Book review: The Spirit Cabinet

I’m back with a brand-new review of a nine year-old book. This is another example of a book jumping off the shelves of UNLV Libraries and into my hands based on little more than a hunch and a quick judge of the book’s cover. Figuring that any book that’s about magicians and features the erstwhile Barbary Coast bullnose on the cover can’t be too bad, I jumped in. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out one last contributing factor: I saw The Prestige a few weeks ago, so I’m particularly open to reading a book about the underside of magicians. So, in a nutshell, I’m basing my opinions on 9 year-old books that I’ve just seen on two year-old movies that I’ve just watched.

I’m not convinced that books improve with age, but the good ones certainly do. And, as you’ll read, this is a very, very good book.

Paul Quarrington: The Spirit Cabinet. New York: Grove Press, 1999. Paperback. 341 pages. $14.

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.

I’m not saying this is a realistic (boring) novel. There’s plenty of weird stuff going on, and not all of it happens on stage. I won’t give anything away, because there are some artful twists along the way.

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.

Maybe that’s fitting, since to each of us as small children our parents were the ultimate magicians, bending reality (so it seemed) to fit their will. Then, as we got older, we realized that they were just people, trying the best they could. So The Spirit Cabinet might be about magic, or it might be about finding our way in a world where we realize that our parents are no more magical than us.

But that’s empowering, because that realization’s flip side–that we are just as magical as we once thought our parents–gives us hope: we can inspire, and hopeful inoculate against cynicism and bitterness.

But if you’re not into that angle, The Spirit Cabinet also works about a novel about some quirky characters living in Las Vegas. But Las Vegas isn’t a real character in the book. Quarrington hits the city’s soul with pistol accuracy (“Everything in Las Vegas is world famous” he declares early on,” which is just how seriously the town takes itself). But he doesn’t weave in too much detail. I think the only geography he mentioned was Paradise Road, and there isn’t too much local color.

This might not be a weakness. This might be the whole point. None of the characters is a flag-waving Las Vegas: they are all driven here by the chance to make an easy buck. So maybe this novel is perfectly representative of the Las Vegas that many residents experience: there is no real sense of place, just work, an air-conditioned ride, then home.

One minor, minor detail-oriented quibble that I feel strangely compelled to mention: when one of the characters is lifting weights, he loads large (40 lb) and small (20 lb) weights onto a barbell. Every gym I’ve ever been in (and I’ve been in my share) has 5, 10, 25, 35, and 45 lb weights for the barbells. It’s a really small thing, and maybe it’s just that I haven’t gone to the right gyms, but that kind of detail detracts a little from the book’s truthfulness, even if it’s just for a second.

But it doesn’t detract from the power and excellence of the novel. I realize that I haven’t given you many specifics of the plot. Well, to the extent that there is a plot, I’d be exposing too much of Quarrington’s sight line by summarizing it here. I’d suggest just reading the book and letting the tricks unfold as the magician intended: you’ll enjoy it much more.

The Spirit Cabinet gets my highest recommendation as a novel of Las Vegas that far transcends the city and its professional illusions and might make you wonder what else is going on around you, while you are willfully misdirected elsewhere.

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