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Magic is Dead, by Ian Frisch — Book Review

Magic is Dead  (2019)  By Ian Frisch.  New York: William Morrow/Dey St.

 

 

I decided to review this book because I can feel the passion with which it was written.  This is a book about deception and illusion that is disarmingly candid.   This book is not only a history of magic and the story of it as a contemporary craft, it is a significant literary work of great skill and sensitivity.  Frisch considers himself a journalist, one who describes and reports on people and events going on in the world, but this book is also a deeply personal memoir, an autobiographical rendition of his own development through being drawn into the world of magic.  Chapter 15 is one of the most moving and insightful descriptions of a father-son relationship I have ever read. 

 Frisch had a lower middle class, blue-collar background with a few twists.  His mother was a card sharp and a pool hustler.  Marriage to Frisch’s father stabilized her.  But she didn’t forget her roots and taught Ian to play cards and to cheat at poker from a young age. 

After my father died, everything changed.  He was the rock who kept our family grounded.  . . . But after he was gone, she was lost.  So, with the pressure of being a single mother mounting, she went back to something on which she knew she could rely:  poker.  Deception at the card table became her primary coping mechanism.  It was the closest thing she had to an escape.  . . . But over the years, poker became a way for my mother and me to bond.  . . . Poker became our time together — just a mother and son becoming a couple of liars for the weekend.  (p. 12-13)

As his mother put it:

The biggest draw for me with this game was that I could go out there and be blatantly deceptive, which is very unlike me.  But with poker, the entire premise is to sit down and lie to other people.  It’s almost liberating.  There’s just something about it that speaks to me.  And I’m good at it. (p. 138)

Deception at the poker table was a gateway to the deception of the magician. 

The one thing that I have come to realize, as I’ve gotten to know everyone better, is that everyone carries a little bit of deception around with them their entire lives.  (p. 245)

Magic’s existence is contingent upon someone willing to be deceived.  Moreover, magic is exceptional because a performer isn’t merely trying to create a fantasy for a spectator (like movies or novels, which are also illusions of truth), but striving to alter their sense of objective reality.  (p. 61)

A completely unique thing happens, however,  when deception is applied within the context of performance.  A new goal forms:  astonishment.  (p. 56)

Frisch was struggling to make it as a freelance journalist.  He met a magician named Chris Ramsay on Instagram and thought of writing a story about Ramsay and the magicians around him.  Through Ramsay, Frisch became friends with a circle of magicians who welcomed him and with whom he felt an immediate kinship. 

I felt like I was falling in with people who were like me — a family of misfits, that we understood each other.  Being drawn to deception says something about your outlook on the world.  (p. 55)

His background in cards and poker playing gave him a foundation, an in with the group, but he was accepted as a friend and companion long before he found acceptance as a magician. 

Daniel Madison and Laura London were forming a group they called “The52,” after the 52 cards in a deck.  It was a project to assemble 52 of the most capable and innovative young magicians who shared their outlook on magic and its nature as a performance art form.  It was a secret society.  Every member was required to have a tattoo emblazoned on his or her middle finger corresponding to a card in the deck.  Ramsay was the four of spades, Madison was the 9 of clubs, Laura London was the King of Diamonds.  Eventually Frisch became the two of clubs. 

The52 quickly became known as the new generation, the ones beginning to shake things up in the world of magic.  They took the antiquated image of a magician and flipped it on its head.  They vowed to no longer associate with the stereotypes of top hats and scarves, rabbits, and doves — lame crutches that can dumb down magic from an art form to a joke.  To them, magic was something to be revered, and magicians could embody a modern mystique.  ‘ Every single person in the52 has something special about them,’ Laura told me, adding that some members are not necessarily magicians, but have contributed to the industry in other ways.  They have inducted photographers, artists, a professional forger, hypnotists, and reformed card cheats.  ‘Everyone we choose to become a member is an artist in their own way,’ she told me, ‘and they each have a specific role in the group.’ (p. 36-37)

Frisch provides a lot of biographical detail about many of the magicians the came to know.  Chapter 9 is a very interesting survey of the history of magic going back to the stone age.  The first magicians were probably people who wanted their peers to think that they had supernatural powers.  This was a distinct advantage in a society that did not have great stratification in wealth.  From ancient times the ability to perform magic was associated with a special relationship to the spirit realm and the ability to invoke its powers.  Morton Smith in his book, Jesus the Magician, argued that Jesus was part charlatan and magician who was able to fool some people into thinking he was the Son of God — whatever that might mean.1  The52 are a secular manifestation of a modern take on magic divested of its “spiritual” hokum.  They consider themselves skilled artisans and entertainers whose object is amazement and alteration in perception.

They were an outlier on the artistic spectrum; instead of clay or paint or dance, they worked in the medium on the human mind, knowing full well that they could reach in, twist some hidden knob, and alter a person’s conception of reality. (p. 55)

‘I see a lot of parallels between magic and hacking’, Doug told me.  ‘It’s the same mind-set.  You are looking for loopholes, for ways to push people’s ideas of perception.’ (p. 264)

Throughout the book there are numerous retellings of magic tricks.  I’ll repeat one, just to give you a taste.

