Confessions of a Conjuror by Derren Brown
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2011)
Any introduction of Derren Brown in these pages would be superfluous: He is known to the British public as its most visible television mystery performer, and similarly to magicians and segments of the public worldwide via thousands of YouTube clips drawn from his extensive television career. (He was also featured in the February 2005 issue of Genii in a lengthy interview I conducted.)
Mr. Brown has written three previous books, two for the magic trade—Pure Effect and Absolute Magic (reviewed in Genii, March 2000 and March 2002 respectively)—and one for the public, Tricks of the Mind, published in Great Britain in 2006. This latter work was a book about how we are often tricked, as it were, by our own minds, how easily our minds can be tricked, some inside information about memory techniques, hypnosis and suggestion, and concluding with a lengthy skeptical case against pseudoscience, paranormal, and faith-based claims.
Mr. Brown continues his skeptic's stance in his latest, more personal book, Confessions of a Conjuror. It shares this point of view with Tricks of the Mind, but Confessions, rather than serving as an instructional or self-help text, is something of a memoir—to call it an autobiography would vastly overstate the case. This is because Confessions is far from a linear narrative—no "I started out as a child" storytelling for Mr. Brown. Rather, the author begins by revisiting his days as a professional close-up magician, performing regularly at a restaurant called Byzantium in Bristol (he does not name the venue specifically in the book). Using a card trick (based on a routine of Tom Mullica's) as a framing device and through line, Mr. Brown sets the entire book as a lengthy series of subtexts, recollections, detours, diversions, interior monologues, footnotes (often of several pages' duration), personal anecdotes, lectures, charts, lists, and more ... all encountered along the way of his detailed discourse on the performance of a card trick for a table of three customers at the restaurant.
It is an eccentric narrative, to say the least, that will doubtless be particularly satisfying to his public audience and fan base. Magicians will also find the book interesting, to be sure, although reactions may be mixed. On the one hand, Mr Brown's extremely close analysis of the psychological and interpersonal skills required in the performance of close-up magic will likely serve to elevate most readers' impression of the art. However, his explanations, sometimes with illustrations, of certain technical details and sleights (such as the Rub-a-Dub-Dub Vanish, from Expert Card Technique, for one of several such examples), may seem gratuitous to some. I think the value of the former aspect far outweighs any negatives of the latter, and indeed, I don't think lay readers can actually follow any of these mechanical details very well, much less retain them. In this regard, I find them more of a superfluous test on the reader's attention rather than anything else; I think it will be difficult enough for many readers to simply follow the narrative of the card trick's plot, stretched out as it is over 300-plus pages, much less the intricacies of a given sleight.
Mr. Brown also presents a kind of self-loathing snobbery about the nature of magic in general, constantly referring to magic as a "childish" form and pursuit, for example—although most of these charges seem to be aimed at his past incarnation as a close-up magician rather than his current one as television and stage mentalist. One thing for certain is that professional close-up workers will identify with much of Mr. Brown's interior monologue about the excruciating social aspects of the form, from the need to interrupt perfect strangers, to resetting props in public bathrooms, to the ability to tolerate and manage obnoxious responses to magic. You'll find all of that and more described in these pages, in extremely insightful and observant detail.
But that's not all—there is insightful, observant, and often excruciating detail offered about all manner of Mr. Brown's interests and sometime obsessions, including: the timing of the elevator in his building and when or why he chooses to wait for it versus walking a flight of stairs; the gestures and acting exercises people use to manage their appearance in social settings and moments of making public mistakes; about the nature of kindness and the need for it; why the real facts and foibles of human psychology are more interesting than paranormal claims and beliefs; compulsive behaviors; the author's one-time habits as a juvenile petty thief; false assumptions and beliefs adhered to and subsequently abandoned in the course of a lifetime; the satisfactions of clipping one's nails; the management of hotel linens; his first introductions to magic; meaning in magic; deciding to stop being a picky eater (except for mushrooms); pleasant and unpleasant memories of Father; and ... ... and and and ... AND! Perhaps you get the idea, perhaps you don't, in which case you will simply have to read the book to find out if this is the kind of thing you might or might not enjoy. I found the book highly reminiscent of the American novelist Nicholson Baker's first book, The Mezzanine, written in 1988. That entire short novel consists of an interior monologue that occurs to the narrator in the course of riding an escalator up a single flight, and is characterized by lengthy footnotes as the author attempts to record every conceivable thought and sub-thought of the narrator. The beauty of Baker's book is that the reader swings from pole to pole of identification with and isolation from the narrator's experience; there are moments when we are reminded how distinctly unusual each one of us is as an individual ("I would never think that!") to those when we find affirmation of our universal similarities ("I thought no one but me ever thought like that!").
I'm a great fan of The Mezzanine, and while I found similarities in Mr. Brown's work, there is much more interest in himself—being a real person—than one feels in reading Mr. Baker's work of fiction, which seems less narcissistic and more humanistic in its perspective. Confessions of a Conjuror is written by someone clearly fascinated with himself, albeit that his self-absorption is strongly mitigated by a steadfast sense of self-deprecation. As an insight into the mind behind the man—a man who happens to be one of the world's finest and most visible magicians and mind-readers—readers who find the author even half as interesting as he does are bound to be entertained by its revelations.