It doesn’t have to be Greek to us

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I needed something to take the weight of Arrival off my mind. Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders was a very effective and enjoyable salve. It’s Daryl’s clever observations about life and the poesy he wraps it in that makes Spoonbenders such potent medicine. When we are introduced to Teddy Telemachus, he is cruising for women in the aisles of an upscale supermarket. He spies an attractive 40ish woman – “He saw her browsing thoughtfully in the organic foods aisle, an empty basket in the crook of one arm; signs of a woman filling time, not a shopping cart.”

A few chapters later, while waiting for Graciella, his supermarket woman, the narrator observes – “The problem with getting old was that each day had to compete with the thousands of others gone by. How wonderful would a day have to be to win such a beauty contest? To even make it into the finals? Never mind that memory rigged the game, airbrushed the flaws from its contestants, while the present had to shuffle into the spotlight unaided, all pockmarked with mundanities and baggy with annoyances: traffic fumes and blaring radios and fast-food containers tumbling along the sidewalk.”

And a few chapters after that, Teddy’s daughter, Irene, is at the airport searching a crowd of disembarking passengers for a man she met online – “She felt like a grocery store dog, one of those jittery creatures tied up outside the glass doors, desperately scanning each human face for its master: Are you the one I love? Are you?” 

Teddy Telemachus met Maureen McKinnon at a recruitment interview being conducted for research subjects in a study of psychic abilities. They learn that the study was really a ruse to weed out frauds for a government program called the Star Gate project, a “psychic spy” initiative created to protect the US from psychic attacks by foreign agencies. Teddy and Maureen eventually married and had three children: Irene, Frankie, and Buddy.

When the children were young, the Telemachus family reached the brink of celebrity as psychic performers. Their mother, Maureen was clairvoyant and could “see” across great distances to tell you what a loved one was doing miles away. Irene could tell when people were lying. Frankie was telekinetic. He could move things with his mind. And Buddy could see into the future. Their father Teddy, however, walked the fine line between magician and con man.

After being debunked on national TV the family faded back into “normality.” Teddy, because of his skill at cards and cons, is employed by a local mobster. Maureen, because her gift is real, continues her job with the Star Gate project.

Then she dies.

Without Maureen to coach them, the children struggle to cope with their abilities. Because Irene is a human lie detector all of her relationships sour because everyone lies. Frankie, only vaguely aware of his ability to move objects with his mind, has fallen in love with the notion of celebrity and is dangerously in debt to the local mobster (his father’s former employer). But Buddy who can see the future has the toughest time of all the Telemachus children. He is a silent behemoth who the family has learned to leave to his own devices. He is constantly doing construction on the house. He lives with his father along with Irene and her son, Matty.

Irene moved back into her father’s house after a bad divorce and job loss. Unbeknownst to anyone, Matty’s abilities have manifested with the onset of adolescence. The book begins with him clumsily spying on his cousin Mary Alice. This inadvertently triggers his ability. He has his Grandma Mo’s abilities. Like her, his clairvoyant and can see across distances. Afraid to tell his mother, he tells his Uncle Frankie, who exploits Matty’s ability to achieve his own goals.

Each chapter of Spoonbenders is given the name of the family member being discussed except the chapters towards the end of the book where the chapter titles are represented by Zener cards, the illustrated cards used to test psychic ability. To his credit Daryl organically weaves together the individual stories of Teddy and his children to create a very satisfying end. Each Telemachus child, Teddy, and Matty have a stake in the book’s ending.

Buddy and Irene’s stories were my favorite. Daryl effectively depicts the sad consequences of Buddy’s psychic ability. We all at times wish we knew what was going to happen next. We rarely want to consider what would happen if we actually knew. I couldn’t help wondering if Maureen would have been able to help him were she still alive. Daryl gives Buddy a satisfying end as he draws together all of Buddy’s activity throughout the book in a believable manner. 

In Irene’s story, Daryl captures the humor and anxiety of adult dating. His description of her waiting at the airport for Joshua, her online lover, is my favorite bit of observational poesy in the book. She has many rules for Joshua like he is not allowed to speak any “pleasantries” or use “emotion words.” Irene is a symbol for those who are more comfortable speaking online than in person but didn’t start out that way. Though set in the 90s, the dawn of home computing and the internet, her story is a very 21st Century social media and texting story.