Two books by the contemporary author Tim Powers, who writes in the genre of what is sometimes called magical realism, will make excellent Christmas gifts for imaginative conservatives…

I must confess that I am something of a snob; hopefully not in the prideful or supercilious sense (God forbid!), but in the aesthetic sense.

I am, for instance, a coffee snob. Ever since I first visited Italy and discovered good coffee, real coffee, I am only really satisfied with espresso. One of the best birthday presents that my wife has ever given me was my very own espresso machine. Ever since that glorious birthday, I have begun every day with a doppio, a double-shot, straight-up, with no sugar added. Bitter is best! Using the same machine, my wife also makes the most delicious lattes and cappuccini.

I am also an ale snob. Ever since my first taste, as a teenager, of what the English call “real ale”, I have been unable to stomach those mass-produced beers masquerading as the real thing. And so it goes on. I’m a single malt whisky snob, and a wine snob, though in both cases I’m not rich enough to indulge my palate!

And so to books. As a bibliophile, I am not only a book snob but something of a chronological snob, though in the opposite sense to which C. S. Lewis meant it. A chronological snob, according to Lewis, is someone who believes that the past is inherently inferior to the present. If this is the case, I am something of an inverted chronological snob, insofar as I prefer my books to be old and written by people who are dead. And yet I am trying to overcome this flaw, if a flaw it is, by forcing myself to read more contemporary literature. Part of the reason for this, indeed the greater part of the reason, is a desire to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in contemporary Christian literature, and in contemporary Catholic literature in particular. As editor of two magazines, the St. Austin Review and Faith & Culture, and as a regular contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, it’s important that I know about the cultural fruits of the present, as well as those of the past, albeit that my ingrained preference or prejudice is for the latter. This being so, I’d like to recommend a couple of works by the contemporary author Tim Powers, both of which will make excellent Christmas gifts for imaginative conservatives.

Powers writes in the genre of what is sometimes called magical realism. A New York Times bestselling author, which should not be held against him, his works are gritty portrayals of real life infused with a supernatural element. As such, it would be better to describe them as supernatural realism than magical realism. In Declare, possibly his finest work, he follows a British spy across Europe and the Middle East during World War II and subsequently during the Cold War, with flashbacks to the Spanish Civil War for good measure. In the background, in alliance with the secular powers, are demonic powers and dominions. Transcending this realistic foreground and supernatural background is the moral progress of the protagonist and that of the woman with whom his own life is seemingly providentially interwoven. And there is the positively creepy presence of the real-life spy, Kim Philby, cynical and decadent to the core, and possessed by powers so dark that he is engulfed by them.

Last Call, another work of supernatural realism by Powers, is set in California and Las Vegas and immerses itself in the seedy world of professional gambling. As one follows the protagonists further up and further in, or perhaps further in and further down, into the twilit demimonde of casinos and high-stakes poker games, we are drawn into a realm possessed by the power of the tarot pack, in which souls are lost, not merely fortunes. In this novel, as in Declare, it is the moral progress of the main characters that adds metaphysical gravitas to the storyline, transcending the diabolical darkness with the barest splinter of providential and purgatorial light. It is this latter presence, suggestive of a suffused Catholic sacramentalism, which makes the apparently all-pervading darkness bearable, flickering forth a halo of hope which surrounds the doom-laden and portentous clouds much like the proverbial silver lining.

Another facet of the work of Tim Powers, guaranteed to win the sympathy of every lover of great literature, is the manner in which his works are empowered intertextually by the presence of other great writers, whom he quotes throughout to great dramatic effect. Thus we find the ghostly presence of T. S. Eliot, G. K. Chesterton, William Wordsworth, Francis Thompson and Rudyard Kipling, to name but a select few, each of whom enlightens and illumines the darkness of the plot with their civilized presence.

If it is true, which it is, that one only writes as well as one reads, it is evident that Tim Powers reads as well as he writes. His is a civilized presence in an age of postmodern banality. As such, his presence under the tree this Christmas will add a civilized presence to the festivities.

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