115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

"The Life and Death of the Great Bendini" and the Academic Voyeur

Gabriel Urza, Portland State University

The proposed creative work, “The Life and Death of the Great Bendini: An Illusion,” adopts the form of an academic research paper, ostensibly exploring the life of a deceased child magician through study of surviving documents and artifacts. However, the true subject becomes the narrator himself as he navigates fatherhood.

Proposal: 

Academic investigation, by it’s very nature, is voyeuristic; the investigator watches from afar, obsessively examines and speculates upon the artifacts and detritus left behind in archives and with surviving family members in order to make sense of their subject and to refine their theories. My story, “The Life and Death of the Great Bendini: An Illusion,” appropriates this voyeuristic academic form as the fictional narrator, an adjunct anthropology instructor, documents the life of a young magician who died during an escape performance in the 1990’s. The narrator, who as a young man crossed paths with the title character of the Great Bendini, finds himself obsessed with the mysterious circumstances of the Great Bendini’s death.

However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that through his investigation into the Great Bendini, the narrator is grappling to make sense of his own role as the father of a young son. The narrator struggles with his percieved loss of control as his son becomes older and more susceptible to the dangers of the adult world that claimed the life of his subject, the Great Bendini, as a teenager. These personal details about the narrator first begin to appear in footnotes and in asides but soon take over the narrative, the narrator’s story and the Great Bendini’s story merging. The result is the reader’s own transformation into the voyeur, not just peering into the life of the Great Bendini, but also into the life of the story’s fictional narrator.

This piece of original fiction would, I hope, prompt discussion about the concept of the academic as voyeur, and of similar literary works that employ this form, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Included below is a brief excerpt:

The Life and Death of the Great Bendini: An Illusion [1]

When I began my study of the late illusionist Benjamin Vaughn—a side project during my dissertation year—little could be found in the way of primary source material: a four-line obituary in the Orlando Sentinel, a scattering of mentions in obscure Internet forums dedicated to contemporary magicians. The few photographs of the Great Bendini that I unearthed in those early forays depicted an awkward teen, a young man difficult to square with the cult figure that he’s become in the years since his death in 1995, at the age of fourteen.

Physically, Benjamin Vaughn would never have been described as “eye-catching.” In the photographs his most striking feature is his hair, which is the glossy black of a cormorant’s wing. Otherwise, he is of average build for a boy of his age, with skin as sallow as tapioca. And yet, if asked to recall their first encounter with the Great Bendini, even the most inattentive bystanders will tell you where they were, what he was wearing, what they might have had to drink that night. My own first meeting with the Great Bendini was in 1991, when I was still performing under the name “Remy the Great.” 


[1] Author’s Note: Tonight it was observed by the individual enlisted as my colleague, editor, reader of first drafts, and wife, that while she enjoyed her first read-through of these pages, the purpose of the document escapes her. Is it true biography? Is she to trust that her narrator (and husband) has no ulterior motives in its research? Is it nonfiction at all, or is it to be taken as some sort of parable? Is it memoir? Ethnography? It’s late on a school night when she asks these questions, as she dries the last of the dinner dishes. I scratch my son Jacob’s shoulders as he watches television—a late night comedian’s opening monologue. It’s to be read, I tell her, however she wishes, though I have never thought of it as anything other than a love story.