Things Are Not What They Appear To Be

Wherein your correspondent talks of propaganda, faulty perception, the art of magic, Whit Haydn’s theory of conjuring, suspension of disbelief, deception, Buddhist philosophy, and the need to doubt.

Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to hear the commentary as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program heard on WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.

Perx of The Jerx


I’d like to recommend a magic blog to you: The Jerx. The Jerx, whose name and logo are a satirical tribute to Ted Annemann’s mentalism periodical, The Jinx (which in turn was a satirical tribute to the magic periodical, The Sphinx), is the reincarnation of the legendary Magic Circle Jerk blog that ran from 2003–2005. The main goal of the MCJ then was to bedevil and taunt the owners and staff of The Magic Cafe, a noble mission, good even onto itself. However, about three months ago, Andy, the one-named former proprietor of the MCJ, started a new daily magic blog, the aforementioned The Jerx. And even though once in a while it still ridicules The Magic Cafe, this time Andy has cast his net wider to include thinking deeply about what makes an audience enjoy a magic effect. It’s well worth reading every day.

In its new incarnation, The Jerx is still profane, funny, at times hopelessly adolescent, sexy, maybe at times sexist, and oh yes, more than occasionally tinged with genius.

The Jerx‘s operating assumption is that the single most important way for magicians to improve their magic is to focus on the audience’s experience; to this end Andy puts in a ridiculous (no, the correct!) amount of thought to scripting and performance. Andy’s descriptions of the elaborate set-ups he devotes to entertaining his friends and colleagues in everyday situations are downright inspiring, favoring effects that grow out of the organic relationships already present. If reading the description of his Borrowed Money Teleported to Paris effect doesn’t move you to scrap everything you’re doing in magic and start all over, then maybe you should apply to be a Grammar Host at The Magic Cafe. (And, no, I’m not going to link to that post. Dig and find it yourself, it’s worth the effort.)

What I like about Andy’s work especially is that he goes back and forth between theory and practical experiments to see if a proposed theory holds water. He experiments to see which of several hypotheses work out best for him in his world. By this method, he has found a fascinating corollary to the Whit Haydn theory of magic—that theory which states that the best magic is when the audience confronts the experience of the insoluble dilemma: There’s no such thing as magic / There’s no other answer to explain what just happened.

Andy, in one of his recent posts, provides a very nice extension of that theory. You should read the whole post, but the essence of it is this: A successful effect according to Haydn is one that puts an audience member onto the horns of that dilemma and provides no escape. But a big problem that Andy addresses is that spectators will try to dislodge themselves from those horns one way or another. If you give them no possibility of a method, they give up and surrender, falling on one side of the dilemma—which is okay, but not as good as keeping them dangling. If, on the other hand, you give them a believable implied method, even if its wrong, they’ll take comfort in that, and again dislodge themselves from those horns. But the most diabolical strategy is to give an implied method that on quick audience reflection cannot be true. It’s as if

“you’re in a sealed room with a little tiny door the size of a cereal box. You’re trapped, but there’s this thing that beckons you as if it’s an exit. Your rational mind knows it’s not. You know you’ll never fit through it, but you can’t help but keep returning to it and shoving a hand or a leg out and seeing if maybe there’s some way to work your way through. Rationally, you know it’s not the way out, but it’s the only thing that even suggests a way out, so your mind keeps returning to it.

And this is where Mr. Haydn and Andy would like their audiences to end up—endlessly going over each part of the trick over and over again, to take home and re-tell later to their friends and family. The most effective magic, in this view, is the magic that gives the spectator’s brain no rest.

You can read a lot of fancy books about magic detailing the latest tricks and the newest micro-variation of Triumph and Ambitious Card, but if doing and thinking about informal magic is something you enjoy, and you like starting each day with a laugh, The Jerx is required daily reading.

Book Nook


(Remember that Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith?)

I thought it would be fun to talk a little—but not too much!—about what I’ve been reading in the last few months. I seem to go in four month cycles with reading—four months on avidly reading, and then four months off when I don’t want to read at all. Since this seems to be my four months on…

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle–a very fine writer in my opinion. This is the first novel in a trilogy about the life of Dublin-born Henry Smart, IRA gun runner, explosives expert, and lover. Doyle writes with great lyricism and imagination, and each scene is brought vividly to life, both visually and aurally. The fictional character Henry Smart has interactions with the real-life Irish Republican Army figures of Michael Collins, James Connelly, and Ernst O’Malley, and Doyle describes the passion, cynicism, and double-dealing that goes into the making of a revolution and a revolutionary.

