A triumph of language and structure over plot

The Last Magician
By Janette Turner Hospital
Henry Holt, 320 pages, $22.95
Reviewed by Michelle Erica Green
A writer and critic
To borrow an allusion from one of Janette Turner Hospital's favorite sources, The Last Magician is something rich and strange. In addition to Shakespeare, Hospital weaves references throughout her fifth novel from Lao Tzu, Browning, and Woody Allen, insisting that some old stories are worth hearing again.

But the strongest voice in The Last Magician belongs to its Australian narrator, Lucy Barclay, interpreter of both the classics and the haunting events which unfold. A magician of sorts herself, Lucy moves unruffled from Queensland farm to Brisbane brothel to Sydney television, guiding the reader through the lives and lies of a troubled society.

Exhilarating and at times infuriating, The Last Magician represents a triumph of language and structure over plot and dialogue. The story, of a long-ago killing and the lifelong price paid by those responsible, ultimately holds less interest than the telling of it.

The novel begins with the line, "In the middle of the journey, I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost." The reader follows as Lucy descends into two distinctly Australian forms of hell: the rainforest, where black secrets lie buried under trees and boulders; and the quarry, where the underside of city life lurks in abandoned tunnels and garages. These worlds converge at Charlie's Inferno, a bar where Lucy once worked as a waitress and prostitute, and where she met Charlie Chang, the last magician of the title.

Charlie, a photographer and filmmaker determined "to show myself where I've been," seeks out people like Lucy and her lover Gabriel. Although they belong nowhere, they are equally at ease in the quarry and the university, passing between the worlds of darkness and light to reveal the mutual dependence of cathouse and statehouse. The lives of all three intersect through Gabriel's father--a former friend of Charlie's and client of Lucy's--and the mysterious Cat, whose encounters with each of them have catastrophic consequences.

The Last Magician works best during moments of pure storytelling. When Lucy describes Charlie's pictures to illustrate that photographs tell lies, she makes one of the strongest cases ever for the power of words over images.

Similarly, her reinterpretation of the classics demonstrates the extent to which knowledge depends on language. Lucy reconstructs Yeats' "Leda and the Swan" as "the sensual transcendence of brutal assault, the soft way the light falls on rape," and sketches into Botticelli's drawings the prototype of the ever-present quarry -- where her life, from art and romance to drugs and murder, has its secret beginning and ending.

Such metaphoric magic forms the novel's weakness as well as its power. The dialogue sometimes sounds stilted and artificial, and the connection with hell oddly sentimentalizes the pungent descriptions of the quarry's horrors. Worse, the metaphors blunt the novel's initially sharp political edge.

When Hospital blames not individual actions but the fallen state of humanity for suffering and murder, she absolves politicians and opportunists of responsibility for the quarry and the deaths. The social critique is sacrificed to the dark fatalism of the plot.

But these frustrations do not interfere with the pleasures of reading The Last Magician, which draws the reader down into its whirlpool by refusing to yield up its secrets until the last pages. From tantalizing start to dizzying conclusion, the novel's pleasures--like its metaphors--operate on a grand scale.

This review was originally published in The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, November 3, 1992 (Tempo Section 5 Page 3).

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