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Carter Beats The Devil: On writing magic

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Donna Bowman: Almost all live performance frightens me. But magic frightens me the most. The combination of unpredictability and danger creates suspense that I find almost unbearable. Of course everything is supposed to be tightly controlled, but that just makes it worse; if something truly does go wrong, the shock is doubled, and the longed-for release never comes.  In Carter Beats The Devil, several sequences had me racing through the paragraphs, skimming pages, just to get to the point where I could find out whether Carter was one step ahead of his enemies and the audience, engineering the effect, or whether the act had gone off the rails.

Of course, that really means I was concerned about what tricks author Glen David Gold had up his sleeve for me. More than any other novel featuring magic that I've read, this one made me aware of the magician as theatrical deity, the author as magician—employing misdirection, stagecraft, drama, technology, and prestidigitation.  And therefore of the author as literary deity, controlling his created world, seeming to be at the mercy of other forces but perhaps being in control all along—or perhaps not.  Did you experience this book as magic, with all that attendant danger and unpredictability?  Or is that suspense as much of an illusion as the Houdini escape that had Carter squirming?  

Rowan Kaiser: Reading Carter Beats The Devil reminded me of the film The Prestige, which came out a few years later (although the book came out a few years earlier). Both stories use the process of magic as both the subject of their work and the structure of their plot. The Prestige does so explicitly, with narration at the beginning and end of the film, but Carter Beats The Devil might do it better. The first, and arguably best, trick that it pulls off is early in the novel, when Carter gets a crush on Sarah, whom he assumes he is supposed to wed, before the “real” Sarah is revealed. It's a clever bit of misdirection, keeping the audience so intently focused on the first Sarah that we don’t realize that hey, people use stage names!

The entirety of the novel contains similar formal magic. We start with a single, important mystery: the death of President Harding. As it progresses, we see several mysteries piled atop one another: television, Carter’s finances, Carter’s love life, the Secret Service, Borax Smith, Mysterioso. A drawing of the amount of mystery contained in the text from start to finish would probably look just like a bell curve. These questions tend to get resolved in the reverse order from which they appeared—Harding first and last, Mysterioso second and second-to-last, etc. It’s not just unresolved questions, either, it’s also thematic and character stuff. We’re introduced to the Kowalskis early on, and they look like nothing more than an object lesson for young Carter. But at the end of the book, they’re not only brought into the story, it’s done in such a way that their tiny tale gets a nice little bow on top.

A great deal of fiction has the problem of being contrived in order to reach its resolution; it’s rare that a story manages to satisfy both narrative requirements and a sense of realism. (This is part of the reason I tend to lean more toward non-fiction). It’s a neat trick, or rather, a special illusion, when an author gets it right, I think, which is part of why I believe that Carter Beats The Devil makes a remarkably compelling case for storyteller-as-magician.

Zack Handlen: I love magic, and I love stories about magic. I remember being so prepared to love The Prestige that I spent the first 20 minutes unable to actually really engage with it, and I had something of the same problem with Carter. A magician who may have been involved with the death of a president? Who has an act with the devil in it? (I’m also a sucker for occult intimations.) I wasn’t exactly giddy, but it all seemed so perfect that I kept tripping over what wasn’t perfect. The prose was more functional than thrilling, and the prologue, while conceptually fascinating, didn’t catch the way I wanted it to. It took me a while to get invested in the story, and that’s probably because, given how ready I was to enjoy it, my expectations became too high—I kept imagining the book it was going to be, instead of appreciating the book it was.

But isn’t that always the problem with magic tricks? There’s a great scene three-quarters of the way through the novel where Carter tells Borax Smith (one of many characters here who felt like more potential than delivery) how to make an elephant disappear. You know how the scene will play out: Borax keeps asking for the truth, Carter keeps telling him he’ll be disappointed when he hears it; then Carter finally shares the secret, and Borax is, of course, disappointed. As are we. Even though we know the elephant couldn’t really disappear, when we ask for the secret, we want to be told “Yes, it’s all real, you were never fooled.” And then once we realize how simple the truth is, we resent the fictionalist for showing us how easily we’re fooled.

Like Donna and Rowan said, the wonderful thing about Carter is that it is full of magical tricks, with misdirections great and small. This is actually one of the fundamental principles of genre storytelling—one of the reasons people were so frustrated with the end of Lost was that so much of the show was about distraction, and distraction has a way of building up expectations. That build-up creates terrific momentum, and makes for compulsive reading (or watching), but unlike with a real magic act, eventually, you have to show the strings. I enjoyed much of Carter (I'm probably going to sound pretty down on it over the course of this week, but I want to get that in at the beginning; this was one of the most purely enjoyable books we read for WUiB, at least for me), but when it came time to start delivering on its promises, to start including on the trick of where all those disappearing elephants went, it turned out to be just as mundane as a platform with a fake wall. Glen David Gold was much better at the Pledge and the Anticipation than he was at the Prestige—but let’s be honest here. Most writers are, and that was one hell of a setup while it lasted. 

Ellen Wernecke: I liked Carter as much as you did, Zack, if not more, but my reaction was almost the opposite: I got a little bored during the Pledge and the Turn, only to revel in the Prestige.