“which one of you is going to show me a magic trick?”  Madison slowly sipped his drink.

“I don’t even have a deck of cards on me, ” Madison told him.  After a pause and another swig of whiskey, he said, “But how about you name a card.”  Jeff rubbed his chin, as if deep in thought.

“The Jack of Hearts,” he said, adjusting his glasses.

Two jokers sat atop a stack of napkins on the bar (from someone else’s deck, removed from a fresh pack) and Madison reached out to grab them, putting down his drink in the process.  “I guess we’ll just have to use these,” he said picking them up.  “Jack of Hearts, right?”

Jeff nodded.  Madison pinched the Jokers between his thumb and forefinger.  He swayed the two cards gently from left to right, as if fanning a Polaroid, and held them for a moment, arm outstretched.  He separated the cards and revealed, between the jokers, a Jack of Hearts.

“Like you said,” Madison started, handing him the three cards, “the Jack of Hearts.”

Jeff stood there, frozen in place, speechless.  (p. 212)

Much of the last half of the book recounts how magic works in the age of television and the internet.  Some members of the52 are able self promoters making skilled use of the resources of the internet and modern means of communication. 

A magician who wants to make it, especially in the present, needs to not only be talented but also gifted in self-promotion, performance, video and photography production, trick invention and innovation, and personal branding.  (p. 108)

This was true going all the way back to Harry Houdini in the early 1900s, who was the consummate self promoter.  Chapter 10 is devoted to describing this intermingling of social media, magic, and self promotion, which no one has exploited better than Chris Ramsay.  There is also an interesting section on cardistry, which is the art of handling cards in artful ways to create dazzling effects.  It bears a relationship to the practice of magic, but they are not the same thing, and many expert cardists are not magicians. 

Chapter 11 is an interesting survey of the long history of card cheating, especially in poker, and the various ways of marking cards.  In fact, in the past many cards have been marked by the manufacturers.  Frisch tells us that by the 1860s 25 percent of all cards used in America were marked by the manufacturers.  (p. 122)  He quotes a passage from another work that outlines how to mark common cards for cheating or magic.

For modifying well-known cards, like Bicycles, a magician could, for example, implement the Farmarx System.  ‘The areas to be clocked out are the four daisy patterns, two at each end of the back. There are eight petals and a center dot in each daisy.  These nine spots are filled in to represent the values and suits of the cards.  The daisy on the left signals the values, while the daisy on the right signals the suits.’  The Farmarx System used shape to discern value — petals left unblocked in the shape of an A represent an Ace, for example — but loads of other image based languages can be used for a common brand like Bicycles.  All you need is the right color ink to illicitly modify a deck that anyone could have lying around their house.  Harry River suggests using Pelikan Drawing Ink, No. 3, Vermillion for red Bicycles, and No. 10 Prussian Blue for blue Bikes, applied with a 00000 sable or camel artist’s brush (p. 124)2

Anyone who plays poker for substantial sums of money would do well to educate themselves in the many ways of card cheating.  Even casinos are sometimes cheated out of large sums of money by skilled cheaters. 

Frisch relates a mystery from the history of card cheating that I would like to comment on.  He describes a book that appeared in 1902 called The Expert at the Card Table, by S.W. Erdnase.  Frisch calls this book “the most thorough and well-regarded text on playing card sleight of hand.” (p.127)  It remains highly regarded today despite the fact that its prose is dense and difficult to read.  The mystery concerns its author, S. W. Erdnase.  No one knows exactly who he is.  There is a theory that he was a card cheat, murderer, fugitive, and con man named Milton Franklin Andrews, but it is unconfirmed.  I would like to add my vote that Andrews is Erdnase.  If you spell S.W. Erdnase backwards, you see the name Andrews spelled out very clearly.  It’s a telling indication in my opinion. 

When Frisch was ten years old his father kept him out of school one day in order to take him to meet his hero, Shaquille O’Neal.  They waited outside his hotel in the cold where he would emerge to go play against the Boston Celtics.  His father pushed him through the crowd and in front of Shaq and asked him to sign his son’s jersey, which O’Neal did.  They framed the jersey and the two tickets to the Celtics game.  This framed memento became one of the most profound connections Frisch possessed to his father, who died a few years later when Frisch was thirteen.  Twenty years later Frisch interviewed Shaq for a magazine article about how O’Neal had evolved as a person since his basketball playing days.  It touched off some deep personal reflection on his own life and that of his father and the role Shaquille O’Neal played in their relationship. 

