Messing With Minds by James Biss
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2005)
James Biss has written a remarkable book. Not that the material is necessarily earth-shattering or life-changing, but Messing With Minds is: (1) filled with useable and frequently original mentalism presentations in which the emphasis is on performance rather than method; (2) writ-ten by a working performer; and (3) is a book of mental-ism of a substantial size that sells for an extremely reason-able indeed, rational price.
The current popular literature of mentalism is heavily populated with overwrought re-workings of ancient methods. Amateur mentalists, much like amateur magicians, are fascinated by method and constantly looking for variation and novelty, and thereby support the marketplace of the first type. Many continue to dress their bookshelves in the latest emperor-tailored fashions in order to maintain the illusion of elitism, even if they have to pay five times the price for the privilege. By contrast, James Biss offers a refreshing change. Implicitly acknowledging that mental-ism relies on a small foundation of sound methodological principles and a limited palette of effects, Mr. Biss has chosen to focus his energies on presentation, and now generously shares the results of his efforts efforts that are worthy of the attention of any working mentalist.
The author begins with a brief theoretical analysis of five "levels" of how magicians utilize magic to connect with their audience. Those levels reflect a progression, from the role of "I'm capable," to "I'm enjoyable," to "I'm magical," to "You're magical" (meaning the spectator(s)), and finally to the level of "We're wonderful" (i.e., the "we" being the per-former and audience together). Mr. Biss considers this last approach to be the "highest relationship" and "the ultimate objective of the conjuring artist." I would strongly dispute that notion; such an approach can become banal in the extreme, and I see no more reason to demand it of magic than to expect it of any other performing art. Feeling empowered, self-actuated, healed or happily holistic are not part of the set of expectations I bring to the experience of art. And such fuzzy feel-goodies are often the domain of manipulative hucksters.
But I do admit that the shared group dynamic is one perfectly viable approach among many for the performance of magic and particularly mentalism, and this is a point of the author's focus. He states as his operatives premise that "my audiences are as gifted as I am—and I spend the show trying to discover and prove it!" Yet while he is engaging in this "empowerment" approach, he is also, he explains, using it as a disclaimer of sorts concerning any psychic abilities on his own or anyone else's part. "I'll openly tell people at the start of my show that THEY are as psychic as I am! This of course is really to say—they are not at all psychic! (emphasis per original)" It's an interesting subtext, to be sure, and one, as the author is quick to add, that "drives enthusiastic clients" to book him.
Whether you embrace his philosophy or not, Mr. Biss's playful approach to mentalism is a pleasant change from what we see far too often in the field. Thus I enjoyed reading, for example, "Knickerbocker," a light-hearted and memorable approach to a psychometry routine, in which the performer divines the color of people's underwear. It's not as lewd as it sounds, in fact it's a little bit silly in a nice way if you can pull it off, and I predict it will soon find its way into a number of repertoires.
Not everything is so lightweight, however. "Deja-Viewed," a two-spectator drawing duplication, is a very strong idea with a nice element of unpredictability and apparent spontaneity. In "Weatherman," the audience creates a set of weather conditions which the performer turns out to have accurately predicted, clearly a topical and appealing plot. On the method side, "T & A" (not what you think) is a CI & A type of routine with a very well thought-out approach to the (easily homemade) tools and the presentation. Practical methods with entertaining approaches are given for both "Seven Keys to Baldpate" and a take on "Mental Epic," both accomplished with minimal, ordinary materials. There's a practical idea for a newspaper prediction utilizing Ted Lesley's Teleport envelope. Although there is no shortage of versions of the Magic Square being done these days, Mr. Biss has an original take on the presentation that is consistent with his approach of letting the audience accomplish some of the mystery. Spoon Bending is also as ubiquitous as ever, but Mr. Biss has a few nice ideas for getting people involved and getting the magic to happen in their hands.
There are 19 routines in all, quite a haul for $29 and almost 300 pages (albeit including some padding, with full pages devoted throughout to single epigraphs). Mr. Biss has a straightforward conversational approach to his writing, a breath of fresh air in current mentalism literature. This is the good news, and for the price that's enough to warrant a purchase. Be forewarned, however, that the book is sloppily produced. Even though this is actually a second edition (and a third, slightly expanded hardcover edition is expected at the end of the year, accompanied by a DVD), the book is still riddled with spelling errors really, I should not have to repeatedly look at "peak" for "peek" in a book of mentalism and many prominent names are similarly misspelled. Mr. Biss is also hopelessly at sea when it comes to credits. Once you commit to print, and put yourself in the role of authority and provider of information, you have a responsibility both to readers and to the creators who deserve credit for their ideas to make that information reliable. I gather that Mr. Biss got himself into some hot water with the first edition of this volume for gratuitously explaining several commercially marketed methods he had no right to provide. (He also got into some trouble for actually reporting the obvious fact that if you go to see a Kreskin show and fail to close your eyes when Kreskin tells the audience to do so, you can watch him reading the stolen billets behind the walls of his (or is it Dunningers1 bizarre clipboard. I kept my eyes open too, so I know it's true.) Mr. Biss has since withdrawn the carelessly offending methodological material, but he has done little to improve the crediting; it's difficult to imagine the first edition could have been much worse in this regard. Even when he does provide a credit, he often buries it as in the fact that the basic idea for a routine done with socks was originated by Michael Weber, a fact which should have been stated in the opening paragraph of the explanation rather than buried in the back. In other cases the author meanders about, describing this and that example of versions of Ted Lesley's approach to the Magic Square, without ever clearly crediting the thought-of number idea to Mr. Lesley. Sometimes, bizarrely, the author gives more prominent credit to the per-son who told him about an idea than he does to the actual originator! And like so many mentalists who use the principle, he is blithely unaware that the circle/triangle probability hit effect is the creation of Uri Geller and even the devil should get his due. Mr. Biss writes and seems like a nice guy. I don't think he's a thief; I think he is deplorably lazy.
Finally, the format of the book is downright infuriating. Apparently deciding to be different for the sake of it, Mr. Biss has elected to ignore four centuries of conjuring literature and has separated the effect descriptions entirely from the explanations. They are in two different sections of the book. The outcome is unwieldy and exasperating. I wonder if he drives to work on square wheels.
I will remind readers that I really enjoyed this book, which is unfortunately marred by the flaws I have enumerated. This is the second edition, and the author has apparently given himself one more chance to get it right. I hope he takes advantage of the opportunity, because if he does, the result would be a damned fine book of mentalism.