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The Art Of Astonishment, Books 1, 2 by Paul Harris

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 1996)


Yes , it has been almost 20 years since I first saw Paul Harris perform the Bizarre Twist, Reflex (a.k.a. Whack Your Pack), and the Vacuum Cleaner Cards. It was 1977, and Bizarre Twist went straight into my repertoire. Reflex would, circa 1985, become a key routine for me in my Magic Bartender days, and remains an element of the climax of my formal close-up performances. And Tap Dancing Aces, well... that was a trick I would never even imagine myself doing—I mean, really...vacuum cleaners'—but seemed the very essence of this character who had appeared on the magic scene. What was a Paul Harris? He was an unusual creature who, disguised as a mild-mannered close-up magician, possessed strange powers of creativity—and even said strange things, like mumbling something about having a dwarf down his shorts while performing a card trick. He also became by far the most imitated young close-up performer of the period, and in the ensuing decade his rate of output was exceeded only by the apparently insatiable appetite of his fans. Paul Harris was a phenomenon.

So, yes, I have a shelf-full of Paul Harris titles, and yes, I waded through the wider gaps in his editorial sieve, choking on the chaff while harvesting the wheat of seminal effects like the Solid Deception, Ultimate Rip-Off, Re-Set, Las Vegas Leaper, Interlaced Vanish, Uncanny, Cardboard Connection, Immaculate Connection, Twilight, and Super Swindle, not to mention breaking my heart (and a couple of other organs) on his most cruelly titled flourish, the Simple Switch. No, I was not as enamored as some of the adolescent set was with the sometimes overly simple construction or the wacky pipe dreams, and even less so with the goofy writing style and leering double entendres. Yes, I bemoaned the abuse of the Elmsley Count, and even more so the abuse of spectators with jokes that fit no one but the author but were committed to memory by every juvenile who could limp through one of those Elmsley Counts. But Paul Harris was here to stay—sort of.

Because the time came when Mr. Harris would move from magic to other things; he even wrote a screenplay for a film that would have received an Oscar if they gave one for titles. We don't know exactly where he's been or what else he's been doing, but now he has come back, back to us and to a new generation ready to be seduced and perhaps subsumed. And whether he has returned from a long walk in the park or from a visit to his home planet, he has not come back empty-handed; he's full of new tricks, new lines, and new ideas, and there's something in every category that's bound to strike you as just plain strange.

In these three remarkable volumes, Mr. Harris has collected the majority of his body of work into one accessible package. He has tightened that loosely constructed sieve referred to above, and cut about fifty items from his output of books. He has gathered all of his commercially marketed items, including Immaculate Connection, Super Swindle, and Twilight, along with isolated journal contributions. (He even manages to include the good stuff from the largely regrettable volume, Brainstorm in the Bahamas, by the self- styled if astonishingly poorly dubbed Magic Hedonists.) In many cases he includes variations and improvements of his own and of other contributors, notably among which will be found Earl Nelson's set-up and Chad Long's clean-up for Re-Set, and Bill Malone's version of Cards Across using Mr. Harris' false count from Las Vegas Leaper.

Now if the already named groundbreaking material was all that these books contained then their initial run of 5000 copies would probably quickly sell out as is, because there are plenty of magi out there whose collections of Harrisobilia are not as complete as this, not to mention that new generation of Harris virgins moist with the anticipation of imminent violation. But there's still more to whet the appetite of even the most resistant Harrisaphobe. Each volume contains an opening section of "New Stuff" totaling 37 items in all; these include: Fizz-Master (actually a collaboration with Eric Mead), in which the magician transposes the excess carbonation from a shaken can of soda to an undisturbed can; The Shape of Astonishment, the hit of Mr. Harris' most recent videotape release, in which the imprint of the head of a quarter that has been rubbed into a piece of tinfoil instantly changes to the imprint of the tails side (both of which could be seen in last month's issue); and an utterly remarkable plot entitled The Anything Deck, in which a deck of cards prepared with the a letter of the alphabet on the back of each one is used to locate a spectator's selected card, and then ultimately to reveal the prediction of a spectator's freely named word (a description which fails to do justice to this deeply mysterious effect).

Besides the "new stuff" from Mr. Harris, numerous friends and followers have seen fit to contribute just plain good stuff, apparently eager to be a part of their fearless leader's legacy. Hence each volume contains a chapter of contributions from "Mysterious Friends," including the aforementioned Chad Long, along with Guy Hollingworth, Robert Neale, and more. One such guest star, Gregory Wilson, contributes some of the best of the new material in a section of eight original routines, including a superb card- to-wallet type of effect wherein a spectator's driver's license transposes with the magician's. In the cause of creeping Harris hegemony, Eric Mead contributes The Incredible Mystery of the Tenth Card, positively the most ingenious presentational approach to the Victor 11 Card Trick extant. Mr. Mead, who is Magic Bartender (alongside Doc Eason) at the Tower Restaurant in Snomass, Colorado, is credited with having contributed "Additional Writing" to the books; Mr. Harris makes it clear in an accompanying testimonial that Mr. Meade's influence on the entire project has apparently been enormous.

