IT'S BEEN almost a century since Einstein began to show us the folds and curves in the fabric of space-time; a universe that loops and bends, ignoring the rules of the calendar or clock. Time no longer marches on in straight lines (if it ever did), but to read fiction, you wouldn't know it. Much of our literature still moves inside the tidy clockwork universe, an orderly succession of hours, days, and years. Well and good for an intimate scale of storytelling, but a disservice to truth when the scale is the late 20th century. Here is a fragmented world that will not stand still, full of human beings who must make their peace with its near-permanent disruptions, its sense of disconnectedness and loss. The calm progression of linear time does not contain their story well.
So three cheers for Janette Turner Hospital, who's written a novel of wisdom that not only "speaks" to us, but also moulds itself to the shape of our experience. Her fictional world, like our real one, has lost its physical and psychic borders. Characters pass through each other's skin, drop down into holes of memory, disappear and resurface in a cycle of time that owes nothing to orderly beginnings and endings. And yet for Charlie Chang, the "magician" of the title, the world is coded, "thick with messages," and hidden meaning abounds at every turn.
Hospital sets her story in Australia, but her characters belong to the larger world of endless dislocation: media people, postmodern artists, makers of images for whom the camera is the mediator of insight. A plot description can't begin to do justice to the swirls and dives this novel makes in its quest for understanding. Back and forth it moves: through memory, premonition, apparent coincidence, and dogged questions that will not rest unanswered in the mind.
Charlie, an Australian photographer, is troubled by the mysterious disappearance of a woman named Cat, a wildly rebellious schoolmate who'd stirred him and his friends with her strange, compelling energy. All of them were involved in a disturbing series of childhood incidents climaxed by a horrific accident and its equally traumatic aftermath. Still young, Charlie found himself a witness to sexual obsession and a grave legal injustice. Yet Cat was a grown woman when she vanished years later, and Charlie finds himself obsessed by the link between their childhood calamities and her later disappearance.
He's joined by Gabriel, the son of Robinson Gray, a prominent judge and one of Charlie's classmates. Gray is a man with more than his share of secrets, and his son can't rest with them. From here the story fans out, dipping back and forth into their memories, retelling and enlarging them, drawing many others into the labyrinth -including Charlie's old friend Catherine, a TV host, and Lucy, Gabriel's lover, who weaves together the threads of this story and gradually draws us closer to its troubled heart.
It is a moving tale that resonates with insight and larger purpose. The missing Cat finds her echo in the Quarry, the massive underground warren of the homeless and destitute, the image of all our man-made infernos from Dante's to that of the hungry and impoverished of the Third World. The well-heeled cringe at the Quarry and bandy about the idea of triage: the sorting of people by quality, the elimination of the weak. Not so Charlie and Gabriel, who want to explore the place, to follow leads in search of Cat, to dislodge the bits of truth that hide in the unconscious, at the very edge of the camera's eye. "If only we could know what we know," says Charlie. "If only we could see what we see."
How much is worth remembering; how much truth worth seeing? We don't know. But part of what Charlie sees is the mystery of connectedness, how all things ultimately reveal their inner meanings to the patient eye. In the Information Age, the insight is profound. And so is The Last Magician. Postmodern it is, and richly philosophical; a deeply felt work in which the characters unearth for us the only truths that count. "Hope and love are all we have," says Lucy, "and they are very potent baggage for those who travel light." Janette Turner Hospital has written a wonderful book for the 20th-century journey.