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Absolute Magic by Derren Brown

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2002)


"Yes, I am increasingly aware of how trivial it is, and I hate doing this run-of-the-mill stuff which you can't really expect anyone to take seriously. I am bored of doing the same tricks, and even if I start doing a new one I get bored of that too, and I know it all seems so pointless and I hate the fact that they find it pretty pointless too. I do the same tired tricks, and because I know they're trivial, I sort of make fun of them too, because they seem stupid to me now too. I want to do something else with my magic, to have people take it more seriously but I don't know what."

This is—according to Derren Brown—"the disillusionment of the working close-up magician." And who amongst us, my working brothers and sisters, has not experienced this interior monologue on at least one occasion in their professional lives? I can't speak for those lucky amateurs who do art purely for the love of it, although I don't think I ever experienced such thoughts in my many amateur years, for why would an amateur subject himself to such psyche-scarring horrors? But whether you have left such experiences behind you in your past and moved on to greater artistic success (and therefore more commercial control of your working conditions, as Derren Brown seems to have accomplished), or if you are besieged by such terrible thoughts frequently, or even if you only had them once because you made a mistake and did that agent a favor and filled in at that gig with the medieval period lighting and the Mt. Everest centerpieces and the oh so charmingly inebriated nouveau riche guest list and the band that mistook the wedding hall for Madison Square Garden—well, even if you've only had those thoughts but once in your life, Derren Brown is here to show you the way to salvation. And hallelujah—his arrival is not a moment too soon.

If the author's previous book, Pure Effect (reviewed in Genii, March 2000) was a challenge to the status quo of close-up magic, then Absolute Magic is an outright call to arms. Mr. Brown has some ideas about what magic should feel like, but that is only the beginning. In his preface he explains, "The aim of this book is to set out, quite unapologetically, a model for performing magic in such a way that it feels real to the spectator—even though he may intellectually rationalize it later." But the author is after even bigger game: he wants not only to alter the way we do our art and work, but he wants to transform the way we think and feel about it.

When Pure Effect first came to my attention I had never heard of Mr. Brown, and I was far from alone in that circumstance. A lot has changed since then. Not only did the third edition of his book, published by H&R Magic Books, sell out its run of 2,000-plus copies (there is talk of reprinting it this year) on top of the two previous limited self-published editions, but Mr. Brown has starred in no less than three nationally broadcast television specials in his native England. (One can only hope that this new book will be similarly republished, if only to provide a proofreader and some improvement in design.) He has also apparently left his days as a professional close-up conjuror behind him, and taken on the role of full-time mentalist. But he still has a great deal to say about conjuring, and that is why he has written Absolute Magic—which he claims to be his final words on the subject.

Here, Mr. Brown continues to put forth his premise that the proscribed borderlines between conjuring and mentalism are pointless artificialities that damage both kinds of magic, and that when combined, each can enhance the other to enlarge the "greater effect" of magic. In fact, he goes so far as to say that, "It is ludicrous to make objective statements about whether magic and mind-reading mix. In fact, one might even consider the converse of the misguided maxim and suggest that if your audience perceives you first as a mind-reader, it will be more difficult for them to later believe you as a sleight-of-hand magician." [All emphasis per original.] Elsewhere he elaborates: "Mind-reading effects, of which I am fond, can be amongst the strongest routines that magic can offer. By this I mean that estranging mentalism from magic is a mistake, and has nothing to do with the reality of professional performance. Mind reading can, and should be, presented uncompromisingly and seriously ... as an application of the same principles that lie behind the 'real work' of magic. ... Mind-reading has great potential for intimate and meaningful wonder, but generally lacks the aesthetic appeal of visual magic. When the two are joined, and made dramatically resonant, a very strong performance tool evolves. The efficacy of the mind-reading need not be impaired."

These are important words not only for magicians to consider, but especially for mentalists. This is a mentalist who recognizes that the claims of mentalism need not be any different from the claims of conjuring, and indeed can become more theatrically powerful with that consistency.

But while mentalism versus magic was an explicit focus of Pure Effect, Mr. Brown has set his sights on larger issues this time around, articulating an ambitious ideal of magic for his readers to consider as he implores us to demand more of ourselves and our art, and to produce richer experiences for our audiences. "If there is one thing that most contemporary western close-up magic generally lacks, it is the experience of magic," he claims. "There are many skillful displays, there is much bad comedy, there are many amusing puzzles to solve, but very little magic.... Rarely does the performer have an air about him of intrigue and withheld potential of something marvelous. ... There are many tricks, and many effects, but rarely a Grand Effect. There are many entertainers, but few real magicians. Many technicians, but few artists who use their art to explore their vision."

And who can argue with that? Well, you might want to, but I would find it difficult. Mr. Brown immediately follows these words with a comment about the purpose of his writing. "This book is about performance, and about that peculiar area of performance that exists when the material itself is removed. If the tricks are removed from the equation, what remains? I believe the bulk of the performance should remain ... the home of true magic to which the tricks are merely signposts."

At first blush, many readers will doubtless hurl the ultimate epithet at Mr. Brown's ivory tower theorizing: "Hey, I work in the real world!" But the author has clearly paid his dues at restaurant and cocktail parties and corporate events, and he doesn't want you to just think about these ideas, he wants you to drag them out and put them to work. Here he acknowledges the challenging realities: "This book is also about realizing this model and making it entertaining and commercial, for some of us are lucky enough to earn our livings giving people a glimpse of true enchantment and must keep our clients' wishes in mind. Within the unthreatening constraints of entertainment, which form the starting point of the magician's performance, the audience can be seduced into the experience of something far more wondrous than they expected."

