Observer Review: 52 Ways To Magic America By James Flint Essay, Research Paper
Tricks and treats52 Ways to Magic Americaby James FlintFourth Estate ?9.99, pp320James Flint’s first novel, Habitus, was a giant, sprawling, innovative book that wove together diverse and surreal narrative threads and revealed the author as talented and ambitious, if not always in complete command of the sheer bulk of his material. In his second, 52 Ways to Magic America, he has narrowed the focus, though not the ambition; here his big ideas are contained within the scope of a more linear narrative, the story of one man’s attempt to follow his dream to Las Vegas.Marty Quick has been performing magic tricks since the age of nine, primarily as a means of distracting himself from emotional pain; as his mother was dying of cancer, his glamourous American uncle Harry presented him with an antique copy of Jarrett’s Magic and Stagecraft Technical, and filled his head with dreams of showmanship and all its glory in America.The dream sustains Marty through a dull suburban adolescence to the finals of the Young Magician of the Year competition at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. There he walks away with the title and a new girlfriend, Terri Liddell, a Princess Di lookalike who becomes his assistant through seasons of touring decidedly unglamorous venues, until a chance encounter with Terri’s double in Blackpool introduces a new and dangerous element into their act and their lives.Flint quotes the nineteenth-century sage Robert-Houdin, whose observation that ‘a conjuror is an actor who plays the part of a magician’ captures the essence of Marty’s dream. Stage magic as a metaphor for our willingness to be deceived, and all the attendant themes of illusion and reality, has been popular in fiction – one thinks of Robertson Davies’s World of Wonders or, more recently, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil – and Flint has painted the backdrop to his story with a fine eye for detail.The round of boarded-up seaside towns and shabby little theatres that are the graveyard of a performer’s hopes carry echoes of Osborne’s The Entertainer, each new description reeking of a particularly English sense of disappointment and boredom: ‘one long parade of battered green rooms, chipped gilt work, stale cigarette smoke and those terrible, horrible, unpalatable acres of ancient red velour.’As with his earlier novel, Flint has an occasional tendency to strive for comic effect by over-complicating his syntax, or using 10 words where five would do – ‘…his new haircut, which he wasn’t altogether sure yet he was all that much in favour of’ – and sometimes it is unclear whether his use of cliché is ironic. But the novel’s strong sense of place, and his thoughtful evolution of its themes, are not obscured by these minor faults. His discussion of the history and execution of conjuring tricks is never laboured, but testifies to the same depth of research that he brought to his scientific themes in Habitus, and his characters are convincing and even oddly endearing in their banality.