December 2004

Colleen Mondor

features

A Guided Tour of The Magician's Study by Tobias Seamon

It is one thing to come across a book with an uncommon plot line, something like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series or Julie Otsuka’s impressive novel, When the Emperor was Divine. These books surprise the reader with their subject matter or point of view or setting. The plots dazzle us in wholly unexpected ways because the stories are so unique. Of course you also have to be an outstanding author like Pullman and Otsuka to really carry off the surprise, but they have a head start by taking the reader into uncharted waters. They have us right away due to the promise of a surprise that is offered in the first pages. In both of these cases, the promise was more than fulfilled and we are all the better for having read their amazing pieces of work.

But then there is a different type of surprise, a more mechanical, stylistic form of unusual writing. This is found in books where the traditional plot line is thrown out the window, where events move forward not because of time but due to location or perspective or any other device set by the author. These are “anything goes” type of books, the kind where a reader must heed the advice of Bette Davis and hold tight to the pages as things most certainly do get bumpy when conventional plot rules no longer apply. Tobias Seamon’s novel, The Magician’s Study, is an excellent example of this unconventional form of writing and a book that I recently had a blast reading and then discussing via email with its author.

As expressed in the book’s subtitle, The Magician’s Study is “a guided tour of the life, times and memorabilia of Robert ‘the Great’ Rouncival." What Seamon has done here is taken a character, Robert Rouncival, and crafted the amazing story of his life told strictly from the voice of a tour guide walking though Rouncival’s study. Each section, each object, reveals something further about Rouncival’s personal or professional successes and failures and propels the story onward through the magician’s life and up to the circumstances of his death. As Rouncival is presented as not only a magician but also one of the foremost illusionists of the early twentieth century, his personal artifacts are both fascinating and bizarre and illuminate a life that brushes up against the more notorious aspects of American history at every turn. The true richness of the story, and what will continually captivate the reader, is the juxtaposition of the larger story of America, as represented by Rouncival’s experiences in the Bowery, his friendships with Houdini, Frida Kahlo, H.G. Wells, etc., and the intense and utterly riveting smaller story of his own life and loves. The character of Robert Rouncival, who is long dead when the story begins, completely enthralls the reader; and the format in which his life is revealed only makes the story that much more fascinating.

For Seamon, the decision to write Magician in this unusual way was not calculated; he had no intention of even writing a novel when he started. As he wrote to me recently, “When I first began the project [I] did not even think it was going to be a novel, just a short story about a huckster magician as explained via a few odd possessions. I should have realized how much bigger the project was on the first day when I had three pages of notes on major characters, pieces of memorabilia, names of illusions, key plot points, etc.” This massive amount of information is doled out throughout the book as Seamon leads his character through a life that begins in the Northeast and takes him to the Caribbean, around the world and ultimately and primarily to New York City. Along the way he loses his only brother to Flanders Field, his parents before their time, the love of his life to professional conflicts and his best friend to, well, an age-old misunderstanding. All of this moving provides Seamon with a golden opportunity to introduce his own fascination with history into the book, which he does with ease. As he puts it, “My interest in history came well before Magician. The story just ended up being a perfect vehicle for mentioning (or making up) any piece of bizarre esoterica that I fancied and seemed to fit.” Seamon charged full tilt into this design, “having an absolute blast the entire time that I was writing." What is impressive though is that the book does not read as a laundry list of historical facts and figures. Everything fits together perfectly with the story. For example, Rouncival falls in love with a theater actress named Roza Ellstein shortly after arriving in New York City in 1921. He and his best friend, Sherpa, live in the Bowery and Ellstein’s struggling troupe perform dramas there on a small cheap stage. Ellstein could be any actress of her time, but Seamon takes the time to reveal the very real world of Yiddish theater in the 1920s to place Roza in a factual historical context. Later she gains fame and fortune with the Folksbeine Troupe, an area Yiddish troupe with a long history in NYC. It’s just one example of the care that Seamon took with his story and one of many reasons why his writing so impresses me.

The history of New York in particular fairly permeates Magician, giving it an aura of authenticity that will make you wonder more than once if this is a novel or a biography. Seamon clearly loves history and was happy to share where a few of his plot points came from. “I certainly did have to research certain elements of Magician,” he wrote to me, “namely Houdini and the world of show business magicians during that period plus the Bowery and New York City’s past. I discovered McGurk’s Suicide Hall in a great non-fiction volume dating from the Second World War. The author describes, with wonderful moral outrage, various gangsters, villains, con artists methods, plus details about the Bowery and Five Points districts during their rancorous ‘glory’ days. Of course, as soon as I read about Suicide Hall I knew I had to include it in the story! Like Dutch Shultz’s deathbed ravings, you can’t make up stuff that creepy or weird.” The Suicide Hall is in Magician as is the very real mafia character of Dutch Schultz and a great chapter with Harry Houdini. All of this detail serves to steep the book even deeper in the atmosphere of post WWI New York, and lures the reader in ever deeper to Rouncival’s world; a world that was in so many ways the world of our grandparents and thus just a step outside of our own.

Ultimately Robert Rouncival’s personal demons drag him down to a point of immense darkness and anger. He becomes less a magician and more and more not only an illusionist of increasing power, but one bent on tormenting his audience rather than entertaining them. The crowds keep coming, of course, because who can resist the opportunity to witness the torment of others? An evening with Rouncival in his new guise as the “Sachem Morpho” is shared through a letter on display in his study. It reads, “Then, the bastard [Rouncival] began to select members of the audience, pretending to forecast their future as he posed questions and let the skeleton answer. And every answer was horrible! Death, loneliness, fear, those were Robert’s prognostications! He spoke to me, Maggie, and I can’t repeat what he said, it was too damn awful.” This is the low point for Rouncival, and a bleak and necessary place for the story to descend into. As Seamon explained, “The reasons for Rouncival plunging so far into black magic were twofold: first, I needed him to bottom out in order to retire to the study so he, Margaret and Sherpa could reconcile themselves away from the limelight. Equally important to me, though, was that Rouncival bring the darkness and suffering of his life front and center, if only once in the story. The first two sections of the book are filled with war, death, disease, madness, addiction, squalor and poverty but the tour guide rarely plays those aspects up, preferring to put a genteel gloss on most of that (or merely accepting such as normal in life.) I thought it was only fair to remove the humor for a while and let Rouncival revel in all the terrible experiences of his young life. Though he’d become wealthy and famous, not much of the journey was ever easy for Rouncival, and it was time to give the devil his due.”

Although the book does have its dark sections and moments, it is a period piece and this period of American history (between the wars) was very dark and difficult for many people. In most respects Rouncival’s life was no different from anyone else’s, it just happened that he practiced an unusual profession that gave him the opportunity to embrace the dark in a way most people never could.

I love a good story, a good intense piece of literature. I also love reading history, Seamon and I totally have that in common, and thus The Magician’s Study was the best kind of surprise for me. I loved that he made Rouncival an illusionist rather than just a magician, so that he could, as Seamon put it, “have him do wilder (not to mention less explicable) performances, giving him a kind of mysterious sheen.” The Magician’s Study is a fantastic story; the kind that lures the reader in so quickly and then holds him until the very end. And yes, the ending is outstanding, and delivers quite handily on all the buildup of tension that occurs throughout the book. This one goes on my shelf, in my study, to be reread and enjoyed at my leisure. It is the best sort of book for the curious reader and one I plan to revisit many times in the years to come.

The Magician’s Study by Tobias Seamon
Turtle Point Press
ISBN 1885586981
182 pages