Last year I read Doyle’s second book in the trilogy, Oh Play That Thing! and also greatly enjoyed that book. It  has the disillusioned Henry jumping ship to the United States where he manages to land a job working as the bodyguard of Louis Armstrong. It sounds improbable, but somehow Doyle makes it all sing, and the book itself is a jazzy improvisation of plot and character that Doyle brings to a stunning conclusion.

The Secret Miracle, edited by Daniel Alarcon, is an excellent set of interviews with contemporary authors, focusing on the writers’ work strategies. The book is organized by question, so that all the interviewees’ answers are recorded as if they were in conversation with each other. The authors interviewed include Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Roddy Doyle, Allegra Goodman, Jonathan Letham, Haruki Murakami, and many others, so you expect an absorbing read, and it is. They answer questions about their influences, how they prepare to write a novel, their work habits, how they go about revision, how long it takes them to write a draft, whether they draw on real life for their characters or not, who they allow to read their drafts, how they know when they’ve reached a final draft, and so on.

It’s the kind of book about the arts that I really enjoy reading—experts at their craft talking about what they really do. The most comforting part for anyone hoping to learn more about writing from such a book is the wide diversity of habits, styles, and practices that are described. Each author, Machado-like, has carved out his or her own path.

No Applause—Just Throw Money by Trav S. D. (Yes!) is a chatty, informative book about the creation and evolution of vaudeville. The author neatly explains the rise of vaudeville as the standardization and rehabilitation of the other forms of variety entertainments that had played across America at one time or another since the country’s inception. The lecture hall, the dime museum, the circus, the minstrel show, the medicine show were the sometimes measly but ubiquitous entertainments criss-crossing the country. After women got the right to vote, the theater entrepreneurs understood that they could make more money by sanitizing the previously primarily male enclaves of variety entertainment. So vaudeville provided entertainment to men, women, and children, and at the same time provided a venue for the audience to see themselves on stage in the form of immigrant singers and comedians.

The formula of variety family entertainment made huge stars of many, and the same formula was put to work with the advent of television, which catered to the same audience. The new medium eventually killed off vaudeville. The likes of Ed Sullivan and Saturday Night Live were the direct descendants of that format. The book also does a nice job talking about some of the well-known vaudevillians—George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker—and some of the lesser known personalities, such as comedians Weber and Fields, and tap dancer Joe Frisco who were also huge stars in their time. Some great insight here on what it is to take an act, hone it to perfection, and perform it hundreds or even thousands (six a day!) of times a year.

And in the Magic Department we have The Chicago Surprise by Whit (“Pop”) Haydn. I first read Whit’s monograph detailing his unique handling of the classic card routine “Chicago Opener” quite a while ago, but it’s a booklet that I keep going back to. First of all, it’s a damn good trick, and as my skill at card magic improves, I want to make sure I’ve got it right. But even more importantly, it details a whole theory of performance magic

Briefly, the plot is this: a spectator chooses any card from an ordinary red-backed deck and it turns out to be the one card in the pack with a blue back. The blue-backed card is placed face down on the table.  The magician then gives the spectator another choice of cards—offering the spectator a chance to change to another card if so desired. The card is lost in the deck, but when the spectator names the chosen card, the face-down blue-backed card is turned over to reveal that it is the same one that the spectator chose.

What is so valuable about Whit’s booklet is that it’s not just a description of a trick, but the outlining of a whole philosophy of magic, his now famous “dilemma” theory. Haydn holds nothing back, and the routine is there with a complete script, and with some great tips about the use of the major sleights involved: the palm, the DL and the CF. But in addition, Whit tells you why he constructed the routine the way he did, and his explanation yields great insight into audience perception and psychology. What with an included bonus routine for the Brainwave Deck, this is a must for any card worker.

And in progress: Arthur Phillips’s first novel, Prague; C. Wright Mills’s survey and critique of marxisms, The Marxists; The inventive Swedish magician Tomas Blomberg’s compilation of eclectic conjuring effects, Blomberg Laboratories; Michelle Alexander’s  description of the new era of oppression for African-Americans through the criminal injustice system, The New Jim Crow; and a very interesting nuts and bolts book about writing, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. I hope to report on all of these at another time. Until then, happy reading!