The Spirit Cabinet Paperback – Apr 18 2000
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The outrageous and competitive world of Las Vegas magicians is the backdrop for Canadian literary legend Paul Quarrington's novel The Spirit Cabinet, which centres on a mysterious collection of Harry Houdini's old books and props. At the collection's auction, we're introduced to Rudolfo, a hairless, muscle-bound showman whose flamboyant act, with his partner Jurgen, features garish costumes and exotic live animals (sound familiar?). Jurgen is the magician of the pair, a man whose "skull was square and all of his features oddly rectangular, as though he'd been designed by an architect." Among the other magicians in attendance are Kaz, a bitter egomaniac, and Preston the Adequate, son of the legendary Preston the Magnificent.
Jurgen successfully outbids Kaz for the collection, including the enigmatic Davenport Spirit Cabinet, and slowly falls under its spell. Jurgen's and Rudolfo's act becomes increasingly odd, causing people to wonder if their performance is mere illusion or something more supernatural. The novel throws time away, skipping between the past, present, and future. We follow Jurgen's and Rudolfo's troubled childhoods, their bizarre and shadowy beginnings in show business, and their unlikely ascent to Vegas superstardom. The Spirit Cabinet is a backstage pass into the world of magic, revealing not so much the tricks as the trickery, and the best part is you're laughing with every step. Quarrington is perhaps Canada's finest comic novelist and certainly the most consistently entertaining. --Moe Berg
From Publishers Weekly
Canadian screenwriter (Due South) and award-winning novelist Quarrington (Whale Music) poignantly uses the tacky, tricky background of Las Vegas to tell the story of two magicians who pay the price for a great and dangerous wisdom. German Jurgen Schubert and Swiss Rudolfo Thielmann (think Siegfried & Roy) are sellers of wonder--a flamboyant Vegas magic act, spawned from a seedy club in Munich. At the height of their fame, they pay $4.8 million for the much sought-after Houdini collection, which includes the Davenport Spirit Cabinet and ancient books containing history's greatest magic secrets from all over the world. Labeled showmen, not "real" magicians, by their contemporaries, towering illusionist Jurgen and animal trainer Rudolfo are compared by the World-Famous Kaz to "chimps [who] bought some books about brain surgery." Quarrington reveals the pair, often rude and showy, as having been shaped by the traumas and disappointments of their pasts: Rudolfo was a pathetically lonely child raised in an opium den in Bern, and Jurgen is still desperately trying to prove that real magic exists. Jurgen proclaims to Rudolfo and to sensuous female assistant Miranda, as well as to lovable albino leopard Samson, that he wishes to change their lucrative, successful show by the dark wizardry gleaned from the mysterious teachings of Houdini's dusty books. But Jurgen is seduced into another world through the creepy doors of the Spirit Cabinet, and a story that begins as an entertaining lark--uneven yet humorous--ends up tender and heartbreaking. As Jurgen becomes more deeply involved with his supernatural metamorphosis, he becomes Christ-like, levitating and performing miracles while he drifts irreversibly away from Rudolfo, his life partner. Quarrington gathers most of Vegas to see the duo's final act, powerfully blending tears with philosophical enlightenment in a novel to be treasured, even by those who don't believe in magic. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Preston the Magnificent, Jr., (or, as he preferred to call himself privately, Preston the Adequate) stood outside the George Theater dressed in an old morning suit that had belonged to his father. Read the first page
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On our world, as Paul Quarrington depicts here, magic is measured with a bank account book. Its practitioners are showmen not wizards. They are sleight-of-hand artists, illusionists well versed in the motto 'the hand is quicker than the eye'. They are highly competitive for audiences and recognition. The issue of selecting routines for their performances looms large, both for the sake of the audience and thier competitors.
Performance magic relies heavily on deception and devices. Quarrington relates how little novelty there is in this trickery. Manuevers and mechanisms are frequently handed down over generations to apprentices or favored associates. In The Spirit Cabinet it is a collection of material derived, almost inevitably, from the greatest magical showman of them all, Henry Houdini.
Assembled from such diffuse origins as Germany, Switzerland and Saskatchewan, a melange of conjurers gathers in Las Vegas to acquire a collection of Houdini memoribilia. Quarrington takes great pains in demonstrating the trade draws unusual people. Jurgen and Rudolfo are an unusal couple, in more ways than one. A rarity in the craft, they are a team. Most magicians, such as Kaz and Preston the Adequate [his father was Preston the Magnificent] work alone, or with no more than a decorous assistant. All covet the Houdini material, although why, since so much of it has been duplicated, remains hidden. Jurgen and Rudolfo acquire the collection. From that point on, their relationship takes a new course. A hint of real magic emerges, confounding all their lives.
Quarrington has drawn these people well. In describing their origins, there are numerous unexpected twists. The memory of Preston's father overshadows his life. Jurgen and Rudolfo have what can only be described as bizarre childhoods. As partners in performance and life, they become lovers. Few books reach publication these days without some form of sexual dysfunction as at least a minor theme. Kaz is Jewish, causing him to view every slight or competition as anti-Semetically based. Only Miranda seems stable; the account of her show business career is one of the best episodes in the book.
Quarrington obviously spent much effort researching this book. Combining this information with his prose skills he restores the value of personal performance to a generation inundated with special effects in TV and film. As he did in Whale Music, he depicts the life of entertainers. Stage magic is not for the inept and Quarrington portrays well the stresses these practitioners endure. This book is a fine addition to any library.
But this is a novel that's about a lot more than either magicians or casinos. It's about the search for knowledge. It's about losing sight of what's wonderful around us. And it's about regaining that sight.
Quarrington builds an interesting narrative structure. There are actually three stories unfolding at once: one in the literary present, one in the near past, and one that fills in the backstory. It's sort of like a magic trick where you watch something disappear while at the same time seeing it take shape and seeing it reappear. It's quite effective, and certainly works better than just trudging through the chronology.
Superficially, the novel is about a pair of flamboyant Teutonic headlining magicians named Jurgen and Rudolofo who seek to buy a collection of magical books and items that once belonged to Harry Houdini. Among the items is the Davenport Spirit Cabinet of the title, a poorly-gaffed (or is it?) teleportation device.
Reading the last paragraph, you might have rolled your eyes. Jurgen and Rudolfo...could they be a thinly-fictionalized send-up of Siegfried and Roy? And isn't that a rather obvious excuse for comedy?
Actually, Jurgen and Rudolfo are complex characters who get more development than anyone in the book. In the hands of a lesser writer, they might have been a cheap gag, but Quarrington animates them so convincingly that they come off as larger than life but not cartoonish.
Clearly Jurgen and Rudolfo aren't everyman protagonists that the man in the street can instantly identify with. No one in the book is: I really can't think of anyone that isn't freakish to one degree or another, or just a loser. But Quarrington, being a gifted novelist, touches on universal themes that help the reader identify with all of these characters (or at least most of them-the Criss Angel-ish Kaz is played mostly as an inept villain). There's plenty of subtext about the power and danger of belief, which might appeal to those with shaky belief structures, but there's an even more universal theme running under that: the search for the father. Every major character is dealing, in one way or another, with the failure or abdication of his/her father, or father figure. You don't notice at first, but thinking about the book you realize: that's the common thread. It's not done in a hokey way, either: there's no fetishization of victimhood, or lame angst. Instead, Quarrington tells stories that seem natural and personal.