Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington - the magical, the grotesque and a dash of charm

The Spirit Cabinet by Paul QuarringtonThe Spirit Cabinet (1999) by Paul Quarrington

Long story short, I found this after an exhaustive search for a novel that would be as similar as possible to the film The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, without actually being a comedy. TIBW was a film I became obsessed by while simultaneously thinking a lot of things about it were terrible and it could so easily have been better (I am still planning to write something about this) and, while still in the obsession phase, I was briefly determined to find a book that captured the things I had been drawn to. The glamour and excess and sexiness of the Las Vegas stage magic mini-world but also the many things about it that are grotesque, dated, insular and weird. It had to have a contemporary setting (most books I could find about stage magic had a historical setting) and ideally, obviously, I wanted it to be focused on a successful duo and to be set in Vegas. I didn't think I was going to find anything that fulfilled all the criteria until I came across The Spirit Cabinet, although I had to order a copy from the US; I don't think it was ever published here, and indeed Quarrington seems to have been much better known in his native Canada than elsewhere - a search for UK pages containing the author's name doesn't turn up anything much at all.

That wasn't really a long story short, was it? Anyway, the main characters in The Spirit Cabinet, Jurgen and Rudolfo, are clearly based on Siegfried and Roy. Reading a few biographical articles on them while reading this book made it clear that the characters are so similar, Quarrington's novel could almost be a roman à clef, if it didn't take a fantastical turn part-way through. The plot hinges on Jurgen's purchase of a collection of Houdini memorabilia, including the titular Spirit Cabinet, which he quickly becomes obsessed with. There are three stories here: one about what happens after Jurgen acquires the Spirit Cabinet and begins to 'change', one about how he and Rudolfo came to be famous, and one that seems to be a glimpse into the future, with Rudolfo alone and ruined.

The Spirit Cabinet has a sort of slightly 'zany' tone that differs from anything I would normally choose to read. Everything's larger than life, though this is perhaps normal for the Vegas strip. There were numerous scenes I found painful to read despite the fact that the things they described weren't particularly graphic or unpleasant, compared to other horrible stuff I've read without flinching. The author seems keen on reinforcing these grotesque elements every so often: he doesn't let us forget about Jurgen's 'crippled, purple' eyelids, damaged in an early performance (remembering the details of this makes me feel queasy even now), or the condition that leaves Rudolfo completely hairless. There are many minor characters with utterly repulsive appearances, or chronic bad breath or acne, or some other unfortunate affliction. Samson, Jurgen and Rudolfo's albino leopard, is anthropomorphised to a degree, the narrative often providing insight into his all-too-human thoughts and emotions. In fact, he's probably the most sympathetic character.

This is, after all, a story of magic, and there are hints of the real thing everywhere. This fantastical element heightens after Jurgen's Spirit Cabinet fixation begins, but it's already evident before that: it's not always clear whether some of the characters are simply doing tricks or actually have powers. When someone mentions vampires you have to pause for a moment to wonder whether this should be taken literally, and when something implausible happens (for example the development of a completely improbable - but, in the end, quite sweet - relationship between two of the secondary characters) it seems less ridiculous than it should.

I find it difficult to judge, overall, whether I enjoyed this book or not. It held my interest, but there were times I found it altogether 'too much', and had to take a break from it: as a result, it took me a relatively long time, nearly a month, to get through it, even though it's not a challenging read. And as always with books I give an average rating, it's hard to say how I'd recommend this, or to whom. I suppose it boils down to this: I wouldn't not recommend it, but at the same time, I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to get hold of a copy, like I did. Too dark to be quirky entertainment (see The Night Circus), but too wacky to achieve much literary merit, it occupies a strange, yet undeniably intriguing, hinterland between comedy and sincerity.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Paperback

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