The Paper Engine by Aaron Fisher & John Lovick
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2002)
This elegantly written and conceived volume is a cool breeze amid the hothouse din of contemporary flash-bang cardicianship. Aaron Fisher is a thoughtful young card man who since about the age of 18 has been steadily accruing a reputation for original and superbly executed sleight of hand. Now, at the age of 26, he has carefully selected a concise set of examples of his work, to submit to the community in his first fully formed book.
Mr. Fisher's approach to sleight of hand is rigorous and intense. with little inclination toward extraneous movement, wasted energy, or mere distraction. These tastes are reflected through this book, both in the concentrated quantity of material in a relatively slender volume, and in the succinct but graceful prose which describes its contents.
Mr. Fisher has approached his career in magic in admirable fashion. A remarkable creator from an early age, he nevertheless did not rush himself into print, nor does he now gather everything in his catalog in a desperate effort to fill the space between massive hard covers. Instead and much like his colleague, the similarly original and skilled young cardician, Lee Asher, Mr. Fisher has gradually worked his way into the marketplace of ideas, submitting work to journals in effect, a kind of peer review and eventually creating several small lecture manuscripts. Thus, even at this young age, he has permitted himself the opportunity to evolve and grow in his art and he has exercised a modicum of self-control that is often sorely lacking in the ravenous cravings of his contemporaries. He has kept the volume of his own voice down that he might better hear the lessons of his mentors.
One senses, in fact, that even this book is far from the usual exercise in self-aggrandizement that we typically see from young authors. Some of the material in this book has been in the author's use for several years or more. And it does seem that by presenting a focused and efficient selection of material, Mr. Fisher is attempting to give some-thing back to his art, instead of merely seeing a book as a road to self-promotion and puffery. In short, the author appears to be aware that the greatest creators never stop learning, and that to be a teacher of any value, one must see oneself as a perpetual student. Clearly, Mr. Fisher is a passionate and worthy student of our art, and were there a few more like him we could all be a bit more sanguine about its present condition.
From the first, the book declares itself a different breed, opening as it does with a six-page description of The Gravity Half Pass, the author's solution to the invariably problematic challenge of how to invisibly reverse cards in the lower portion of a deck. This is a difficult sleight to apprehend, even with six pages and nine photographs of description, and it will require a quiet room, a mirror, and a substantial investment of thoughtful consideration in order to understand Mr. Fisher's superb alternative to the commonplace Christ Twist. While the movement of the Christ Twist covering action can offer great assistance in concealing the mammoth task of secretly reversing cards via a Half Pass, the Twist also runs the risk of drawing undue attention at the wrong moment by deem of its added movement. Thus Mr. Fisher has devised a handling in which the only covering action is one drawn from Dai Vernon's famed Topping the Deck Top Palm, namely the slight elevating of the deck to the fingertips. Under this minimal misdirection, the author proposes a method that enables the concealment of the reversal of one card, half the deck, or in fact the entire deck being reversed under a single covering card.
The sleight requires no tension to speak of, and throughout the text the author returns frequently to discussing his avoidance of force and tension in his sleights. He uses gravity instead of muscle wherever it will help, and carefully conceals every element of his sleights from detection. He speaks in the introduction of using a theatrical model for his approach to sleight of hand; a former drama student, Mr. Fisher is intent upon rendering sleights invisible by not only the mechanical precision of a high-performance engine, but the perfect placement within the totality of a magical performance. He insists, for example, that "there is really no effective way to practice [the pass] without an audience, as the cover is provided by interaction with them." While this claim perhaps exaggerates to clarify, the ideas are worthy of serious reflection. And if the student grasps these ideas which will be no more readily acquired upon first reading than will the sleights they accompany and expand upon then he will also have a fighting chance of recognizing what is useful in these sleighs, and what is required to master them.
Indeed, this is more a volume of technique than it is of tricks and, given Mr. Fisher's strengths and experience at this stage of his career, it makes a great deal more sense for him to put forth such a text than it does to wax and wander at length about his performance experience. Although he does in fact offer some interesting comments on the performance of magic, these are constrained in quantity and restrained in tone—as they should. I look forward to Mr. Fisher's future insights on performing—as soon as he has put in a decade or two from which to extract any.
