Carter Beats The Devil: The backdrop of American history

Carter Beats The Devil: The backdrop of American history

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: Rowan made a comparison to The Prestige in his response to Monday's post on magic, and it strikes me that there's another irresistible connection between these two books: Both feature actual historical figures and technology as key elements in their narratives.  Carter himself is based loosely on a real performer, of course, but more substantial -- yet also quite fanciful -- are folks like President Harding, Houdini, and Philo T. Farnsworth, who pop up and disappear with various secrets to move the plot along.  Less recognizable but just as central is Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, whose ulexite mines and Oakland-based home for orphaned girls actually existed during the novel's time period.

In The Prestige it's Nikolas Tesla and electric current that provide the genius and magic against which the protagonists measure their craft. Borax provides an interesting counterweight to the more famous names in the novel; he happened upon a natural resource he could market, while Farnsworth and Carter must build technologies (keeping key elements under wraps lest they be pilfered by the unscrupulous) to create an experience. There's the monetary contrast as well, with Borax undergoing a slow decline from great good fortune, and Farnsworth and Carter never quite managing to find the secret of turning a profit (or perhaps sabotaging that effort for some other goal of greater value).  In any case, these people and inventions appropriated from history are the rich set-dressings of the Carter show.  What do you see them providing in terms of themes, resonance, motivating incident, or perhaps even distraction?

Ellen Wernecke: Gold's appropriation of real historical figures is one thing I loved about Carter Beats The Devil; Glen David Gold's follow-up, Sunnyside (which I heartily recommend), does something similar with Charlie Chaplin. It helped, of course, that I knew very little about Warren G. Harding and nothing about Borax going in to Carter. Farnsworth, I'd only heard of because Aaron Sorkin wrote a screenplay on him, later adapted into a (not very successful) Broadway play, in which his naïveté is used in a more tragic context. The use of these characters -- including what I can only call an anti-redemption for Harding, when his final fate is revealed -- adds depth to the canvas and plausibility to Carter's story that wouldn't have been there otherwise. 

With technology, on the other hand, I found Carter's relationship to be a bit more complicated. It develops throughout the novel that several of his illusions, if not technologically-based, somewhat mechanical in nature, although his first magic tricks relied on sleight-of-hand and constant practice. Annabelle's death at the hands of the Phantom War Gun might be enough to turn any honest illusionist off the employment of devices in his stage shows. Still, Carter's dreams encompass these elaborate sets, even to the point where he is licensing them out while lusting after others -- in the business of being in the forefront among his peers -- and nowhere near breaking even on them. In his fascination Carter's behavior mirrors that of the country around him, contending with technologies it doesn't quite know how to handle -- as, in a thowaway, we learn that Jack Griffin only survived his brush with Mysterioso because of surgeries practiced during the Great War.

Rowan Kaiser: Theoretically, the historical aspects of Carter Beats The Devil should have been right up my alley - that was part of the reason I engaged with The Intuitionist, set in roughly the same period. But it didn't really do anything for me. I think my historical interest tends to be with movements, trends, and fringe politics. Carter used history for a bit of color and setting: pirates! Harding! Houdini! World War I! I don't think it really did well at trying to say anything about the history, though, it just happened to have a specific setting.

On the other hand, at a specifically personal level, I did enjoy the history of the Bay Area setting, since that's where I live right now. The scene when Gold describes Carter at the top of Piedmont Avenue, going to visit Mountain View Cemetery, took place about half a block from my house. The historical color of the graveyard as place where young people went for hook-ups was both amusing and inspired me to visit the cemetery more often. I also enjoyed the historical portrayal of Oakland in the post-earthquake era as attempting to compete directly with San Francisco, as that's certainly not the case these days.

But there are specific interests of a Bay Area resident, not generalized. Other than than those, the only scene that piqued my historian's interest was the one with the competing bordellos at Carter's "Blackmail" show. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy Carter, just that it didn't use its time period as a strength, as the last several Wrapped Up In Books selections have done.

Zack Handlen: Honestly, I didn't really care one way or the other. Tasha makes some excellent points about cheating magic in fiction (and I agree, that drove me crazy watching The Illusionist), and the presence of actual historical figures just exacerbates that problem for me. It could just be I'm not a huge fan of this genre, but then, I loved Mason & Dixon like crazy--I think it's more that I don't see it as an ends in and of itself. I didn't know enough about Carter to really understand the references the book made to his actual life; and while I don't think that's something Gold should be at all criticized for, the novel really needs to work on its own whether or not you completely understand the context. (I also didn't know much about Mason and Dixon. I'm not very bright.) The parts of Carter I enjoyed I really enjoyed, but there was a lot here that seemed randomly placed or weirdly paced, and I was never sure if I was supposed to find some resonance in that with the real Carter's life. I think Carter has a lopsided, inelegant structure (ambitious, successful in spots, but often clumsy and distracting), at least for me, and I blame at least part of that on the attempts at history, which is generally difficult to put properly into story form. And I agree with Rowan, Gold never really made the time come alive for me. There were so many fascinating threads he could've focused on, I felt like he tried for all of them, and his prose by itself, while competent, wasn't strong enough to connect everything with mood. 

That said, I loved the connection with television. It was more of a distraction than anything else, but it was an excellent distraction nonetheless.

Todd VanDerWerff: I guess I'll join the general pile and say that the history of the piece, while often INTERESTING, was rarely the main reason to read it. I enjoy the general milieu of the time, and I love that section where Carter and Annabelle are on the streetcar after they've begun to realize just how much they love each other and Carter reflects on the changes of the city since the quake. But I wouldn't say that the historical setting necessarily sunk its claws into me the way the characters did. I will say that I thought the most successful section in this regard was that long opening third, featuring Carter's growth from boy to young man and his infatuation with the circuses and Vaudeville acts of the time, all of which had a nice level of detail to the way these operations really worked. But with the sudden shift in narrative (to Griffin's point-of-view, to more inwardly-focused story), these details kind of go out the window.

One of the things I think the book reflects nicely is the fact that the time was essentially one when America felt boldly optimistic about itself (and California very specifically felt that optimism). Carter strikes me, in some ways, as a book for optimists, for people who always think things will eventually get better if things hang around long enough (and I count myself among that number, which may be biasing me). Gold captures that feeling within the country at the time, and it gives his book a nice shade of can-do attitude that could have felt corny in many other eras.

More Wrapped Up In Books