Daryl Gregory's wry tale of psychics deftly intermixes a family saga, a mob thriller, and high-concept storytelling.
Length: 416 pages
Author: Daryl Gregory
Publication date: 2017-06
-- 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.