Pure Effect: Direct Mind-Reading and Magical Artistry by Derren Brown
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2000)
Recently, in my review of Barrie Richardson's Theater of the Mind (November 1999 Genii), I commented on a "new age of mentalism" and the trend of prominent sleight-of-hand workers taking up mentalism. Mr. Richardson's book, which has caused a fair amount of deserved excitement in professional circles of both conjurors and mentalists alike, raised some interesting implications in this direction, at least to more attentive readers; the book suggests that the author is not so much a mentalist as he is a doer of mysteries, be they feats of believable if extremely skilled mental dexterity, unusual conjuring prowess, or more traditional paranormal demonstrations.
Now Derren Brown tosses subtle implications aside and lays down a challenge—make that multiple challenges—to traditionalists, even as he takes a running leap forward into the future of magic. Mr. Brown is a British performer, with whom I have not previously been familiar, and who previously published a somewhat different version of this book in an extremely limited edition.
In short, the author urges us (as he states at the book's close) to "reach down deep into the raw, fetid effluence of dull, unconvincing effects: past the steaming Curds that are billet switches; past the fecal nuggets that are sealed envelopes and gaps left for a nail writer; and deep below that dead otter—that single stinking stool of immense proportions that is the standard book test, or the 'sealed prediction.' Let us together suppress our communal gag reflex and reach far below these vile grotesquerie: and feel for the scatologist's (sic) true treasure: the shimmering gold that is the purification of all that stinks and smears: a glittering alchemical prize that screams to all those with ears to hear: No one cares about your sealed predictions! Put away your nonsense wallets! You are a tiny, ridiculous man!' The purple splendor of real magic; the delight of wonder; the rich might of awe. Together we will bring this bright goodness to the surface and polish it until it shimmers and dances, beckons and seduces. This we will display to the world and the world will see its goodness, and in its goodness will appreciate its delightful evil.” I'll give you a moment to digest that.
There, now. There's something you haven't read lately in the pages of your official club organ, eh?
Oh, no. No, sir. This is, stated baldly, unquestionably the most provocative magic book I have read in a very long time. If I believed in spirits, I could almost hear the gleeful cackling of the late and foresighted Tony Andruzzi. What we have here is an obviously skilled conjuror who stands perched on the cusp of our art, of the issues facing those conjuring artists who are most demanding, above all, of their art and of themselves. And he is posing the question: How does magic take its place in the cosmopolitan world of the arts and entertainment—not in the abstract sense, but in the bottom-line, real-world sense of arresting the attention of sophisticated, adult audiences, and ultimately of achieving the kind of impact that something loosely called "magic" should probably hope and try to achieve? And the answer appears to be: By Any Means Necessary.
Tommy Wonder presents us with similar demands in his landmark Books of Wonder, and responds to his similarly self-imposed challenges with exquisite combinations of mechanics, manipulation, and psychology, achieving a kind of magic that is dearly conjuring, and yet effects that seem beyond "mere" conjuring. Mr. Brown is more given to a mentalist's approach—and yet he eschews that label and, from the work described in these pages, that label clearly falls somewhere between inadequate and inappropriate.
The author's fundamental position is that conventional definitions of—and barriers between—magic and mentalism are in fact stodgy old constructs that exist only in the confines of the traditions of magic, and have no bearing on the actual potential of magical performance. He proposes that we toss out the status quo assumptions of mentalism—that mentalists must encourage belief, that mentalists must not mix conjuring with mental-ism less they commit the sin that is the dreaded dilution known as "mental magic"—and that we run, headlong and at the greatest speed possible, toward a deliberate amalgam of mentalism and magic, designed only with the intent of achieving maximum mystery and impact, and leave the definitions and labels behind in the dust, along with those who would stop to figure them out. As Mr. Brown offers in an early discussion of "My Aims and Priorities:" "Enough magicians have asked me about the wisdom of combining magic and mind-reading in performance. No lay participant in my effects has ever queried this."
And to this I say: Finally! Finally someone has noticed that mentalism has been too long defined by amateurs. Finally someone has realized that the call for belief is not merely an ethical question—one to which this Mr. Brown frankly appears to attach little importance—but is in fact a theatrical question, and that the traditional effects and approaches of mentalism, by their very nature, have too long lived their meager lives out somewhere between the desert towns of Dullsville and Endoftheline. At long last someone has noticed that by claiming supernatural abilities you risk insulting the intelligence of, and hence abandoning, a great mass of the most intelligent and culturally sensitive elements in your audience—and doesn't Tommy Wonder encourage us to play directly to this portion of our audience, in the hopes that the less sophisticated segments will come along for the ride? As the author suggests, "I believe I earn [the audience's] respect by denouncing 'psychic power' as wooly guff and I challenge those lobotomized flower-fairies that believe in such non-sense, appealing to their intelligence and belief in themselves as skeptical creatures."
