Review

Delightful yet poignant tale of family with superpowers

Spoonbenders by American writer Daryl Gregory (above).
Spoonbenders by American writer Daryl Gregory (above).PHOTO: LIZA TROMBI

FICTION

SPOONBENDERS

By Daryl Gregory Quercus Publishing/Paperback/ 398 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

Spoonbenders is a whimsical, delightful romp that feels right at home in the films of Wes Anderson, the auteur known for his absurdist story-telling in works such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), an offbeat ensemble comedy about a family of child prodigies.

In fact, Spoonbenders - American writer Daryl Gregory's seventh outing - has been marketed as what the critically loved movie would have been if its characters were blessed with superpowers.

Gregory has carved out a niche for himself in comic fantasy writing, tapping on his vast eccentric imagination to produce works including the award-winning We Are All Completely Fine (2014), whose television rights have been acquired.

Spoonbenders (above) by American writer Daryl Gregory.
Spoonbenders (above) by American writer Daryl Gregory.

That title itself reeks of irony, given that it is a meta tale of a bunch of cliched horror movie characters consulting a shrink.

Likewise, Gregory's offbeat characters in Spoonbenders will soon be brought to life on the small screen as it, too, has been picked up for television. His sardonic humour pervades the novel, which is a scathingly funny tale of, quite literally, magical proportions.

The Telemachus family, once a touring troupe whose acts could sell out crowds, has fallen from grace after being put through the wringer by a sceptic with vested interests.

The saga flits between the calamitous 1960s and present-day 1990s, involving a host of quirky characters who get into situations involving Chicago mobsters, Russian subterfuge, shady government agencies, budding Internet romances and even raging hormones.

The novel might turn out a disjointed mess in the hands of a lesser writer, but Gregory magically connects the dots in what is, ultimately, a poignant tale of a family teaming up to defeat the insurmountable odds stacked against it.

The patriarch Teddy is the only "normal" human being in the family, himself a fraudster who won the heart of his wife Maureen with parlour tricks and a glib tongue.

Maureen, however, is no con artist. Her paranormal ability to "astral project", or command her soul to leave her body and travel anywhere in the world, makes her an asset to spy organisations.

The superpower DNA is apparently genetic - it gets passed on, albeit in different forms, to their children.

There is Buddy, a clairvoyant who sees a mess of the future, but is wary of not upsetting the universal order for fear of worse repercussions. His brother Frankie is gifted with telekinesis - the power of moving objects with his mind - but gets seduced by get-rich-quick schemes.

Their sister Irene, meanwhile, is a human lie detector with trust issues because of her ability to whiff out fibs and half-truths. Her son Matty is the only one who inherited Maureen's pure talent to astral project although the novice is able to do so only when he gets high.

Apart from their superpowers, the characters grapple with prosaic insecurities towards an explosive climax where, perhaps rather predictably, they have to combine their powers to save the day.

Spoonbenders is a rollicking, albeit bumpy ride, with the novel picking up pace only after the many introductions and back stories in the first third.

Gregory, surprisingly, is a cynic who says in his acknowledgement notes: "None of it is real, folks. There are no mind readers, no remote viewers, no water dousers, no one who can warp kitchen utensils with the power of their mind - except in fiction."

But his wit has breathed life into the various characters.

If you like this, read: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver (2017, Harpercollins, $18.19, Books Kinokuniya). A satire of a world on the brink of financial collapse, with the US dollar worth zilch, that is rich in trenchant humour as the moneyed Mandibles face up to the new worthlessness of their wealth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Delightful yet poignant tale of family with superpowers'. Print Edition | Subscribe