There is a degree of failure to which only a truly gifted artist can aspire, if that's the word. A poor artist will, at worst, really only be guilty of amateurish ineptitude. But what impulse motivates, say, Lou Reed, after his years with Velvet Underground, to churn out Metal Machine Music, an infamous double album consisting of nothing but guitar feedback? How does Ridley Scott follow up two back-to-back classics like Alien and Blade Runner with the flaccid, wafer-thin Legend? Or U2 follow The Joshua Tree with Rattle & Hum? Who remembers anything at all Bob Dylan recorded in the 80's? And who on this green earth would have thought, even those expecting to be disappointed, that The Phantom Menace would beesa as Jar-Jar craptacular as it was? (Or that Lucas would have had the stones to preface it with the insulting Greedo-shoots-first revisionism of the it-ain't-broke-so-don't-fix-it original?)
Perhaps the answer lies in a quote from one of the aforementioned Ridley Scott classics: the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. I would prefer not to believe that. I'd rather think that, when the best and brightest among us disappoint so profoundly, that all we're getting is a reminder that, like us, they're only human after all, and like us, they have their off-days.
Magic Street is the sort of ambitious shark-jumping that you get when a writer combines extraordinary talent and the best of intentions, and steers them all in precisely the wrong direction. This book is literally eye-rollingly awful. It will likely leave most readers rubbing their temples and muttering "I can't believe I'm reading this!" or "Is this is an Orson Scott Card novel?" under their breaths. If it weren't for the fact it'll set you back 15 bucks, I'd be tempted to recommend it, if only as a cautionary exercise for aspiring writers.
For a contemporary urban fantasy to work, it must have some grounding in reality, in order to give readers a frame of reference against which to understand the protagonists' transition from life in the real world to encountering a fantasy world. Also, it helps when the fantasy elements are used to explore universal themes that most of us ought to be able to relate to. In the Narnia and Oz series, and others in which the heroes are young people, contact with a fantasy realm is usually a metaphor for growing up and taking on adult responsibilities. (A concept Gene Wolfe brilliantly parodied in The Knight.) When the hero is an adult, usually the opposite applies. In Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers series, the fantasy realm represents a flight from the disillusionment of life and the desire to recapture lost youth. In Sean Stewart's stunning Perfect Circle, the protag's encounters with ghosts reflect his inability to forgive himself (and others) for past mistakes, and to learn to forge lasting relationships. In Family Trade, Charles Stross takes the satirical route, displaying a fantasy world in which the corruption and venality of the real world has set up shop and taken over.
The problem with Magic Street is that there's hardly a single real moment in the story. Rarely does a genuine human being stroll through its pages, a convincing line of dialogue get spoken. And the scenes in which emotional responses are evoked have a crass, manipulative quality. It seems that the more earnestly Card applies himself to this story, the less any of it works. The road to Hell is surely paved with copies of books like Magic Street. To be fair, Card does have some nifty fantasy concepts he's playing with here. The novel simply fails to coalesce into anything to be taken seriously. At times, it almost descends into self-parody.
The hero is Mack Street, a young boy living in Baldwin Hills, a reasonably affluent African-American neighborhood in LA. Mack was born under unusual circumstances. After Byron Williams, a literature professor, offers a ride to an enigmatic, dreadlocked homeless man — who exerts a strange hypnotic power — he returns home to find that, within minutes, his wife has gestated and given birth to a baby boy. The homeless man turns up again at Byron's door, stuffs the baby in a shopping bag, and leaves, after which Byron's wife seems to have utterly forgotten the incident.
Okay, that's a pretty audacious opening scene. Handled well, it could convey mystery, shock, even horror. Card's handling of it made me wonder if I was reading some wildly misbegotten attempt at comedy.
The baby, still in its bag, is found by a young boy named Ceese near a huge drainage pipe. Ceese takes it to Miz Smitcher, a nurse, who, against her better judgment, ends up adopting the orphan and giving him his name (after where he was found). As Mack grows up, he learns he can see people's fondest wishes, during a state he calls cold dreaming. However, after his cold dreams, the wishes come true for the individual in question, only in a disastrous way. For instance (and this is the book's one showstopper of a scene), a young student swimmer who wishes she could be a fish and swim all the time finds herself trapped inside her parents' waterbed, and she is only saved from drowning by seconds (and not soon enough to prevent brain damage). Mack soon realizes his connection to this and other tragedies, and from then on purposefully stops his cold dreams before they're over.
