Lisa Goldstein was walking around Oakland's historic Paramount Theatre -- an elegant, ornate auditorium that decades ago served as a dependable stop on the vaudeville circuit -- when the tour guide said something that sparked her imagination. "The tour ended up in a space below the stage, known as the 'trap room,'" she recounts. "The guide pointed out that the Paramount's stage actually didn't have a trap door. And then he said, 'So if there were any magicians in the Paramount they would have to be real ones.' And I thought, that's great!"
From the guide's throwaway remark came the idea for Goldstein's latest novel, Walking the Labyrinth (Tor), a mystery about a family of touring magicians who have genuine magical powers. Like a modern day Tempest, Labyrinth is a tale of enchanters and deception, about power and its uses and abuses.
Set primarily in the Bay Area, including Goldstein's native Oakland, the novel centers on temp Molly Travers. Travers discovers she's related to an old showbiz clan -- the Allalie Family -- that in turn has ties to a nineteenth-century occult society called the Order of the Labyrinth. As she begins unraveling the secret of her history, she encounters Goldstein's usual array of densely strange touches: secret diaries, tigers that speak, golden statues that come to life and funny old mansions with dusty, Byzantine mazes in their basements. It's one of Goldstein's most lighthearted and enjoyable books, with the page-turning suspense of a mystery, brightened and made eccentric by Goldstein's Daliesque imagery, deadpan delivery and paragraphs that veer oneirically into poetry.
Walking the Labyrinth joins Goldstein's growing list of literary one-of-a-kinds, in a career marked by the defiance of expectations. She's the daughter of two Jewish concentration camp survivors, and The Red Magician won an American Book Award for its tale of a mysterious Talmudic magician, who tries to bring warning of impending disaster to a small Jewish village in central Europe -- and subsequently becomes a powerful symbol of survival to one young girl. It marked a stunning debut, followed closely by more unclassifiable wonders: The Dream Years, a novel set in surrealist Paris wherein Andre Breton journeys into the twenty-first century to take part in a revolution for dreams; Tourists about an American family lost in a foreign city where the taxi drivers ignore your directions and instead take you where you really need to go; and Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, a tale of fairy revels in Elizabethan London, as seen through the eyes of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe.
Although Goldstein's books generally wind up on the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves, they are told in a style that has more in common with T.H. White, Russell Hoban and Gabriel Garcia Marquez than the more conventional fantasy writers whose books sit alongside hers. She shares a birthday with Magritte; and sometimes her books seem like nothing so much as delicate, cryptic paintings. "I don't like doing the same book over and over again," says Goldstein. "So I try to do something different each time. And I didn't realize how unusual this was until I started getting reviews saying, 'Goldstein seems never to write the same book twice.' And the critics sound sort of disgusted by it."
Make no mistake, though: Goldstein has a following, and critical praise coming out the ears. Orson Scott Card, patriarch and opinion maker of the SF field, has considered aloud whether she might be called the best writer in the genre today. Yet she doesn't get the prominent shelf placement, glossy advertisements and off-the-chart sales of lesser writers, like Piers Anthony, who basically write the same book repeatedly. For Goldstein, large-scale success has always seemed just around the corner. In recent years, publishers have tried to market Goldstein's work both within the fantasy genre (such as 1994's Summer King, Winter Fool) and as straight fiction ("Tourists"), producing no real breakthrough in sales. "The 'Tourists' experience kind of scared me as far as the mainstream goes," she says. "I just don't seem to fit that niche. But I don't fit the Science Fiction/Fantasy category either."
Over a sunlit lunch at a small, dingy diner between Oakland and Berkeley, I venture to suggest that she's something like the David Bowie of fantasy authors: a chameleon who continually reinvents herself, whose work may not always crack the Top 40, but who will be remembered longer for her innovation. She pauses for a minute to think that one over. "Never been called that before," she says in her laconic deadpan.
The conversation takes the sort of unexpected twists that characterize Goldstein's books. We talk about her family's Holocaust experiences and the grandfather Goldstein never knew, who inspired her most sentimental short story, "Alfred." Then she points out the phrase on Labyrinth's dedication page, "For Claire Parman Brown" and tells me Brown was a member of her writer's workshop who constantly badgered Goldstein for letting her characters be so passive. (An old criticism of Goldstein's work, one that provokes a wistful sigh when I bring it up.) Brown died in an accident in Nepal two and a half years ago; but Goldstein kept hearing her voice as she crafted Molly Travers, arguably her most determined protagonist. "I wrote this book -- somewhat -- for her," says Goldstein.
And finally, we talk about Harpo Marx. Yes, Harpo. Of course, Harpo. He comes up as I'm digging around for one last question, and I mention Labyrinth's Corrig, one of the younger performing Allalies and a mischievous, mute trickster who causes salt shakers to caper across the table and fish to wink at diners from restaurant plates. "You know," I say, "Corrig really reminds me of someone..." and Goldstein already grins gleefully. We both say Harpo's name at the same time. Goldstein laughs, and enthusiastically recommends his autobiography -- she's enthralled by The Silent One. (In fact, "The Dream Years" is partially dedicated to him.)
"Harpo was such an amazing person," Goldstein says. "I've always had this sense that there is magic underlying everything. You could tell he knew that. He knew something that we don't know, but he never talked about it." In that way, Goldstein says, the surreal family of magicians are modeled on the Marx family, using their magic to confound the expectations of others, as a way of demonstrating truths they cannot otherwise express.
The check arrives and we head out into the Oakland sunshine. As we walk away from the restaurant, I half-expect Goldstein to dissolve into a flock of birds or melt into a phrase of music, like one of the characters in her books. But she doesn't. She drops me off at the BART station, says her terse goodbye and heads off determinedly in her own direction.