Book review: Turn, Magic Wheel (1936)


If you’ve ever peered, unnoticed, through a crack in your backyard fence, spying on the neighbors, you’ve got the essence of any standard character study novel. But just imagine you could also read those neighbors’ minds as well, and go inside their house uninvited. Now you’ve got Dawn Powell’s fairly brilliant 1936 satire Turn, Magic Wheel.

Powell introduces Dennis Orphen as our guide into her seductive, seedy, yet enchanting vision of New York City. Like us, Orphen is an observer, blessed (or cursed?) with a fascination for the people he meets and driven to imagine all their secrets. But as the novel opens, he may have taken his voyeuristic fantasies too far, as it appears his latest novel tells the story of his best friend Effie Callingham – the scorned ex-wife of superstar writer Andrew Callingham. As Effie struggles to come to terms with the truth about her failed marriage, Dennis haplessly balances an affair with married charmer Corinne and a dubious group of literary acquaintances.

The novel is, admittedly, light on plot. Powell bounces from person to person, only giving a taste of the story before moving on to the next character and observing the events from a new point of view. Relatively few concrete events happen within the novel’s 230-odd pages. But what does happen is rich and resonates deeply. Dennis’s apprehension and Effie’s pain upon realizing the implications of the new novel are palpable, though in entirely different ways, both times Effie’s discovery of the book are described, and it raises important questions of literary ethics. Today, the lessons learned by both Dennis and Effie seem more relevant than ever – when we live in a society where nothing is private, where does a writer, as a friend, cross the line? Effie’s own journey is surprisingly poignant and ultimately the most transformative out of all the characters.

But judging Turn, Magic Wheel by its plot would miss the whole point of the novel, for this is above all a meditation on people and human nature. Each character is so fully realized, so stunningly unique, that remembering each one is not real comes as a terrible disappointment. Dennis and Effie and Corinne may not do much, but the time spent with them reveals their insecurities, their dreams, their weaknesses and strengths. The opening scene, in which Dennis mulls over everything he knows about Effie, reveals the main conflict of the novel while also allowing us to virtually climb inside his head and discover who Dennis is at his core.  The thrill of the novel comes from meeting each character and getting to know him or her more intimately than we know some of our own family members or friends. How else but through Powell’s clever yet never judgmental illustrations would one know, for example, that a certain seemingly perfect young couple encouraged each other to sleep with other people? Or that two women who ought to be enemies would become the closest allies in a time of crisis?

Such careful and detailed characterizations would not be half as entertaining or readable without Powell’s distinctive, almost stream-of-conscious style writing. Whole paragraphs that stretch nearly the length of a page are made up of long sentences that flow from one thought to the next, as though each had just floated up from the character’s subconscious:

Here was a man, he would swear, who would never be a home owner, a shoe factory president, a car owner, a steady jobholder, here was a man who could be nothing but possibly a ticket owner, and in fact, studying his image with detached even hostile eye, it struck him that he had a passport face, one that could be placed on anybody’s papers and not be entirely wrong; such a face could justifiably sweep through the world passionately examining other faces but exempt from the curious second glance itself. (Powell 7)

Though the style feels long-winded at first, Powell soon establishes a rhythm that feels natural, allowing readers to lose themselves blissfully in the melody of her prose. Despite the seemingly never-ending wave of words, phrases, sentences, Turn, Magic Wheel never lags or feels too long – a testament to the humor and clarity with which Powell brings her characters to life.

Ah yes, the humor. In the end, Turn, Magic Wheel is not just a study of random people, but rather a wickedly funny vision of the literary circles and socialites of 1930s New York City. There’s the buffoonish magazine editor Dennis refers to as “Okie” for his annoying habit of always saying “Okie dokie.” Johnson, the lowly junior partner of MacTweed and Co. who yearns to rid himself of the title “And Company.” And of course, there’s the nasty Belle Glaenzer, a subject of repulsive fascination for Dennis. Though they are minor characters, each gets the Powell treatment, remaining just as memorable and entertaining as the major players. As for the readers, if we didn’t know that the publishing world was full of such ridiculous pomposity, pretentiousness and boozing alongside poignant disappointment, we’ll never forget it now.

Those who prefer novels whose plots are propelled by action and excitement and depict life-altering events may find Turn, Magic Wheel lacking. The novel’s conclusion offers the pessimistic, even somewhat depressing, notion that after all they went through, Dennis, Effie and Corinne haven’t changed much at all. But to allow her characters to learn something, or see themselves as we, the readers, see them, would have cheated Powell of the opportunity to show human nature at its most raw: indecisive, dishonest, judgmental, superficial. Powell may sacrifice traditional conventions of storytelling in the process, but the flat-out hilarity of the characters and the voyeuristic pleasure we derive from observing them in their natural habitats more than justifies such a trade-off. People-watching has never been this fun.

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