To this day, my greatest fear in life is to  never be able to truly understand his identity as a man [his father] — to fully grasp how much he sacrificed, how much he cared, how hard he tried — and how much we may share as adults.  That I, perhaps, will understand we were both just two men who at their core, were trying nothing more than to grasp the hard truth that sometimes finding purpose in life — truly finding yourself — is one thing you may never come to accomplish, that time is not a thing with which you can make a deal.  (p. 183)

I thought about the conversation with Shaq and how, despite being one of the best athletes of all time, and a by-product of his father’s influence, he was still searching for a true version of himself.  Maybe that’s why he dipped back into music, I thought to myself.  And maybe that’s why my mother went back to poker.  But for me, I had, at that point — before I found the magic thing — likewise been on a quest to find my place.  People spend their entire lives searching for the radical event, the epiphany, that finally reveals the truest version of themselves.  (p. 184-85)

The shared idealization of a hero between father and son is a powerful bond, of which Frisch’s experience is an excellent illustration.  The converse is where a father and son are not able to share an idealized figure, and this indicates a divergence of values and direction in life, and perhaps lasting estrangement.  Having the hero sign the jersey, or an autograph book, or taking a photograph together, creates a lasting connection between the admirer and the idealized hero. 

I remember an incident from many years ago when I worked as an usher at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.  Vladimir Horowitz was performing a sold out piano recital and at the end of the concert I was posted to an elevator where Horowitz would descend to a garage where a car was waiting.  My job was to keep people from congregating around this elevator door that Horowitz would be taking.  There was a man there with a camera who wanted to get a picture of Horowitz.  At first I was going to make him leave the area, but it seemed very important to him to get this picture, and I relented and the two of us stood there together waiting for Horowitz.  It was a long wait and we started to talk.  Taking pictures of celebrities was a hobby of his and he recounted some of the many celebrities he had collected.  I began to realize that this man had nothing of his own, and that he lived and became somebody — briefly — by merging with these idealized, accomplished people whom he imagined to be better than himself.  He was nervous that Horowitz might not permit him to shoot a picture, but I assured him that he would most likely indulge him.  He insisted, that no, this picture would be very difficult to get and Horowitz was unlikely to allow it.  I asked him if he would like me to do it.  I was quite sure that Horowitz would allow me to take the picture, but it was something he had to do himself. 

At long last Horowitz and a small entourage came through the door from the hallway.  The elevator door opened and Horowitz stepped inside and turned toward us.  The man stepped up with his camera and spoke to Horowitz.  “Mr. Horowitz, Mrs. So and so, who is the president of the symphony board is a good friend of mine and she would be very pleased if you would let me take a picture. ”  Horowitz looked at him and made a grimace, then shook his head no, raised his hand in front of his face to wave him off, and the elevator door closed and he was gone.  It was over in an instant and the man did not get his picture that he had waited close to an hour for.  I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.  The elevator was gone and it was just him and me.  He looked at me and I said, “you blew it, you idiot!  Why did you give him that song and dance about Mrs. So and so being the president of the symphony board?  All you had to do was show him the camera, say, ‘Mr. Horowitz, would you mind?’  And he would have stood there and let you do it.  It would have only taken a second. ”  The man insisted that his way was right, that the only way you could get a superstar celebrity to condescend to allow a picture was to invoke a higher power that they would consider an peer.  I disagreed strongly, but the outcome was already determined:  he didn’t get the picture. 

The point is that the idealized figure reflects the aspirations, values, self esteem, and social position of the supplicant who wishes the brief merger.  It is akin to the Bible story in Mark about the woman with the hemorrhage who believed that if she touched Jesus’ garment, she would be healed.  She did so, and Jesus noticed that “a virtue had gone out of him,” but he told her that her faith had healed her.  (Mark 5:25-34) The Bible story captures the psychology of the souvenir seeker in relation to a celebrity.  The person believes that by just touching the garment, just achieving the most minimal contact, acquiring a signature, or a photograph, will have a beneficial, healing effect upon them.  And they are right.  The man at the elevator invoked a false god to help him and he failed as a result.  Faith is what succeeds.  Believing in yourself and believing that your contact with the revered figure will help you, actually does.  Frisch’s story of Shaquille O’Neal and his father is an example of a success that had a lasting impact on his life, and there are many others that might be told.

The final third of the book deals with the various roads to success for contemporary magicians through the lives of some of his friends among the52, especially Chris Ramsay, Doug MacKenzie, Daniel Madison, Laura London, and Xavior Spade.  Each has a unique, interesting story and their modern take on the practice and business of magic is cast against a long history of the methods of magicians from the past.  I do not wish to recap the highlights of the biographies of these magicians or the many ways they are promoting their careers on the internet.  I do recommend reading it for anyone who is interested in magic, or self promotion on social media.  The book is an excellent survey of the history and nature of magic from its origins through its most modern practitioners.  It is very well written and deeply personal. 

 

  1. Smith, Morton (1978,1998) Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God?  Berkeley, CA:  Seastone Press. 
  2. Quoting Charles, Kirk (2005) Hidden in Plain Sight:  A Manual for Marked Cards.  Publisher unavailable. 
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