Oh, yes, this is a provocative book indeed—and by no means do I endorse or agree with every idea proposed herein. Mr. Brown is also a hypnotist, and hand-in-hand with that pursuit he is a proponent of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which will no doubt endear him to the more credulous among us (and the PEA, at the risk of redundancy), considering the absence of significant scientific evidence—from reputable sources outside of the NLP "industry'—in support of the NLP claims repeated here. His dismissal of ethical implications are a bit too cavalier for my tastes, although there is perhaps truth to his suggestion that as "the character of the per-former becomes more defined ... from this will stem his solution to the ethical consideration of performance style." His florid writing style is often very amusing but its excesses often render it rather twee; one is occasionally left gasping for a breath of simplicity. I don't believe that "magic takes us back to our infantile state of astonishment," or that, even if it did, this is a desirable goal. I
n all, there is much here that appears young and not yet fully developed, be it in the realm of ideas or the person of the author himself. Nevertheless, this book is really about the state of our art—not in the sense of such a state being a finished and polished accomplishment, but rather as a vision and a work very much in progress. It is fiercely contemporary in its voice and sensibility. Derren Brown has covered a lot of interesting ground in his magical life and pursuits, and among other things, he has plainly been strongly influenced by the works and artistic philosophies of Eugene Burger—but it becomes clear that the works of Mr. Burger, who has now been writing publicly on magic for some 18 years or thereabouts, have now taken hold on a new generation of magicians.
Although it is the concepts within this book that I found most thought-provoking and riveting, that is not to suggest that there is not superb and useable material to be found in its pages as well. And despite the significant quantity of theory and performance philosophy contained therein, there is also a kind of real-world pragmatism, borne of life in the trenches of magic-for-money, that is simultaneously refreshing and lends weight and conviction to the author's theorizing. In a lengthy examination of the "Cigarette-Through-Quarter," for example, Mr. Brown takes an extremely close look at the problems inherent in this effect's striking violation of the Too Perfect Theory. While he (somewhat surprisingly) does not invoke that principle by name, the problems he poses, and the superb solutions he offers, speak directly to that subject and the concerns it raises—concerns that any thoughtful and experienced practitioner will likely share. An unusual routine for Ring Hite also takes another standard effect and dresses it up with some interesting and challenging thinking—along with a series of remarkable repetitions, concluding when the case apparently vanishes from the spectator's hands—you read that correctly—and the ring finally appears in the performer's sock!
Many of the effects in the book read as impossibilities. The magician takes out a lighter and lights a cigarette. He asks the spectator to stare into the silvered surface of the lighter and name a card. She does so. The mage exhales a stream of smoke at the lighter, which suddenly has the named card engraved upon it, in color, on both sides.
Or a spectator phones a friend and requests that she name a card; she then hangs up. Someone at the table who knows the person calls and is asked to visualize that person, and imagine them with a card. The magician instructs both individuals present to name the cards they have heard or imagined—and they are the same! As an afterthought, the magician spreads a deck of cards that was previously given to another observer to hold—within it lies the now reversed named card.
I have no doubt that these effects work—sometimes. The author is unequivocal about the risks and uncertainties. Most readers will, immediately upon being informed of those risks, move on to the next thing, in hopes of finding a sure thing. Part of the way of the New Magic, if you will, is to accept, indeed embrace, such risks. If, that is, you have the stomach for it.
There is much more material to be found in Pure Effect, and much of it is far more certain in its outcome. A lengthy series of card effects, performed with three cards and three spectators, provides an extended sequence of strong effects in a mystifying and commercial routine. As the author comments, "I have also grown suspicious of the value of brief tricks, whereby a selected card may be transposed to the box, or be found by spelling to it. ... To engage an audience in an effect, I feel it is necessary to take some time with it." I may not agree entirely or in all cases—one must, at times, concede to the rigors of loud music, low lights, light fare, and heavy alcohol—but these points are certainly worth considering.
There is also some technically demanding work here for the card enthusiast. The author is unafraid to engage in some genuine cardicianship now and again in the service of his higher calling and he takes some time in one section to describe several interesting sleights of his own devise. In one, a very pure Ambitious Card handling is achieved, in which the spectator is permitted to turn up the top (and quite single) card himself, which the magician then inserts into the deck, whereupon the spectator snaps his fingers and then turns the top card over again, only to find it has returned.
The material ranges from the ephemeral—risky conceptions like two purely verbal (if somewhat heavy-handed) card forces—to the demanding but practical—such as an extended and cleverly constructed routine (somewhat reminiscent of Rene Lavand's work), in which, despite the fact that the audience repeatedly shuffles the cards, the magician is able to convincingly divine quantities of cards in sequence. The one trick that many will be talking about but few will use, entitled "Smoke"—in which a thought-of card (from a face-up deck that is ribbon spread upon a table) is quite mysteriously divined, then instantly vanishes from the deck, whereupon the cigarette the performer has been blithely (and actually) smoking shockingly transforms into the card itself—in many ways crystallizes the ideas at the core of this book. I have described this trick, in more fitting detail than the deliberately terse description offered here, to a number of colleagues, who have been captured by its elegance and mystery—as well as by its methodology. That synthesis—of effect and method—creates something larger than the whole—something beyond a simple pairing of known methods for a thought-of-card and a cigarette trans-formation. Whatever that larger thing is, it is what this book is about. And there's a small but significant chance that thing might turn out to be called The Future of Magic.