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The Spirit Cabinet [Paperback]

Paul Quarrington

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Book Description

April 18 2000
After a slow climb out of the strip clubs and flesh pots of Europe, Jurgen and Rudolfo have hit the big time in Las Vegas, headlining a slick and well-oiled magic act. Rudolfo, a true misfit, is content orchestrating the spectacle, but Jurgen, stricken since childhood with the irrational desire to make magic, hungers for more. He finds it in a musty, mysterious collection of old manuscripts and magic cabinetry that once belonged to Houdini. And when he turns into the miracle-working saint of Las Vegas, chaos results. In a narrative that is whimsical, comic and melancholy by turns, Quarrington takes dead aim at the place in the human heart that hopes that doves can bloom from top hats and illusions can come true.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Canada; Vintage Canada ed edition (April 18 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679310312
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679310310
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.5 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 422 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,231,797 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Amazon

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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First Sentence
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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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The world of magic April 20 2000
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
On Terry Pratchett's Discworld, there are eight colours in the rainbow. The eighth is The Colour of Magic. Like the other colours, its intensity may be measured - using a thaumometer.
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Spirit Fusion March 24 2003
By Lee Armstrong - Published on Amazon.com
"The Spirit Cabinet" uses the world of magicians and magic as an allegory for an exploration of self-worth. Much of the story takes place through the eyes of Rudolfo, who is the showman partner of Jurgan. The two come from colorful pasts. They are lovers as well as partners in a magic act. The novel contains several romantic graphic gay sexual encounters, one in a hail storm & one on an exercise bike. Rudolfo has a flare for working with animals, most notably Samson whose thoughts & fears are most humanely told. Samson is like the cowardly lion, although at times he's alternately bored or suffering from indigestion. The plot revolves around an auction where Jurgan buys a collection of books & magical equipment that belonged to Harry Houdini. This apparently contains secret magical information. We're not absolutely clear about what happens within the spirit cabinet, but Jurgen appears to undergo a transformation where he becomes increasingly less material, his body translucent, and less responsive to physical gravity. The culmination event reminded me of the idea of spirit fusion presented in The Urantia Book. Other magicians swirl in subplots. Preston the Adequate steals Jurgen & Rudolfo's lovely assistant Miranda. Envious magician Kaz tries to steal the Houdini collection. There is also a chauffeur from the African Dogon tribe who appears to have magical qualities. Quarrington peoples the novel with a collection of oddballs who all seem to question their self-worth. The quasi-mystical becomes magical and possible. Jurgen's climax where he seems to explode skyward into luminous bits is wonderful. The barriers to enjoyment come from the construction which is a bit hard to follow. One chapter is in the present, the next in flashback, and another in a dream. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's what, which may be the point. Overall, this is an interesting and entertaining tome, if a bit off-center. Enjoy!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good writing, a little hard to swallow June 27 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have to say I enjoyed this book, but saw room for improvement. While Quarrington's descriptive and narrative style is quite tasty and the plot decidedly provocative and well-researched, I found the telling a little loose and frayed around the edges and the last portion of the book seemed rushed and clumsily tied together. It takes place in a believable world (if you can call Las Vegas believable) where magic (not mere illusions) exists and animals have emotional and intellectual maturity. These devices worked and their "unrealness" was "believable" and enjoyable. Yet, for example, when one's lover/partner starts to turn literally translucent, begins wasting away before your eyes and performing ACTUAL magic learned from ancient books & scrolls and paraphernalia, one would probably react with something other than sulking, annoyance and self-centered anger. This is the sort of unbeleivability that I disliked about this book, even for it's well drawn characters, good humor and surprising twists of plot. Also, some of the out-of-chronological-order storytelling left me confused and back-tracking rather than being able to watch the subplots eventually fall satisfyingly into place. In sum: Enjoyable but not wholly satisfying.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This strange life Aug. 27 2000
By "blissengine" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Superstar magicians and entertainers Jurgen and Rudolfo buy Houdini's collection of magicians' artifacts and paraphernalia, including the Davenport Spirit Cabinet, at an auction. As Jurgen delves into the collection, he drifts from his partner and lover, as well as becoming more disconnected from their show. Jurgen disappears, leaving Rudolfo adrift and depressed, until he ultimately follows his love. Shifting between the present and the past, Quarrington explores the notions of faith in each character's life. Maybe not as potent as Katherine Dunn's "Geek Love" or anything by John Irving, Quarrington's book is quite a remarkable story of oddball characters that compels the reader onward.
5.0 out of 5 stars A spirited novel May 20 2008
By Dave Schwartz - Published on Amazon.com
The Spirit Cabinet is a novel about magic and Las Vegas. At least that's the impression you get from the cover-the upper half is a dove cupped in a quick hand, perhaps ready to vanish. The bottom is a slice of the Las Vegas Strip. And the quote on the cover (this is the paperback) starts out by saying the book is "entirely magical." And it's right.

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.

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