IN SEARCH OF THE MAGIC THEATER
By Karla Huebner
IN SEARCH OF THE MAGIC THEATER, Karla Huebner’s affectionate tale of self-exploration, takes place in the late 1990s. Sarah is young, bookish, opinionated–the type who would unironically call Borges a “crazy South American”–and nowhere near as worldly-wise or as smart as she thinks she is. At length, it becomes clear that her reserved nature is a reaction to the excesses of her mother, a former hippie who spent much of her youth in ecstasies of drugs and sex, then got committed, and is now deceased, replaced in Sarah’s life by her staid aunt, with whom she lives. Into their lives arrives a lodger, Kari. Sarah has her sized up perfectly as the sort of person who puts their possessions in storage and rents while they work out what to do with their life. Until, of course, she hasn’t. Kari, it turns out, is everything Sarah would secretly like to be: an intellectual, with eclectic tastes in literature, music, and poetry, and bona fides in performance art–the sort of person with whom, Sarah admits poignantly early on, she felt “honored” to discuss such matters.
What Huebner captures well is the tension between the cozy, comfortable trappings of what she describes as “bourgeois” life and the need for individuality, for some kind of more cerebral sustenance for the senses and the soul. Kari gets it; a snippet of biography reveals her as one who married a dependable, trustworthy man for something less than love in her early thirties, and much of the middle third of the novel is taken up with her relationship with Endymion (not the man’s real name, but a carefully chosen moniker) who teases out her truths. Sarah, however, takes rather longer to twig that in order to pursue her goals, she may need to leave the safe, familiar environs of life with her aunt behind, even if it must be at her own pace. In exacting, almost pointillist detail, Huebner paints Sarah as a sort of Nineties version of Plath’s Esther Greenwood without the critical discernment or the cutting sense of humor, and indeed, the novel is suffused with a Plathian attention to describing mundanity. Readers get minute descriptions of home furnishings, color palettes, and the like. This fits very well with Sarah’s buttoned-up demeanor, but rather less so with Kari, who, one feels, would lack both the interest and the disposition to bother with such trivialities.
If the narrative of a young woman feeling her way towards meaning in her life feels like familiar ground, Huebner tells it with deftness. The first-person narrative switches from Kari’s to Sarah’s points of view effortlessly, though the storytelling possibilities of the device are not fully utilized until the final pages. There are some more general niggles. Kari has the habit of speaking in epigrams; every other pronouncement takes the form of a terse, wise comment on this or that aspect of life, which seems improbable (even for a literata of her stripe) and disingenuous. Moreover, Huebner pushes just a little too hard at evoking the period–the switch from vinyl to CD was by no means ancient history in the late 1990s, when record players were still to be seen in many a teenager’s bedroom, and the reference to the Y2K bug, which in reality had few IT experts and even fewer members of the general public biting their nails, is a little too on-the-nose to ring true.
Karla Huebner’s IN SEARCH OF THE MAGIC THEATER is a well-told, bittersweet tale that evokes the certainties and uncertainties of youth, as well as the regret at the missed opportunities of middle age, and the possibility of redemption.
~Craig Jones for IndieReader