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LiliaFord

LiliaFord

Mostly Cross Posts from my blog, Readings From the Dark Side

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The Magic Circle - Jenny Davidson Fascinating. I read the book in one sitting and couldn’t put it down—(in fact I skipped dinner because I was so immersed, which is thematically quite appropriate). It’s a many-layered, thought-provoking book. I have a lot of familiarity with the world portrayed, since I have been to grad school and have lived Morningside Heights for most of my adult life. The attention to the detail here is marvelous—odd word choice I know since the depiction of the setting is so reality-based and accurate, but the effect is amazing. Books that get New York right are quite rare, and when they fail they tend to hit notes of agonizing phoniness—this book is a great model for anyone who wants to use New York as a setting: the first rule is that New York is above all a city of neighborhoods.

Davidson shows how to do it well, but the point is more than for the sake of mere accuracy. It so ups the realism of the characterization to have the players so grounded in a real space—there’s a specificity in their concerns and routines that is simply lacking in most books. Obviously, that extreme realism takes on extra significance given the characters’ fixation on games. The fact that they use that setting as both the scene and even the point of the games adds yet another dimension. Games are work for two of the characters, and that inherent tension sets up a lot of what happens in the end: specifically, what happens when you try to turn your place of work and residence, with all the ordinary concerns of getting mail or meeting a friend for coffee, into a kind of lunatic, psychedelic playroom?

I found the material on games fascinating, and there I knew almost nothing to start with. Though the characters clearly think like the academics they are, Lucy is an effective stand in for the reader in knowing little about games and having a bracingly skeptical reaction to the more pretentious flights of her friends. I found Lucy to be an especially present character. One effect of reading the book is that by the end, she seems to occupy your brain like someone you’ve actually met—again I speak advisedly. Thanks to the shifts in narrative mode, Lucy feels like someone you’ve met in reality, with the same kinds of gaps in knowledge you might have with an actual friend or roommate, and emphatically not the kind of intimate comprehensiveness with which you know most fictional characters. The effect with Ruth is very similar. There are enough details to tell you an awful lot about her, and though she does feel a bit Whit Stillmanesque, the portrayal is accurate for the same reason Stillman’s are, because she is the product of a particular culture.

The only place I felt it wasn’t enough was with Anders and to a lesser degree Anna. I loved the character of Anna, with all her exotic glamor and the scenes with her ‘places of power’ game were among my favorites in the book. But we are mostly given tantalizing hints and few facts about her story— the gaps in knowledge there are realistic, but also frustrating. Anders is too shadowy for the impact he has, and the ending felt very rushed. I think ultimately the author’s choices can be justified, but they are unconventional and to a degree alienating. They force the reader to do a lot more work than usual to figure out what happens and why.

Still, it did not spoil my enjoyment of the book at all. I would have read it for the gaming alone, which was utterly fascinating and brilliant—or the portrayal of New York City that was among the best I’ve encountered.