Finally, a number of essays, dialogues, testimonials and other think pieces are scattered throughout. While some of this material ranges from the interesting to the borderline incomprehensible, I found the discussion of Eric Mead's "Gourmet Magic Show" to be particularly thought provoking. The need to, in Mr. Mead's words, "convince (the spectator) that the feeling these 'tricks' evoke is rare and wonderful, (so) you no longer want to figure the trick out like a puzzle..." is ultimately the task of every magician, on some level or other, even when the tricks are presented as being entirely skill based, with no pretense of the supernatural being evoked. While unlike Mr. Meade I would immediately defer from recommending the work of Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell for guidance in—well, anything—there are many other solutions available to the interesting challenges Mr. Mead proposes. Mr. Mead is experimenting with what some might consider a very pure approach to this task, building the magic on pure effect and setting, and stripping the performance of character and what magicians typically refer to as presentation. I'm not certain of where his experiment is headed, and obviously neither is he, but even one who attempts to exorcise mysticism from conjuring (as I do) will be stimulated by aspects of Mr. Mead's inquiry. (It does seem to me that the approach he proposes may well be better suited to the settings in which amateurs perform magic rather than professionals, notwithstanding that the requisite abilities may be beyond most performers of either category.)

Concerning more practical matters, the books are well written, albeit in Mr. Harris' quirky style, which will no doubt be found to be engaging by many and irritating by some. The author doesn't seem to be trying quite so hard to be quite as cute as he was a decade or two ago—even the eccentric mind matures, it seems—and so I admit I found these books to be quite readable by and large. The editor, Andre' Hagen (who also conducts the Gourmet Magic Show dialogue with Eric Mead) has done a simply superb job; what conjuring literature seems to lack for more than anything these days are competent editors (except perhaps for competent proofreaders, and we could have used one of those here), and Mr. Hagen's diligence shines brightly throughout and is appreciated by this reader. The organization of these books seems to be so obviously "right" that readers might overlook that it can only have been the result of a great deal of care, as the sheer mass of material could have easily rendered the final product an unwieldy mess. And it could have been no easy task to edit a writer who turns out phrases the likes of this: "I was expecting a self-contained piece of strange that would punch a hotel through the stucco walls of my cultural consensus bedroom and open up to a secret cave filled with twinkies and hot dogs." Exactly.

There is also an invaluable Master Index of all three books, usefully repeated in each volume, which indicates page number, volume, and what the original source was where applicable (i.e., in what book the item originally appeared). There are plenty of first rate illustrations from Tony Dunn, who also designed the books. While the bindings are forgettable, the dustjackets, widely depicted in the advertising campaign, are particularly effective. The design of the books is otherwise professional, although I will gently protest the current fad for sans-serif type fonts; serifs were intended to make type easier to read, and current trends to the contrary notwithstanding, their absence is counterproductive to ease of reading. Nevertheless, A1 Multimedia clearly set out to do justice to the material, and the Harris trilogy is a notable accomplishment for them in their book publishing efforts.

By now you will have determined that I enjoyed these books. Mr. Harris' contribution to late 20th century close-up magic is undeniably conspicuous. His idiosyncratic brand of creativity has always been refreshing and remains unquestionably inspiring. The consistent simplicity of his methodology (certainly with some exceptions) combined with the uniqueness of many of his effects serves to explain the unrelenting appeal of his work. To some, these factors will add up to an artistically arresting experience that may alter your approach to your art; to others there is simply a wealth of good tricks here that, for sheer volume of useable material, more than justifies the requisite investment. No one would want to build a performance consisting entirely of Mr. Harris' most topologically bizarre effects—not even Mr. Harris, whose editorial sieve was certainly fine-tuned when it came to building his own personal repertoire, as recorded in his one-man issue of the Magic Arts Journal in 1987 (and included here in Book 3). He always knew not only what was good but what was best—Reflex may be the single best card trick created since Out Of This World (albeit a far more difficult one). But almost anyone's close-up act could benefit from the addition of a well-chosen piece of Harris strangeness, just as Luis de Matos chose an elegant silent version of Cardboard Connection as perhaps the single best moment of an entire network TV magic special last Spring. For me, the works of Paul Harris were often eminently useful, while his nature was so different from my own that he offered me little guidance in the larger pursuit of my art. For that, I find the paradigm shifting counsel of the recent Books of Wonder [page 212 ] to be more personally edifying. But you cannot fail to be provoked by a book that, in the opening of one entry, describes the effect as: "I certainly hope so." In that respect, your hopes are bound to be fulfilled by the astonishing content of these pages.

8 - 1/2" X 11" hardbound with full color laminated dustjacket; 323, 312, and 324 pages, respectively; more than 2000 line drawings total; 1996; Publisher: A1 Multimedia