Carter Beats The Devil: More rehearsal needed
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. This concludes our discussion of this month’s selection, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil. Watch this space for an invitation to a livechat with staff members this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Donna Bowman: I'm happy to report that I enjoyed Carter Beats The Devil as much as I had hoped. It's been sitting at my bedside for years, ever since I picked it up off a remainder table somewhere, and one of the reasons I proposed it to you readers as one of this month's options was that I wanted an excuse to crack it open. I adored The Prestige when I read it several years ago (ahead of the excellent Nolan film adaptation), and initially had circulated that title among the WUiB regulars as a possibility, but then settled on Carter for its happy combination of existing fandom among the A.V. Club staff and a potential new experience for me. When the reader poll came up overwhelmingly in its favor, I was thrilled; when the narrative grabbed me and wouldn't let go (from the child-abandonment sequence on), I was deeply satisfied.
Nevertheless, there's something about the book that bothers me, and maybe there's something (the same or different) that bothers you, too. I know why I read as fast as I could, verging on skimming at times, to get through the lengthy scenes of performance—not that they were ineffective, but that they were too effective. I was in such a state of anxiety about whether Carter would pull off his effects, and whether apparently unpredictable elements had been incorporated into the controlled show or not, that I had to find out whether he remained on the tightrope and reached the other side safely. I can't say the same thing about the two major action setpieces that anchor the book, Carter's escape from the crate thrown into the bay (with the subsequent comeuppance for Hollis's gang) and his fight with Mysterioso near the novel's conclusion. In both cases, I ended up skimming because the action became too difficult to follow. I could picture how well these might work cinematically, but in prose description for page after page, I could not keep track of who was where and what peril was most immediate. Gold's inability to write about these fights and escapes with as much clarity as he brings to the description of Carter's illusions was a disappointment to me. Did you feel the same? Or do you find some other aspect of Carter problematic, and how much does it detract from your enjoyment?
Rowan Kaiser: I mentioned yesterday that the history didn't do much for me, although I'd hesitate to classify that as a weakness. I think of it more as a potential strength left unrealized. And while I agree fully with Donna about the final action sequence being something of a blur, I actually kept full track of the crate scene, visualizing it perfectly (something rare for me with action scenes on the page).
If I had any specific problems with Carter, though, it was the minor characters. I thought that Carter himself, Phoebe, James, and Griffin were fairly interesting and fleshed-out, but they were about it. The villains, Starling and Mysterioso, suffered the most. Mysterioso somehow turned from a cartoon bully into a Bond-esque evil mastermind over the course of a couple pages, while the narrative gave hints that Starling was behind everything without ever actually turning that into anything interesting. Likewise, Borax Smith's betrayal lacked sting because we knew so little about the man—it was merely one plot point among many.
Which is, come to think of it, probably the biggest weakness I can think of—Carter Beats The Devil functions very well as an adventure story, but I found that it lacked a great deal of thematic depth. Not that I mind an adventure story at all, given that my fiction-reading tastes trend toward science fiction and fantasy, but it's enough to stop me from calling it a classic.
Zack Handlen: When it worked, I enjoyed Carter quite a bit—although for me, unlike Todd, it never got above popcorn fun. And that's probably because, while I'd say the good parts were effective and exciting, the bad parts made it hard for me to take Carter's emotional journey all that seriously. At times, this seemed like six or seven different novels at once, and I spent the first 200 pages or so waiting to feel like the story had actually started. First we get Carter's involvement with Harding. Then we get Carter's childhood, and his growing powers as a magician. Then we get Special Agent Griffin running around. Then it's back to Carter struggling with the death of his wife—and the timing is strange, because this connects back to the prologue, but the Carter from the prologue seems different than the Carter we see here. Then it's the TV stuff. A romance. A final confrontation. And of course Griffin running around, trying to solve a mystery that I never particularly cared about, and only assumed was a mystery because if it wasn't, Griffin would be a horrible waste of time.
Which isn't to say Griffin was badly drawn; humorless, clumsy heroes are always a lot of fun, because they subvert our expectations of what a "good guy" in a story is supposed to be. Really, most of these disparate segments have their strengths, and Carter's struggle to get back in the magic game was a great arc. I just kept feeling cheated by the fact that Gold never seemed entirely sure what his novel was about, and so none of these threads ever got as much attention as they deserved. I never cared about Harding's "death," and the fact that he was really alive the whole time seemed like the laziest kind of historical-fiction cheat. It was a twist because the rest of that narrative demanded there be some kind of twist, and because it made some point about love and possibility, but I didn't get any emotional catharsis from it, or satisfaction. Really, if Gold had committed to pure thrills, if Gold had focused on battling magicians and Carter's journey, and cut out all the Secret Service cabals… well, a purer read would've meant more to me in the end than what we got. As it was, I had to work to get to the good bits, and Gold just wasn't enough of a stylistic wizard to make the effort entirely worth it.
Ellen Wernecke: To your point about Harding's "death," Zack, I would answer that while I didn't necessarily care much about Harding's true fate, it was a nice bookend to have. I thought it exemplified Carter's earlier aphorism regarding Phoebe Kyle, "In his youth, [he] had believed everything was possible. Then in grief, he believed everything was impossible. And now… he felt that when you had lived enough of your life, there was no difference between the two." Harding and his wife's non-deaths served as a macrocosm for the tiny restorations of order Carter performs in his tricks; their faked endings only pave the way to the real ones they want for themselves.
Like Donna, I found myself skimming the setpieces—particularly the final fight, which seemed to draw on a mental map of the theater I had not personally assembled, so couldn't understand where Carter was hiding and why. (Nearly as frustrating as trying to "read" the wine-bottle graphic in my edition, and hopefully yours; even after being told what words were in it, I could not figure it out, bringing back the trauma of Magic Eyes past.) But to be honest and perhaps overly slavish, the one thing I really wished when I finished Carter was that it was a little longer, because of the abruptness from which some of the middle material seemed to suffer. Filling out the minor characters, as Rowan suggested, would help, particularly if they were allowed more scenes engaged in business other than reassuring, warning, or thwarting Carter in his latest pursuit. Seeing more of Carter at the top of his game might explain his weird attraction to Philo Farnsworth's gadget and why, at the probable cost to his career, he would gamble everything on a dubious illusion. But this is all damning with faint criticism, because I could barely put this book down—and that was enough for me.
Todd VanDerWerff: I'm with Ellen on that last sentence. I often am a painstaking reader, working my way VERY slowly through things, but I often felt like Carter was all but demanding I read it. I'd set it down for an hour or two, then need to pick it up again to see what happened next. And I felt that way through the whole thing! From page one, indeed from that prologue, I was hooked, and I wanted to see where Gold was taking everybody next. So I can agree with many of the criticisms (the villains are poorly drawn, that final action sequence is often a mess, the wine bottle label is impossible to read), but I also find in the book something that I often look for in fiction: possibility. It's a book about many things, sure, but I think Ellen nicely singles out its most important, central theme: The world is bigger and wilder and more amazing than you'd ever imagine, and whatever real magic there is that exists comes from the endless amount of ways that people are able to reinvent themselves, to pick up the pieces of themselves and start over. Ultimately, Carter might have played to too many of my favorite themes for me to not like it, but I think the book itself has charm to spare and a central romantic notion of how the universe works that made me keep turning pages.