Reviews

No Spoons are Bent in 'Spoonbenders' But the Laughs Make Up for It

Daryl Gregory's wry tale of psychics deftly intermixes a family saga, a mob thriller, and high-concept storytelling.


Spoonbenders

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 416 pages
Author: Daryl Gregory
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-06
Amazon

"If the wonder is gone when the truth is known, there never was any wonder."

-- Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) on House, M.D.

"A skeptical mind-set is like a jammer," Frankie Telemachus tells the government agent Destin Smalls in Daryl Gregory's Spoonbenders. Frankie, a member of the Amazing Telemachus Family, which prides itself on the psychic abilities of its members, believes that if one must disabuse himself of any disbelief before experiencing a psychic -- one might even say magical -- event. If one is too skeptical, he will attribute any magical phenomenon to chance or trickery. Teddy, the con-man patriarch of the Amazing Telemachuses, later backs up his son's claim, saying, "You gotta have an open mind to allow these abilities to work." The James Randi-esque R. Randall Archibald rebuffs Teddy with a quick witticism: "Or an empty one."

Spoonbenders, Gregory's first novel for the literary fiction market, exists at the mid-point of the magical and the skeptical. Neither totally fantastical or empirical, the novel presents a family of (mostly) genuine psychics while skirting a total endorsement of their worldview. Prior to Spoonbenders, Gregory has been best known for his work in science fiction and fantasy, genres in which he has accrued many awards and recognitions. Those two genres exist in Spoonbenders, but they don't constitute the bulk of the storytelling that takes place.

Gregory aimed big in conceiving this novel. Spoonbenders is, all at once, a family saga, a mob thriller, and a science fiction narrative. Had Gregory allowed any one of those storytelling modes dominate, Spoonbenders would have been a confused mess. Oddly enough, it's the unusual mélange of genres and tropes that make Spoonbenders a rousing success.

The Telemachus family begins with the unlikely union of Teddy, the self-professed master card shark of Chicago, and Maureen McKinnon, a legitimate psychic, who meet at a scientific study conducted by academics at the University of Chicago. The study, it turns out, serves as a gateway for Project Star Gate, based on a real-life United States government initiative called the Stargate Project, which seeks to recruit talented psychics to aid the US in fighting the Cold War. (As it often happens, this conceit is so much stranger than fiction that it ends up being true -- see Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats). Teddy and Maureen have three children: Irene, Frankie, and Buddy, who each inherit a unique psychic gift. The family initially performs as a kind of psychic troupe; with Teddy's con-based talent for showmanship and Maureen's undeniable powers, the family captivates audiences wherever it goes. But then, something goes wrong on a live TV broadcast, and the family never performs again. Maureen dies of cancer shortly thereafter.

After Maureen's death, the family disentangles and frays. Buddy, the most powerful psychic in his family after his mother's death, folds into himself, afraid upon discovering that one September day in 1995 -- the year that the story of Spoonbenders is set in -- he no longer can see the future. Irene, who gets pregnant with the budding psychic Matty after a relationship with a man who abandons her, faces poverty and a seemingly endless series of disappointing jobs. Frankie manages to hold down a marriage and three kids, but not before getting hugely into debt with a Chicago crime family. Spoonbenders finds the Telemachuses in their darkest hours, where even their abilities can't save them or show them a path into the future that isn't laden with complications.

Gregory bookends Spoonbenders with a frame that initially puts this complex family narrative in a skeptical light. The novel's epigraph, a quote from Uri Geller, reads, "You'd think that whatever causes these things to happen doesn't want them to be proved." In the closing Acknowledgements page, Gregory writes, "And so, though it seems ridiculous to have to say this in the twenty-first century; none of it's real, folks. There are no mind readers, no remote viewers, no water dousers, no one who can warp kitchen utensils with the power of their mind -- except in fiction. But isn't that enough?"

Geller's quotation doesn't on its own endorse the outright (non-fictional) denial of skeptics by Gregory, and Gregory even with his "skeptical mind-set" sees the value in psychic phenomenon. That value may in Gregory's view be only fictional, but if Spoonbenders is any indication, that value is tremendous.

Gregory's intermixing of adult, literary storytelling with science-fiction conceits comes with plenty of risk. If the former overcomes the latter, then the Telemachus' psychic abilities would come across as openly ridiculous, objects of parody that serve to reinforce the serious, "human" elements of the story. If the latter takes primacy, then the character-based depth of Gregory's prose could potentially be drowned out by the conceptual exposition required to explain the psychic talents of the Telemachus family.

Luckily, Gregory's literary skill and the psychically-charged Telemachus family prove to be natural bedfellows, rather than oppositional forces that must be reconciled. Gregory tastefully sprinkles in the high-fangled conceptual elements of the psychic narrative in Spoonbenders without compromising the family-oriented plot of the novel. A seasoned pro in the science fiction and fantasy world, Gregory wisely incorporates elements of both genres not as apparatuses to the real-world problems of the Telemachus family, but instead as supplements to them. The talents of Irene, Frankie, Buddy, and Matty inform and are a part of their life's greatest struggles. The psychic and the "regular" human are not so far apart.

It helps that Gregory's pose is tremendously funny throughout. Whether he's evoking the mob milieu or the inner workings of a psychic family, Gregory spares no funny lines. Describing a mob-run bar, Gregory observes, "Mitzi's Tavern was starting to fill up with the after-work crowd, if you could use the word 'crowd' to describe the dozen wretches who huddled here for a beer and a bump before facing the wife." Teddy, a source of many of the novel's best comic insults, tells Smalls, "That's the most weaselly, self-serving, bullshit sentence I've heard come out of that Easter Island face of yours." Uncle Frankie, who takes in Matty as a kind of psychic mentee, says to the young boy, "You know how sometimes it gets too cold to snow? That was Jane Byrne's face."

Amongst his wry sentences about the Telemachus family and the colorful dialogue of his Chicago characters, Gregory exhibits beautiful, insightful prose. Recalling his time meeting Maureen at the University of Chicago, Teddy recalls that "the campus trees were ablaze, and the air had taken on that amber shimmer of a fall afternoon. Or perhaps it was only the stage lighting of faulty memory." Teddy later muses, "The problem with getting old was that each day had to compete with the thousands of others gone by." All that Buddy "knows about the whirlpool of the past and future," writes Gregory, "tells him that the universe does not owe you anything, and even if it did, it would never pay up." The humor of Gregory's prose and third-person narrator follows logically from a simple observation: a family full of misfit psychics has to at least be a little funny. But for however much he rubbishes psychics in his Acknowledgements page, Gregory treats the Telemachus psychics like any family: flawed, but loveable.

In the final moments of Tim Burton's Big Fish, a film about a son (Billy Crudup) trying to understand the tall tales that comprise his father's (Albert Finney) life story, Crudup's character says, "In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn't always make sense and most of it never happened... but that's what kind of story this is." The same can be said for Spoonbenders, a novel full of fantastic feats committed by troubled yet talented people who, in the real world, don't exist. Teddy's newfound paramour Graciella asks him about one of his stories about life with Maureen, "How much of that is true?" To this, Teddy replies, "As much as you'd like, as much as you'd like."

Like the protagonist of Big Fish, Gregory maintains a somewhat distant position from the fanciful feats of his characters, but that distance doesn't inhibit him, paradoxically, from embracing these people for who they are. Gregory, in that way, is much like the aging Teddy who, after years of pulling tricks on people, still gets the same delight with each repetition of the con. Knowledge doesn't preclude enjoyment, and the fictional psychics of Spoonbenders are compelling enough to soften even the hardest of skeptical hearts.

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

Next Page

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image