Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

Magic Realist

Rachel Shteir

Seven years ago, trying to decide between two book topics, I was spending half my time interviewing magicians and going to magic shows and the other half interviewing shoplifters and going to shoplifting-addiction groups. But then came a moment when I began to wonder whether magic was a good subject for me: I was sitting with a magician—white and middle-aged, like so many are—in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side. When I asked how he had done a card trick in a show I had seen the previous night, he glared at me for a long moment. I thought he was going to leap across the table and cut my heart out with a knife. Shoplifting it was!

Which is why I was so excited to learn about Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini (the title refers to Dai Vernon’s doing a trick that the legendary escape artist could not figure out). Stone, a magician, suffered his colleagues’ disapproval when he revealed how a number of tricks are done in a 2008 article in Harper’s Magazine, the basis for this book. Since he was a magician, he could write about the subject from the inside. Since he had also studied physics and had experience as a magazine journalist, he could explain tricks, some of them mathematically complicated, in language that a lay reader might understand.

But it turns out that Stone’s work brings up another pitfall of writing about magic—namely, if we understand it, does it still fascinate? “The Magic Olympics: With Tricks Explained!,” Stone’s Harper’s account of how he bombs at a competitive magic event in Stockholm, is, in the words of the author, a “gearhead” article, obsessed with micro-explanations of tricks involving fake fingertips, extra-large pockets (topits), and other props. His revelations of magicians’ secrets are so detailed that they become flat. They don’t seduce or betray so much as they bore the reader.

Fooling Houdini, however, has other problems. The wonky particulars of “The Magic Olympics” have evolved into a coming-of-age memoir charting this Harvard grad’s fall from grace and subsequent rise. After Stockholm, Stone quits his job as an editor at Discover and enters a graduate program in physics at Columbia University. When his girlfriend abandons him, he doubles down on magic. He goes to magic school in Vegas and at the Magic Castle in LA. He meets cardsharps, psychics, and con artists. He starts his own magic club. Finally, he gets a book contract and (surprise!) on page 240, a new girl.

In this conventional narrative, Stone does manage to raise one of magic’s basic questions: What do audiences want from it today? As a con man, the metaphorical cousin of the magician, says in David Mamet’s excellent play The Shawl: “We all want ‘magic.’” But is it the dazzling tricks that draw us in or the revelations? Do we want to be fooled or enlightened? Some magicians argue that today, when every trick can be revealed with the click of a mouse and science is the ruling paradigm, it is all the more important to protect magic’s secrets. But Stone defends his decision to tell how tricks are done in part by saying that it might drive innovation, as if sleight of hand and card tricks were antecedents of Facebook and Google. And he is on to something: Although the history of magic is full of stories of science outpacing and explaining it, magic remains a source for science. In the nineteenth century, film innovators projected illusions onto celluloid, changing the way human beings thought about leaping through time and space.

Unfortunately, Stone explores the connections between magic and science in a boilerplate fashion. “Science has a lot to tell us about secrecy,” he writes, listing various pieces of sociology and mathematics with the flair of a Wikipedia page or a TED talk. Magic’s secrets deserve a more thought-through examination. It is not enough to say, as Stone does, that he is a rebel because he is pro-science and against secrets—that is just clinging to an argument magicians have been having for centuries. Why we remain drawn to magic in a nonmagical age: This is the secret I want to read about. And it’s not in this anodyne study.

There is an excellent moment at the end of “The Magic Olympics” when Stone gets on the plane to go home. He sees a legless man sitting next to a magician who did an inscrutable sawed-in-half routine in the competition. Realizing that the legless man enabled the magician to forgo the usual gimmicks is the occasion for a meditation on the lengths magicians are willing to go. It’s an unsettling scene, one that recalls magic’s less savory history as a con game and a sideshow.

But Stone’s book is constantly marred by an absence of analysis. Take, for example, his slapdash treatment of magic’s gender problem. Historically, magic has attracted a lot of smart men (Orson Welles, Johnny Carson, Edmund Wilson, to name three) but few women—except as assistants. But since we now live in a feminist era, it is not just surprising that Stone describes the three women in his book in clichés (“stunning,” “gorgeous,” “beautiful”), it is irresponsible.

Only a few months before “The Magic Olympics” appeared in Harper’s, Adam Gopnik’s thoughtful profile of the magician and polemicist Jamy Ian Swiss, published in the New Yorker, observed that the difference between magic and art is that people can see or hear the talent of artists, whereas the skill in magic is hidden. “There is an imbalance between the spectator’s experience and the performer’s,” Gopnik writes, comparing a great piece of sleight of hand to a great Vladimir Horowitz piano concerto. This is the kind of distinction that Stone never makes. He fails to give the reader a close-up of the close-up.

Rachel Shteir is the author, most recently, of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (The Penguin Press, 2011).