Approximately the first half of the book is structured entirely around sleights, in fact; what tricks are included are primarily examples of application. In the 11 main items in this section, all but one comprise sleights; the exception is a difficult flourish production of a card, an item the author defends because of its "diamond"-like flashiness, as opposed to the warm opalescence of a "pearl"—part of an extended metaphor, attributed to Lee Asher, about different styles of card handling. Mr. Fisher certainly leans toward the "subtle, smooth, and elegant" when it comes to pearl-like sleights, but appears to have a soft spot for the sparkle of a diamond-like flourish now and again. Although elsewhere he repeatedly derides the use of covers for a move like the Pass, which threaten to draw attention to a moment that "should not exist," it might be noted that there are times when sleights can be extremely deceptive by deem of their sparkle.
Along with the Gravity Half Pass, my favorite item in this section is the Nowhere Pass, a version of the venerable Bluff Pass. In this section, and as with several other items in the book, Mr. Fisher carefully describes innovations that he then thoughtfully critiques, in some cases to the point of demolition. And so it is in this case; while neither the author nor I particularly care for his early approaches, his Bluff Replacement Subtlety, used with or without his Advanced Nowhere Pass, comprises what is probably the best work on the Bluff Pass to date.
There are certainly other sleights of interest and value here, including an alternate for the Vernon Strip-Out Addition, a Multiple Shift, a handling of the Herrmann Pass with an out jogged card, and a replacement of a palmed card. Many of these sleights have flaws, and as mentioned, the author examines them under a fine microscope, pointing these imperfections out along the way. This ruthless self-examination is yet another admirable trait of both the volume and the author's approach, and in general, I agree with his assessments. However, by the same token, I also agree with his choice of presenting these examples as instructional guides of a sort. As he comments in his brief preface, in which he acknowledges that some of the book's contents are more theoretically strong than they are pragmatic "The academic informs the practical." And blessed are the few who know the difference.
The second section of the book is more effect-oriented, consisting of 12 items (many of which reflect the author's tendency toward adapting the titles of Beatles songs as trick titles). There is a nice visual approach to the Richard Kaufman/James Lewis "Inversion" plot, and a similar idea applied to a Color-Changing Deck effect. There's an entertaining plot called "The Standing Challenge," based on Vernon's "The Challenge" and contributed here by Gordon Bean.
In all, this segment is a mixed bag, but there are also some sleights included which are worth closer examination. Mr. Fisher executes a superb Top Card Cover Pass and the elements are briefly described in the midst of a trick in this section; a tad more exposition and focus might have been valuable. Mr. Fisher's editorial comments are equally of interest here as throughout the book, as they are always thoughtful and often provocative; while I would not offer my endorsement of his conclusions at every mm, certainly there are a quantity of thought-provoking ideas here that will serve to render your time with this book more of a meaningful relationship than the typical one-night stand with the latest video. For sake of discussion, an example of one choice I might disagree with is found in his routine, "Search and Destroy." Where Mr. Fisher achieves the final phase by openly cutting the deck, I would choose to do a Shift at the correct theatrical moment the move that "should not exist" in the audience's perceptions--rather than openly cut the pack, a step that not only comprises a method, but also adds an extraneous action that is entirely superfluous to the effect.
I enjoyed this book a great deal, and while I read it in galley, it appears that the production values will probably match the care and delicacy of the content. This will be the rare new technical book which I will keep close to hand in order to facilitate my return to it, to revisit some of its techniques as well as reconsider some of its ideas. The crediting is mostly excellent, and far more careful than the kind produced by a casual fishing expedition in an online discussion group.
I have little doubt that there will be more books to come from Aaron Fisher as the years go by, and I will look forward to them. Other young magi have published books that race to the remainder table or gather dust on dealer's shelves, even while their contents have been overlooked and indeed already forgotten, and quite appropriately so. Meanwhile there is a sleight or two of Mr. Fisher's that I expect may well be adopted as standards among the inner circle of expert card handlers for many years to come. But perhaps most importantly, I suspect that Mr. Fisher will look back and will always be pleased with this book: for the respectful and responsible entry he made into the literature of his arc. Welcome.