What is the experience that Mr. Brown seeks for his—for our—audience? It is probably difficult to precisely define, and he spends much of his 200-plus pages attempting to describe it. Unfortunately, when we use the word "magic," we know as individuals what we mean, but it doesn't necessarily follow that anyone else does. To the public the word can mean scantily clad women in incomprehensible boxes, birthday party clowns with balloon animals, or world-class sleight of hand. Among magicians it might mean any of these, but what else? It might involve skill, deception, and/or comedy, as Mr. Brown points out, but can it mean something else? Some magicians speak of wonder or astonishment, but these words often strike me as shallow and juvenile, like actors in a Steven Spielberg film gazing wide-eyed at nothing. Mr. Brown is talking about something else—about doing magic that possesses a "seriousness, but not necessarily a solemnity"—and despite the high-falutin artistic ideology and the academic deconstruction and a writing style that bounces delightfully from the twee to the scatologically offensive (bluenoses beware!)—I think I get it, and I want to get it, and I urge thoughtful readers to take the time and energy to try to get it too.

Mr. Brown has moved on from conjuring and therefore much of what he describes in the way of actual magic in this book is now behind him. However, one can see in this material the evolution of his concerns, and so while there is not a lot in the way of actual tricks here, what is here is abundantly instructive. In his discussion of cause and effect—expanding on his excellent point that magic generally lacks cause and hence lacks dramatic interest and force—he describes a lovely metaphorical presentation (only) for Terry Lunceford’s "Floating Finger Ring." In addressing this issue of cause and effect the author also returns to the subject of mentalism: "The nature of most mentalism ... is generally to answer questions, nor raise them. 'I have this skill X and I use this to achieve these results. This is how I do it.' Whether X is a psychic ability or finely tuned inter-personal skills, the answer is given. The agenda of the mentalist is normally different in this way to the magician, who should create wonder, not merely marveling at his own skills. (And leaving the question Psychic or Fraud? open is a poor substitute for real wonder. Here the performer is merely pushing the audience into a polemic, and undercutting much of the power of his performances.) Cause by metaphor, however ... is a genuinely magical conceit. It is open-ended, wondrous, and it presumes intelligence on the part of your audience rather than patronizes them."

In this context, Mr. Brown also addresses some of the theatrical (and ethical) limitations of cold reading, and proposes some interesting ways to put those techniques to use, offering routines that utilize readings about third parties and scenarios and, essentially, objective "facts," while avoiding the typical personality reading. I found this material thought-provoking, although an account of using cold-reading to psychologically "help" a person he casually encounters in conversation seems to smack of the same presumption that psychics might use to justify the abusive psychological manipulation of their subjects.

Mr. Brown also possesses considerable experience with pick-pocketing, a subject he explores in some technical as well as theatrical depth. There is some excellent instruction here, that addresses some of the objections I have often felt about this kind of work, including the fact that "... there is often a sense of invasion of body-space and over-familiarity that did not appeal." Here Mr. Brown offers some great ideas about how to take the method out of the effect of pick-pocketing, avoiding the easy solution that most spectators are left with the instant the watch is handed back with a grin, and substituting instead a more troubling and mysterious sensation. Also provided is a close-up strategy—a trick—that offers a framework for an entire close-up pick-pocketing performance. This is some of the must pragmatic contents of the book, which still serves as a vehicle for Mr. Brown's thoughtful considerations of artistic issues.

A reading of this book about Mr. Brown's idea of what it means to give an audience a magical experience can only embroil readers in trying to figure our what such a thing means to them. Thus we are at once faced simultaneously with both the book's greatest strength and severest limitation. It is up to the reader to see what use he or she can make of all this. For the rest, the author can only offer every conceivable form of inspiration—as he begs, pleads, pushes, and pulls the reader along into his passions. In this regard I find Mr. Brown's writing eminently, appealingly quotable, and so now do so at length, and let him speak for himself "Have the courage to think from this starting-point, and to leave 90 percent of your repertoire behind you. Then go out to perform fresh and eager to improve even more, and from the moment you arrive, invent and walk your own prestige. Carry it around with you with the quiet nature of the man confident in his authority. Communicate it thoroughly and subtly before any magic begins."

"You are not a juggler, nor a mere amuser of the middle-classes: you are a magician. The main task of that wonderful job is to lift people out of themselves. You are a connection to a wondrous world, and if you forget that and just become a mingling trickster, then you are undercutting yourself, and denying yourself the shiver of an unrivalled type of job satisfaction. In keeping with our model, it is vital that you transport people: that in some sensitive way you challenge the comfort of the social context. In places where the posh gather and talk about silly things, you must gradually, softly. sound a bass note that rumbles. You act with caution, and you pace the mood of the event ... but you remember that you are there to create magic ... and you bide your time."

Amen to that, brother.

(complete with a misleadingly illiterate dust-jacket misquote from my review)

Absolute Magic • Derren Brown (Published by the author) • 6" x 8 " hardbound with gold stamping • 223 pages • Not illustrated