Books 2010: Carter Beats The Devil

Something about early twentieth century arts and culture fascinates me. I like my so-called high culture as much as my pop culture and early twentieth century arts and culture loved to combine avant-garde ideas with popular culture. Some years ago I read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It told the tale of America's burgeoning comics industry but Kavalier & Clay was something more than just a paen to superheroes. Chabon had managed to write a novel about the twentieth century and about twentieth century America, in particular. Small, personal stories had been woven into a giant tapestry. Kavalier & Clay was astounding. Beautifully written and intricately plotted, it delivered both as a literary novel and as fast-paced action/adventure. I loved it. Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil was published around the same time as Chabon's novel. Like Kavalier & Clay, Gold's novel revolves around the idea of escapism in one way or another. Mainly taking place in 1920s America, Gold's book deals with illusionist Charles Carter who suddenly finds himself in trouble when President Harding dies shortly after having participated in one of Carter's illusions. Cue chapter upon chapter filled with vaudeville acts, flappers, Russian anarchists, baffling illusions, quirky scientists, and a lot of card-shuffling. It should be entertaining and it is entertaining - but unfortunately I have read Chabon's novel which not only shuffles similar cards better but also pulls off far bigger sleights of hand.

I did enjoy the book, though. I liked the description of vaudeville performers travelling around trying to entertain people but gradually seeing their audience fall prey to moving pictures (and, later, television). I liked reading about how illusionists worked: the patter, the agility, the teamwork behind the scene and how illusions were constructed (although they are rarely explained in the novel). I just have two main problems with CBTD. Firstly, the novel is too long for its plot. Gold tries to go for a Wilkie Collins-esque vibe and also gives world-building a fair go, but this results in a book about 150 pages too long. Secondly, the writing style is clunky at times. I know some people do not care about writing styles, but I do. I am one of those people who really do not care about the plot as long as the book is well-written (I like Alan Hollinghurst, for heaven's sake).

At the end of the day, Carter Beats the Devil was an entertaining read but it was definitely not The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which you should read if you haven't already).

Next: Jonathan Coe's first novel, The Accidental Woman.