Posted in Short Story

Deal Me In, Week 17 ~ “Eisenheim the Illusionist”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser

Card picked: Ten of Diamonds

From: The Barnum Museum

Review: (Or, rather, some history of me being a procrastinator.)

2006 was a good year for magician movies. Two premiered that year: The Prestige featuring a whole host of post-Batman Begins stars including Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Christopher Nolan (directing), and The Illusionist with the ever low-key Edward Nortan and the incomparable Paul Giamatti. I saw both in the theater well before magic became a full-blown research project/hobby. I like them both, but The Illusionist has become my absolute favorite.* It’s a smaller, more real story. Many of its narrative beats harken back to the magician “biographies” I’ve read, fanciful tales of mysterious mentors met on a journey.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Both are based on written works and I love reading movie source materials. I managed to nab a copy of The Prestige by Christopher Priest fairly easily from PaperbackSwap, but Millhauser is more…literary. With fewer copies available on the secondary market. I hemmed and hawed and finally purchased The Barnum Museum on December 21, 2011, presumably with birthday money. So eager was I to read “Eisenheim the Illusionist” that I didn’t get to it until June of 2012! (A few months later Eric would suggest that I might write a novel about an early 20th century magician. There’s been no looking back.) I read another of the stories in the collection and, well, wasn’t as impressed.

For Deal Me In, I figured I’d finally finish reading The Barnum Museum (a mere three years after I purchased it), but I also wanted to give “Eisenheim” a reread. I enjoyed it well enough when I first read it, but (according to the notice of it) I found it tiring. “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is less visual than the other Millhauser stories I’ve read. He includes the names of many classic tricks and alludes to a plethora of magic devices, but doesn’t go out of his way to describe them. I assume this is what I found tiring previously. On a reread, after a year and a half of becoming familiar with the jargon, I weirdly found the details exhilarating. Millhauser definitely knows some magic history and has infused the story with it. This story also feels more rounded and satisfying than the others of his I’ve read, even though it is much more narratively loose than the movie. As I often say when discussing books to movies, both are good in their own way.

* Depending on the day of the week, The Prestige and last year’s Now You See Me vie for second place. Fourth is occupied by a rather fictitious Houdini pic called Death Defying Acts (2007). In fifth place is The Brothers Bloom (2008), which doesn’t feature a magician, but has a plot so filled with cons and misdirections that it’s more of a magic story than many of the tales in the Copperfield anthologies I’ve been reading. It also features voice over by Ricky Jay, which makes it a magical half-cousin at least. Jay was also an advisor on The Prestige and The Illusionist, appearing in the former.