovered.
Quarrington has assembled a cast of characters filled with the oddities which represent the backstage of Las Vegas. The tinsel, the bullshitters, the losers and the marks sitting out in the audience. With a bit of exaggeration and hyperbole, Quarrington captures an imaginary Sigfried and Roy and the gang of other magicians who populate Vegas. Their job is to provide fun and games for the post-literate: two shows a night, 300 nights a year.
In a world where the extremely stupid are taken by the slightly smarter, magic wins. The good folks out in the $75 seats want to be fooled and Vegas magicians are there to fool 'em.
The old plot device of "a stranger comes to town" disrupts these cozy arrangements. Harry Houdini's collection of magic books and devices comes up for auction. While a lot of the collection is junk, there is also an element of "real" magic in the collection. So, what would Vegas magicians do if, instead of carefully practiced tricks, they suddenly had the real deal in their hands? All of a sudden the most utterly beautiful, distracting girl in the world is redundant. You don't need her because if you can do real magic, you don't need to bamboozle the audience.
With that setup, Quarrington has the bones of a first-rate novel. And this guy can write. Whale Music, The Boy on the Back of a Turtle, Fishing with My Old Guy: every book a winner. But, having set this story up, Quarrington seems to get bored in the last half of the novel. After nailing Las Vegas, having fun with the cast and revealing a few tricks, Quarrington seems to let the characters slip away from him. He ends up with a novel of disillusion which a lot of writers seem to end up writing. By the end of the book, I was left wondering if Quarrington had actually lost faith in his premise and the net effect of the arrival of magic in Vegas is lost. The character's reactions become diffuse. If this were a movie, the last quarter would be a car chase. Exciting enough, but really just a way out of an unresolved plot problem.
This is a pity. Quarrington has a great novel waiting to be born, but this is not it. A near miss; but -Robertson Davies has more real magic in him than Quarrington ever will. Davies understood and could imply the mystery and fascination of magic, whether it be sleight of hand or the real thing. Quarrington understands the difference, but -- in Spirit Cabinet -- the glitz of Vegas gets in the way. I can't recommend The Spirit Cabinet, but I'm looking forward to reading whatever Quarrington writes next. | May 1999
Jay Currie is the editor of the popular Vancouver, B.C. arts and culture magazine Two Chairs, as well as the editor of a new magazine aimed at greenthumbs called Into the Garden.