As I mentioned, this is actually a neat fantasy concept. And it gets wilder as it goes on. Where many fantasy writers reference other fantasies, ancient myths and legends, or the Bible (I really expected the latter from outspoken Mormon Card), Card draws upon Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It turns out that the homeless man is none other than the mischievious Puck, slave to the evil Oberon, the fairy king. Puck lives, if you can call it that, in a spectral house that only Mack can see, and through the back gate of which is the realm of Fairyland itself. Mack explores Fairyland extensively, finding that only minutes pass in the real world no matter how long he's there. In Fairyland, Oberon has imprisoned the soul of Titania, his queen, but only after she had vanquished him in a battle over his desire to conquer the world. Titania is able to wander the real world, where she appears as Yolanda White, a "motorcycle riding hoochie-mama." (And a character who is Card's unabashed love letter to Queen Latifah.) But her power in reality is severely limited.
Mack learns that he has a special connection to Oberon, and could be instrumental in either thwarting or helping to fulfill Oberon's plans to re-establish his rule and invade the real world. Mack's cold dreams have, in fact, been a tool Oberon was using to build up his strength, and without realizing it, Mack has effectively been holding Oberon back for years by keeping the dreams from finishing. But now, as all fantasy battles between good and evil must, this battle is about to come to a head.
Now, you might be thinking: that doesn't sound so bad. And it's true, from a purely conceptual standpoint, the seeds of a swell fantasy adventure are all there. Why, then, in the hands of one of the genre's most revered novelists, does none of it work? Well, I think it boils down to two key issues.
The first of these is Card's handling of character. His decision to set the book in an African-American community, on the prompting of a friend, merits praise, and not just from PC sentiment. Card is really trying to challenge and stretch himself as a writer. Yet he goes overboard in going out of his way to avoid creating any characters who might read like ignorant white man's stereotypes. He takes great pains to keep any taint of "ebonics" or hip-hop lingo out if his characters' speech (the hip-hop culture is only ever referred to derisively, even, rather unbelievably, by the young characters), but the result is dialogue that sounds stilted and phony in almost every instance. Occasionally Card will throw in something that, I guess, is meant to "sound black," but overall, little about any of his characters rings true, as they all seem so affected. Case in point: at one point Miz Smitcher, in frustration, calls Ceese a "coprocephalic," only to be surprised that the clever child knows the word means "shithead." But who, even among Mensa members, actually uses "coprocephalic" as a spoken insult? It's the sort of line no one would ever say in real life without a writer having first written it for the speaker. And it's actually a little patronizing to Card's own characters. It's like he's waving his arms to call attention to the message, "See? Black kids can have good vocabularies too!" Yo, I'm down wit' dat, Holmes.
Card, in a lengthy afterword, admits he lacked confidence approaching African-American culture and admits he probably got a lot wrong. I think ought to trust his instincts. I don't claim to be any more knowledgable myself. But, having read Richard Price's brilliant Clockers and Freedomland (a white writer who has really immersed himself in a culture few whites ever see, much less comprehend), I felt at least informed enough to know when my B.S. alarms were going off.
The second problem: Card never locks down a consistent narrative tone. We get neither suspense, nor wonder, nor humor, nor drama, but a clumsy mishmash of all four that ends up drawing little in the way of honest emotional responses out of us. When the book should be getting really mythic, Card cannot resist defusing things by having his characters constantly throw out pitiful laugh lines that are never funny. (I bet myself a nickel we'd get a pun using Puck's name in place of "fuck." After the second one I wished I'd bet a Benjamin.) Am I supposed to take any of this seriously? I guess so, because, among other things, innocent people are getting hurt and killed. But why all the annoying banter? Yes, Puck is supposed to be a childish jerk, a prankster, but why, whenever he's interacting with Mack or anyone else, must he drag them down to his level?
Card bungles things just as badly when offering up real drama. In the book's one good dramatic scene, Mack confronts Miz Smitcher and some of the neighboorhood ladies, all of whom are cluck-clucking their disapproval of Yolanda White, who is pissing everyone off by riding her noisy motorcycle at all hours. The ladies are actually looking for a way to drive her out of the neighborhood, and Mack argues that they're no better than racists who've used all sorts of lame excuses to keep blacks out of nice neighborhoods for years. In this one scene, Card catches lightning in a bottle, and the book looks like it will actually address something socially relevant. But a few chapters on, Card totally punctures it with a silly scene right out of Frankenstein, where the neighborhood, lacking only torches and pitchforks, descends in a mob upon Yolanda's home, and Mack must fend them off with a Big Speech. Emotional truth gives way to shallow manipulation, as it does in another scene in which one of Mack's cold dreams reveals a little girl is about to get gang raped, and quick thinking saves her at the moment of peril. That isn't drama, that's just mashing readers' outrage buttons.
Magic Street is a depressing misfire, hardly the sort of work one would have hoped for from the writer who once electrified SF with the gut-wrenching "Unaccompanied Sonata." And if I needed any more confidence in my assessment, I can point to the amusing tail end of Card's afterword, where he expresses gratitude for George W. Bush's re-election, "allowing me to sleep at night as I wrote the last five chapters of this novel." No, I don't think Orson Scott Card's fantasy world is the place for me.