Joshua Jay's Magic Atlas by Joshua Jay
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2000)
Reading Joshua Jay's new book, one comes away with a number of impressions. Young Mr. Jay—certainly all and sundry must know by now that he was, until very recently, 17—is surely a sincere, hard-working, bright, talented, articulate lad. He is clearly in love with magic, and his passion and drive have produced some substantial results and had significant effect upon his life. I wish him much success in the world.
The trouble in reviewing a book of this nature is that it pretends to be one thing while it can't help but be another. The pretense brought to its pages is that the book is simply another serious magic book, to be weighed side-by-side with books of similar size and, well ... weight. The pretense is that we should ignore the fact that the book is written by an adolescent, and that he wishes no special consideration in this regard.
On the other hand, it seems almost impossible to read the book in that light, since the young author's cherubic face is portrayed throughout its pages, and his references to his youth—albeit often justified and pertinent—are frequent. Invariably, most readers, I suspect, are inclined to say, "My, what a remarkable work, considering that the author is 17!"
Okay, it's certainly not bad for 17. But in case you haven't noticed, the retail price is not based on a child portion—it is a full adult fare. As such, I am compelled to attempt to review this book alongside works of similar substance and tone. And at risk of being labeled a Big Blue Meanie, I will say this: This book is decidedly okay.
The good news lies in the fact that the author often gives his attention to novel props and plots, and sometimes delivers something of interest in the process. It will be greatly a matter of taste how appealing you find card boxes with little eyes glued on them, some pedestrian if original fancy cuts and flourishes, cards that change with a flutter of tiny diamonds in the air, normal cards that become miniaturized, Ambitious Card routines in which the spectator operates an actual (television) "remote control" in order to make the magic happen (and, yes indeed, eventually finds his card inside the unit), and the like. I am rarely enamored of such noodlings. These are very—and I do mean very—good ideas for a young enthusiast to be experimenting with, and I mean that sincerely. They are not, however, very good ideas for me to be paying hardcover, hard-earned money to read. Your mileage may vary.
However, not all to be found here is contained in the novelty department. In the "Triple Thought-Of Card," some excellent ideas on bluff and spectator management are combined to produce an extremely mystifying routine in which three individuals determine cards thought of from among groups of five. A superb Triumph routine, based upon ideas of Bill Goodwin's and John Bannon, provides an incredibly convincing series of displays, along with a kicker ending in which all the remaining cards of the suit matching the selection suddenly appear reversed in the previously righted deck.
There are other good ideas. An offbeat trick in which a deck of cards is apparently used as the performer's "journal" has the potential for a good dramatic or comedic story, depending on your style; an earlier version of this won a prize after appearing in the Linking Ring. A clever psychometry routine, done with the kind of paper name tags typically found at corporate events, could be made into an effective piece by a performer capable of providing an interesting accompanying reading (beyond the rather slender examples provided here). And a strange trick is described for which perhaps someone might yet come up with a justification or interesting presentation: a book is introduced, into which a deck of cards has apparently been randomly shuffled amidst the pages; when the spectator reads the first line of a page at which any such card has been inserted, the performer can instantly identify the name of the card. This is a noteworthy oddity.
So, as you see, there is some good news. The less good news is rarely far from the borderline of the reader's awareness, however. Despite claims to humility, our boy author seems extremely taken with his own ideas, going so far as to flatly proclaim in the introduction that "My outlook on magic is fresh. The effects in this book ... are primarily new discoveries based mostly on new principles."
