Magic Matters: Tricks and Essays by Robert E. Neale
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2010)
Robert E. Neale doesn't make it easy for us. He doesn't make it easy for magicians and mentalists who think our jobs are readily defined or easy to do. And he sure as hell doesn't make it easy for critics. How in heaven's name does one properly review a Bob Neale book?
Perhaps by starting with what this book is not: It's not a collection of commercial routines for your next corporate show. It's not a manual of sleight of hand technique. And it's not a book of impractical pipe dreams that the author has never built or performed.
Okay, that much is true, but it doesn't tell you much about what it is. What it is, unmistakably, is another Bob Neale book. But if you haven't read many of those, that doesn't tell you much either, does it?
Robert Neale is a retired Professor of Religion and Psychiatry at Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 25 years. He is also a prolific writer and inventor of things magical, things puzzly, things origami-ish (generally done with paper money), along with many thoughts theoretical. Along these many lines and among his many works, for example, I have in the past reviewed here in Genii: Magic and Meaning (cowritten with Eugene Burger) (June, 1995); Folding Money Fooling (October, 1997); Life, Death & Other Card Tricks (July, 2000); Zoo Magic (November, 2006); and The Impossible Bill Braid (September, 2009). It would not be an inaccuracy or exaggeration to say that I consistently enjoy his work.
Bob Neale doesn't make it easy on any of us because he asks a lot of questions, many of them troubling, and proposes answers and avenues of inquiry that are often equally if not more troubling. And, I guess, that's what I most like about him. Magic Matters is a book of magic tricks and essays about magic tricks, and it's not the kind of magic or thinking that you will see a lot of elsewhere in the contemporary literature Some of the issues he touches on are, of course, very much a part of the "Mystery School" contingent that is identified with Eugene Burger and Jeff McBride. But there are also interesting differences, I think, that are there for the careful reader to discern, between the mysticism, new age and old, that is often identified with that movement and the—call it skepticism, perhaps that Mr. Neale often brings to the subject matter.
If the reader gets beyond those differences, what he really finds is an artist in search of his own approach to his art. And the deeper one considers Mr. Neale's approach to that search, the more it might serve to assist other students in finding their way, in turn. And if that is the case and I suspect it lies at the core of Mr. Neale's goals then it may not matter very much if you agree or disagree with Mr. Neale's particular claims or conclusions, or, for that matter, if you are ever in the slightest bit inclined to perform any of his magic. What may matter most of all is that he has made you think.
But less that sound too high falutin', I will also add that one of the things that sometimes delights me about Mr. Neale's work is that he really has done these tricks, this way, for his audiences hard as that may be to believe when we read of magic tricks about death and dying and the Holocaust. And what's more, Mr. Neale has done these tricks enough to know all about the craft of them as well as about the art. And so he really does give you all that you truly need to know about how to properly make the mostly simple props, where to buy the materials, and what's the real work, for example, on making the little "blossom" at the peak of the paper hat tear, or how to make the "Flexible Mirror" trick more natural and deceptive. Not that he uses a lot of such standard apparatus, but when he does, or for that matter when he uses simpler items that are the result of a little homemade arts and crafts effort, he clearly has amassed sufficient experience to understand the idiosyncrasies of such props, and how to thoroughly communicate their construction to the reader.
I may as well acknowledge at this late moment that, as with the previous review of Psychological Subtleties, I haven't recounted all that much in the way of specifics about the contents of Magic Matters. Again this is much for the same reasons: If you like Mr. Neale's body of work, you'll like this substantial addition, and if you don't much appreciate it, there's probably little I can say this late in the day to talk you into it. But for the few among us who have yet to fall into either category, rather than try to describe 40 tricks or 11 essays, it may provide better service to deliver one rather complete example.
This is called "The Smile Song." Here is the presentation as well as the effect, without the method, variations, and thematic, philosophical, and theatrical analysis, which Mr. Neale thoughtfully provides in about three accompanying pages of text.
"SCRIPT: Little girls! I love them. Especially ages seven, eight, and nine. Way back I even applied to be a troop leader for the Brownie Girl Scouts. But I was rejected! All that remains of this sorry episode is my passion for the Brownie Smile Song:
I have something in my pocket
That belongs across my face.
I keep it very close to me,
In a most convenient place.
I bet you'll never guess it
If you guess a long, long while
So I'll take it out and put it on.
It's a great big Brownie smile!
[The performer places his hand over his mouth.) Yes, I do carry a grudge! (The performer removes his hand to reveal a set of vampire teeth.)"
You see what I mean? Bob Neale doesn't make it easy for any of us.