magic & loss

Somewhere along the way, either early or late in life, you realize no one’s coming to save you. You get cancer, drive off the road into a tree, are unlucky enough to be in the way of a bullet in a shopping mall.

And you have a choice: go forward knowing what you know, or deny it as best you can. A lot of the entertainment spectacle complex is devoted to denial: just what do you think all those superhero movies are about?

But going forward without magic, without a get out of jail free card, is not exactly the same thing as going forward without magic. Two recent examples:

“Saving Mr. Banks” is the Tom Hanks-Emma Thompson movie which tells the back story of the making of Disney’s “Mary Poppins.” In it, Thompson plays Pamela Travers, who wrote the books on which “Mary Poppins” was based and who, so the movie tells us, was desperately afraid of letting Disney make her character into a movie.

As the movie unfolds, you learn that Travers’ beloved father died when she was young, despite the efforts of an aunt who swooped in as he grew sicker and sicker. The aunt – or Travers’ hope for what the aunt should have been – is very loosely the basis for Poppins, and that the point of the book is to save George Banks, the fictional stand-in for her own father. It takes pretty much all of “Mr. Banks” to get to this, and Hanks as Disney delivers the key moment, telling Travers/Thompson that people can be saved, not in real life, but maybe in stories.

“That’s what story tellers do,” he says. “We restore order to imagination.  We bring hope.”

Even better is “Mr.Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore,” a 2012 novel by Robin Sloan that charges head-on at the idea of magic.

In it, a young man named Clay Jannon – who needs a job – gets hired on at an odd book store in San Francisco. Jannon discovers the book store is one of the headquarters for a 500 year old secret society, which is engaged in a multi-century effort to decode a text, which they believe will lead to eternal life.

It’s a quest story, and a story about the power of books and reading and about the particularly modern magic you get from Google.  Here Sloan describes what it’s like as all of Google’s computational power is turned on decoding the text:

And then, on a sunny Friday morning, for three seconds, you can’t search for anything. You can’t check your email. You can’t watch any videos. You can’t get directions. For just three seconds, nothing works, because every single one of Google’s computers around the world is dedicated to this task…The screens go blank, pure white. There’s nothing to show because too much is happening now, more than you could ever display on a bank of four screens, or forty, or four thousand.

It doesn’t work, which somehow didn’t diminish the magic when I read the passage.

Jannon ends up working out the mystery in a less sweeping, though by no means less inspiring way: as it turns out, the mystery is very much human-scaled, less about eternal life and more about how one lives one’s life, and Sloan ends the book by invoking “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.” If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.


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