Monday, January 25, 2021

Patchett's The Magician's Assistant


The Magician's Assistant seems the most aesthetically satisfying of the Patchett novels I've read thus far.  It has a solid basis in Germanic mythology that remains consistent throughout, and the ending (unlike the other three novels I read) is clever and satisfying -- aesthetically. It is probably especially important to emphasize aesthetics in this novel because there is quite a lot to object to moralistically.

In Old and Middle English Literature from the Beginnings to 1485, George K. Anderson writes on page 39, "As would be expected of any Germanic literature, we find in Anglo-Saxon writings a remarkable predilection for moralizing.  English literature as a whole has been thoroughly impregnated with teaching and aphorism; indeed, English literary criticism has been prone to base judgments more on the sense of a literary work than on its aesthetics."  Patchett free-wheels in her novels, tip-toeing past a bit of teaching, but stuff that is tame for our times.  She is more comfortable with aesthetics.  In The Magician's Assistant, Parsifal is early in the novel seemingly sent off to a reformatory as a boy to cure him of his homosexuality.  Moralizing regarding that sort of thing would be very safe in these times, but as Sabine makes contact with Parsifal's mother and sisters, she learns that Guy/Parsifal wasn't sent to a reformatory for his homosexuality. He was sent there by his mother to prevent his being sent to prison for killing his father with a baseball bat.  The father was kicking the mother while she was on the floor and pregnant at the time.  Guy hit his father with a baseball bat and killed him.   Were boys really sent to prison for that sort of thing?

Susan was ever inclined to take the poor in spirit under her wing -- under our wings I should say because I went along with her.  One such person was Greg, 27 years old who went from church to church looking for one that truly practiced Christian charity.  Eventually he found Susan and we (not our church) took him in.  One cold night in our apartment after a few months, Greg confessed that when he was 17 he had killed his father for the very same reason that Parsifal killed his.  Greg though didn't get to go to a reformatory.  He was sent to prison for nearly ten years.   His story was a bit off-putting when he confided that he had begun to think of me as his father, but he intended that in a nice way.  Though laws, according to Patchett have softened in regard to a mother or one of her children killing an abusive husband or father, Patchett isn't entering into Thomas Hardy territory with the legal abuse of children who kill a parent in self-defense.  And, Sabine learns, Parsifal's mother and sisters adore him and have, ever since he left, wished he would return to them in Nebraska.  Parsifal because he has grown rich has been sending them money.  He still cares about them, Sabine learns, but his becoming a Californian is so thoroughgoing that he could never return to Nebraska.

After his death, his assistant through dreams and hallucinations is encouraged to go to Nebraska, and when she does she does all the wonderful things that Parsifal ought to have done as a loving son and brother, and perhaps would have if he wasn't rendered psychologically incapable of returning to Nebraska which for him would have been very like the occasion when he was locked by his father in a refrigerator.  Though he became a famous magician, he couldn't do any of Houdini's tricks.  He could not lock himself in an enclosed area and escape -- but his assistant could. 

It is nothing today to defend homosexuality.  So what if Parsifal was homosexual.  It isn't preaching to describe him in favorable terms, nor is it unusual to describe his relationship with Pham in gentler and ethereal terms.  It is perhaps strange to learn of the long term, but unconsummated, relationship between Parsifal and his assistant, Sabine.  She loves him as much as he loves her, but as to sex, he has Pham (who also loves Sabine in the same manner that Parsifal does).  Sabine has had some brief affairs over the years, but nothing very enjoyable or long-lasting.  The only satisfying relationships she has had have been with Parsifal and Pham -- very emotional and strong, but sexless. 

The reader has become used to Sabine's sexlessness, even though she is gorgeous and sought after throughout her life.  Then  back in Nebraska as she she becomes immersed in the lives of Parsifal's mother and sisters, she cares for his mother and becomes as well loved by her as his sisters.   The problem sister, Kitty, Parsifal's favorite, the one who looks like him, the one who was his assistant as he practiced his magic tricks as a child, has been incapable of choosing a decent husband.  The current one whom Sabine fends off is an abusive bully.  Kitty one evening, hiding out with Sabine from the husband, intends to kiss Sabine on the cheek goodnight, but she misses and they kiss on the lips -- an electric moment when they both realize something that doesn't need to be discussed or elaborated upon. 

And so at the end Sabine announces that she is taking Kitty and her two sons with her back to Los Angeles.  She is rich and has a huge house.  The mother and other sister can visit as often as they like.  The assistant as she has done throughout her career, has performed beautifully, perfectly, satisfyingly.  And so was the novel's ending -- aesthetically.

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