Of course, you can’t get to the Prestige without setting up Harding’s death—what I’d term the essential mystery of the novel, whatever else is thrown in its way—Carter’s youth, and so on. I found this structure fairly cinematic but in a familiar way; childhood trauma makes an unforgettable imprint, youth disappoints his parents, once-admired mentor disappoints as well. (Come on, a creepy handyman?) It wasn't a slog by any means, but I read more for the small gems of phrases in that establishing structure than because I was anxious to see whether Carter was going to be dropped from the tour, because that seemed so foregone.

As aware as I was of Gold at work—seeding clues into his descriptions, employing misdirection like the names gambit Rowan mentioned—I found him to be a better wizard than Carter because of the ending, which we’ll be discussing at length later in the week. Of course, it's hard to compare the two considering the natural omnipotence of the author, but even when I was impatient for some of the secrets to be revealed, I didn’t feel as though he had lost control of his own illusion. But I’m curious to see if any of you will agree with me.

Todd VanDerWerff: Yeah, it’s the ending of this book that took me from really liking it to loving it as much as I do. (I should mention that I’ve read the book four or five times, and I have a copy lying around that I often pick up just to revisit favorite passages.) Carter, in a lot of ways, is about the ultimate magic trick: overcoming death. After the untimely passing that marks Carter so heavily in his twenties, he struggles to find a way to move forward. The book’s resurrections are all tricks, but the biggest one is completely metaphorical. Carter comes back from his own spiritual death, thanks to the passage of time, the support of people around him, a devotion to his craft, and the love of the right woman. (Aw.) (Incidentally, the ultimate origin story of Phoebe is one of those things that feels too neat to me, an attempt by Gold to tie off too much in a neat bow, though I do like when she snarkily replies that, no, her name isn’t Sarah.) But then at the end, Gold gives us a series of actual resurrections—or as close to them as we can get—and all of them are wondrous. The president gets to live out his days on a tropical island. Carter cheats death by evading the wrong place at the wrong time. And the invention of television allows everyone, ultimately, to be immortal, if only as a collection of video images. It’s a great ending, one that takes the book from enjoyable popcorn fiction (which there’s nothing wrong with) to something more moving and hopeful.

Tasha Robinson: I’m going to disagree with both Zack and Borax Smith here, not to mention with a repeated theme throughout the film version of The Prestige, where Christian Bale’s character points out over and over that knowing how a trick is done spoils it. For me, the best part of a book about stage magic, whether it’s a novel or a non-fiction book, is finding out how the trick is done. It doesn’t matter whether it’s accomplished via a supposedly cheap trick like dropping a false wall in front of an elephant in Carter Beats The Devil, or via science that’s essentially magic, à la Robert Angier’s “teleportation” setup in The Prestige. I’m delighted to know how stagecraft and showmanship and skill combine to fool an audience. I’m always impressed by cleverness, and at its best, stage magic is equal parts misdirection, flash, and cleverness.

Which is why I often found the use of magic in Carter Beats The Devil unsatisfying and frustrating. It’s the same reason I found The Illusionist—the other film about a stage magician released the same year as The Prestige—much less satisfying than The Prestige itself. Because while I’m willing to accept a certain amount of glossing over how a given trick is done, if that trick isn’t essential to the story, at some point, I start reading the use of magic in a non-fantasy novel as a cheat, if it’s never clear how the trick is done, or how it possibly could be done.

And by that standard, Carter Beats The Devil is mighty cheaty. Whether Carter is somehow teleporting the King Of Siam’s wristwatch under a Buddha statue in a garden half a mile away—a site that the King spontaneously chooses after Carter has disappeared the watch—or producing a fully loaded carousel out of a handkerchief, or instantaneously transporting messages between patrons across a theater, he spends an awful lot of time in this book doing things that only seem possible with actual magic. And Gold doesn’t explain any of these doings as tricks. As with The Illusionist, we’re simply asked to accept that as a magician, of course he has ways of doing impossible things.

But I personally find that blending this kind of fantasy into what’s otherwise an extremely grounded novel—grounded in the details of the era, of historical figures, of all the explanations of how other, less unlikely tricks of Carters are possible—just undermines the realism. Every time we found out how a trick was done—why Baby roared on cue, for instance—it was enlightening and significant. Whereas every time Carter did something ludicrously impossible without explanation, I was booted out of the story.

I don’t have the same problem with actual stage magic: The point of stage magic is to dazzle the viewer with something impossible which they see with their own eyes. But stage magic has to be done in real time, in front of a live audience, to work that way. I’ve always felt that magic in other media, whether it’s a televised David Copperfield performance or a film or novel about a magician—has to be held to a different and higher standard. Because it’s childishly simple (and frankly boring) to say “And then he somehow made the Statue Of Liberty disappear.” It’s another thing entirely to see it with your own eyes.

I enjoyed Carter Beats The Devil a good deal, as a mystery, and a character study, and a historical novel, and at times as an adventure. But as a book about a magician, it repeatedly fell flat for me. Anyone can describe impossible things happening. What takes talent is working out how they could be possible. In this one regard, Carter struck me as lazy and annoying. How am I supposed to be dazzled by a trick I can’t see, and frankly have no reason to believe in?