Now, I do hate to be blunt, but really—this is non-sense—and frankly, rather offensive nonsense when spewed from the mouths of babes. The Six-Card Repeat—albeit accompanied by a clever new addition—is a new discovery based on new principles? Or for that matter, did it really "never have an ending"—or has the author simply not read Senator Crandall's version in Tarbell? (And an ending is not necessarily another trick or prop; an ending is an issue of plot and performance.) The Cigarette Through Quarter—for which the author's approach, performed with a paint-brush, is one of the better items in the book—is a new discovery based on a new principle? The use of the watch as a holdout—an idea which I learned from Bobo's New Modern Coin Magic, despite the author's gratuitous claim of an allegedly vague description therein—and which the author has now expanded in some interesting ways—is a new discovery based on a new principle? How could an acknowledged variation of a Bob King marketed trick be a new discovery based on a new principle? A technique for spinning cards that has been around forever—I've been using it since the day I first read Cards As Weapons, and turned the deck from vertical to horizontal because it felt more comfortable, and never troubled to claim or publish—is a new discovery—or is it a new principle? A clever trick in which instructions are written on the backs of cards that lead the spectator to discover their selection—mentioned by the author as being a Chad Long "idea," albeit without a specific credit to the name of his extremely popular marketed effect—is a new discovery based on a new principle?
I don't wish to play the curmudgeon or the pedant here—but the author's level of accomplishment is, in fact, not so unprecedented. Times change. Information is avail-able. That doesn't mean that the information has any effect without talent and hard work, but nevertheless, those with the drive and ability to move along faster, and others have done so, and in some cases, faster and further. Had Lee Asher decided to publish everything he knew at 18, cardicians wouldn't have believed half the work possible, and the rest they would have been struggling to master instantly. Aaron Fisher, whom I have known since he was perhaps 15 or thereabouts, is presently at work on a book that will, I have little doubt, include material that will find lasting homes in the repertoires of sleight-of-hand entertainers. (Mr. Fisher is older than Mr. Jay by several years, but some of his best material is already several years old. I would quote what Johnny Thompson exclaimed when he saw Aaron perform a couple of original sleights at the first encounter I arranged between them, but it might appear I was being unduly harsh toward Mr. Jay.) I recently met a young man in Baltimore who is 14 and already writing extremely challenging and thought-provoking essays on magic, in addition to being remarkably well-read in the literature. In fact, in an intensive seminar consisting largely of professionals, part-time pro's, and amateurs with over 20 years in magic, he was probably the best informed attendee in the room.
My intent, honestly, is not to denigrate Mr. Jay's accomplishments, nor deny any credit due him. I'm sure he's a good kid and I admire his dedication, hard work, and especially his passion. But there are deeper points to be made. I fear that the list of performers who have showered the author with their press quotes on the dustjacket have done him a disservice. Were he simply to be encouraged—he is, after all, doing quite fine for himself, and should certainly keep up the good world—his future interests might be but served. But to be told that his ideas are really so unprecedented—worse still, to believe it—indicates to me that his head has been turned a tad, and the results don't always come off favorably. It's all well and good that he can express his opinions concerning magic theory, but that doesn't mean that I need to read them, especially if most of them are obvious and much repeated in the literature. Then again, had he restricted his lengthy theoretical opening to the few pages concerning his special expertise—namely, the performance of magic for adults by adolescents—he might have done himself, and his readership, far greater service. There is little if anything about this subject in the literature of magic, and Mr. Jay's thoughts are sound and unquestionably useful to anyone who finds himself in similar predicaments.
Enough. The book will do no harm to anyone, save perhaps the author, and then only time will tell. The design, while not quite as atrocious as Mr. Jay's Web site, is similarly marred with too much technology and too little taste. A competent editor might have saved him from calling Mike Close's flattering contribution a "foreward" (sic), or from confusing effect with affect, or thinking that an idea could be "unaccredited," or that cards and props possess "regularity" (and I couldn't help wondering what they do when they are irregular). Someone else might have told him that "a magician named Flip" is a magician by the name of Flip Hallema. And someone—a parent? a mentor? a teacher?—might have helped save him from himself, from the relent-less reselling and self-promotion of every trick, to the references to "humble opinions" that simply aren't.
The trouble is not that these are malevolent crimes. They are not. They are, in many cases, merely crimes of enthusiasm and youth, if they are even crimes at all. The actual crimes are committed by those who should know better, but apparently don't—not those young enough not to know any better, like the author. None of these errors would be troublesome in a nice little set of lecture notes, perhaps, cut to the bone with the best material, described simply, with a minimum of hype—a pause along the way to announce his progress, while the major progress of maturity continues. But in the end, whether some will deny it or not, this is a boy's book, and it is not worth a man's price.