This story kicks off American Short Fiction’s winter 2009 issue with a bang. Or a thwack. Or…some other word that deftly uses onomatopoeia to imitate the sound a guillotine makes as it severs heads.

The Execution Trick

A short story, told in the first-person, written by Laura C.J. Owen and appearing in the Winter 2009 issue of American Short Fiction.

First Lines

At first glance, there does not appear to be anything wrong with the Magician’s neck. I adjust my camera, framing the Magician’s head and broad shoulders in its view.

Summary

The first person narrator of the story is photographing/filming the Magician. This is her “first big project” and she’s a bit nervous. They talk as she sets up her equipment, and she notices the “faint line of red at the base of his throat.” They discuss various things, and she says that the rumor is that he’s being paid $10 millionĀ  for performing the “Execution Trick” at the end of his show in the new resort area of Nabu.

“Maybe I heard that, too,” he says. “Maybe.” He laughs again, but of course he keeps himself still. He doesn’t throw his head back.”

The narrator says that a lot of people find magic to be sexist because “it’s always the girl” who’s in danger in any given trick.

And once you notice that fact, magic is really unnerving. I watched a magic show on TV with the sound off, once…without the pitter-patter of explanation, the whole thing can seem simply nasty.

In this case, though, the magician isn’t sexist because he’s the one on the line. He’s the one who absorbs the danger in this act:

At the end of the show, the Magician and his assistant set up a small guillotine and the Magician chops off his own head.

Nabu is trying to become the Las Vegas of Europe, but so far it is performing much like Euro-Disney. People are coming to see the spectacle, but not as many as had been expected. The resort has brought in the Magician–and his fantastic trick–to increase visitors and revenue.

The Magician’s hotel room is filled with free items–food, candy, alcohol–but he doesn’t partake. He’s disciplined. The narrator, on the other hand, indulges as they talk. The Magician tells him some about his previous life, before this new trick made him anything more than an average entertainer.

The narrator sits in the audience for the show; it’s a lightly-attended, Sunday afternoon show. She’s around the show several times now, from different angles, and she’s gotten the background footage she needs for her film. But she’s not filmed much of the show itself. She finds everything corny and old-fashioned, up until the final trick itself.

Here’s the thing, the thing that makes me sad, perhaps the reason I stay away from the show: I don’t think the show is very good…It’s not that what he does is cheesy, hackneyed; it’s that he assumes we don’t notice that it is cheesy, hackneyed. He honestly thinks that he is lying and getting away with it.

He introduces the final trick, the Execution Trick. The assistant will chop off his head, it will fall into the basket, the curtain will fall quickly, and he’ll have seven seconds to reattach his head. When the curtain rises:

His body is no longer slumped near the guillotine. His head is no longer staring stupidly out of the basket. His head is firmly on his shoulders.

The narrator can’t stand to watch the trick itself: the moment of impact.

In the restroom area, the narrator finds the Magician and tells him she enjoyed the show. One of the audience members wants to know how the trick is done, but of course he can’t tell her. He tells the narrator that what is even worse than that question is when someone comes up and insists that they know how the trick is done, and he has to listen to their incorrect theory. As he talks, the magician’s head slips; it slides a bit off of his neck so that he has to readjust it.

This has confirmed what I have grown increasingly to suspect: the trick is not a trick at all. It is not a slight of hand. It is not an illusion.

The narrator goes back to avoiding her film, even though she’d come into the projects with grand ideas. She can’t concentrate on the work. The project has has lost its motivation. She wanders around Nabu for days, avoiding the work and the Magician. She wanders into the magic theater when it is empty and she hears music playing, though she can’t identify a source. The Magician is there and he introduces the narrator to his wife who is in from the Mid-West, visiting. The Magician is glad the two women are meeting, finally. He thinks they will get along. There are signs that the repetition of the trick are taking a physical toll; the beheading and reattaching of the head are causing him discomfort and pain.

After his wife’s visit, the Magician holds a news conference to announce that he is no longer going to perform the Execution Trick. He’s afraid he’ll permanently damage himself. For the first time, he seems real to the narrator.

After the news conference, the resort director–who had been congenial as long as the narrator was there to bring publicity to the resort–tells her the Magician is no longer employed by the hotel and that her complimentary stay is also coming to an end. If the Magician won’t do the trick, then they don’t need him. There are “thousands” of candidates waiting to replace the Magician.

The narrator finds the Magician in the communal shower (which is empty, as usual…no one wants to use a communal shower). The Magician is crying. She is embarrassed for him and turns on the showers–hot–to make the space like a foggy sauna. She’s feeling guilty because she has shown him the tapes and talked to him about the danger of the trick and that discussion led to his choice to stop doing the Execution Trick. As they sit on the floor of the shower, the wound in his neck re-opens, and some of the Magician’s blood swirls with the water down the drain.

Analysis

The head survives for seven seconds when detached from the body. This is the central “fact” used to propel this story from a simple character study into the realm of the fantastic.

Author Laura Owens is able to present us with two strong, unique characters, the Magician and the narrator. Each is very different from the other, and she uses two different techniques to reveal them to us. The Magician is presented to us through the lens–in this case, literally–of the narrator’s perception. As a film-maker, the narrator is poised to learn about and appreciate the Magician in a sort-of documentary manner, and–of course–we go along for the ride. Owens uses brief exposition and detailed, contemporaneous observation in a delicate balance to help us form a complete picture of the Magician.

But, because the story is written from a first-person perspective, we have to learn about the filmmaker through her interior dialogue, the choices she makes, and the ways in which she interacts with the world around her, specifically in the ways she interacts with the Magician himself. In other words, we learn about the Magician directly, and the narrator through indirect conclusions.

Developing these two characters and presenting them to us in the way she does is an important aspect of the way Owen creates interest and conflict, but the setting of The Execution Trick performs an equally important–if somewhat more subtle–role. The casino complex of Nabu is an “other worldly” place; it is a partly-popular, semi-successful tourist destination with some unusual features: only moderate attendance, unusual features like communal showers and uni-sex bathrooms, and a mundane magic show that features the most dramatic of endings. Nabu wants to be Las Vegas, but they are trying too hard to be sensational and failing to make the kind of impact the investors and developers had invisioned.

The fantastic quality of the setting allows the eventual revelations about the “truth” of the trick easier to accept. It is easier to believe that the Magician is actually beheading himself when the act is placed in the context of Nabu than had he been performing his trick in Branson, Missouri.

The oddities of Nabu also help propel the story forward, such as when the woman finds the Magician in the uni-sex bathroom and she asks him how he does the trick as they stand between the stalls and the sinks. The final scene, with the Magician and the narrator sitting among the rising steam in a mostly-unused communal shower, is another point at which a “normal” setting would just not do. But the most dramatic visual created by the Nabu setting is that foreboding sense of doom perpetuated by the scene of a man severing his own head to entertain just a handful of week-day patrons who, until the moment of The Execution Trick, had been disinterested and disengaged.

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