Fooling Houdini : Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks & the Hidden Powers of the Mindby: Alex Stone
ILLUSION IS REAL, even if not actually truthful. Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie begins: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Illusion is magicians’s product, their craft, their tool. And central to its “appearance of truth” is a social system of secrets and surprise. Two recent books reveal the journeys and expertise needed to enter and participate in this unusual world.
Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks & the Hidden Powers of the Mind begins with him having flamed out performing at a Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques’ (FISM) World Championships of Magic event (which he strangely calls the Magic Olympics). Undeterred in his desire to become a skilled magician, Stone realizes he needs to learn more about not just the techniques, but the secret subculture, to learn about the world of magicians in greater depth.
The details of his progress are described in Fooling Houdini, as he leads us through various kinds of deception: mentalism, pickpocketing, three-card Monte scams, and mathematical magic. Along the way, side trips are taken to introduce us to Richard Turner, a blind close-up magician who amazes with his hypersensitive touch; to observe a psychology experiment at the New School illustrating misdirection and selective attention; and to exchange secrets with magicians at the back of a pizza parlor, in a magic store, in Las Vegas classes, and at Los Angeles’s famous Magic Castle.
Often these trips veer us off track: Three pages are devoted to speeding tickets and almost an entire chapter on clowning goes nowhere before it ends up switching to a discussion of mathematical magic. Despite some occasional insightful (but not too modest) ruminations about his sense of self as a magician and performer (and as a graduate student in physics), Stone’s breezy — and sometimes too slangy (“others say he’s just an asshole”) — writing remains superficial journalism. While providing interesting historical context to such things as three-card Monte and to some important magicians and classic magic books of the past, Fooling Houdini provides little depth.
The book in many ways is a personal memoir, with stories about meeting a girlfriend, getting a speeding ticket, sort of cheating at poker, or keeping up with his graduate studies obligations. Some may find his writing style a bit off-putting and self-aggrandizing. He “tells” you how nervous or unsure or confident he may be, but he doesn’t really “show” you. I always felt I was observing from the outside and never experienced what he was going through from the inside. Fooling Houdini privileges simple description over deeper analysis. He lists the seven magic conventions he attended, but never explains what they are all about or how magic culture is organized. Did he learn anything about magicians or the social structure of magic at these conventions? The reader remains a spectator, seeing magic through only one person’s eyes, without any sense of the interactions and interdependency the social system of magic requires.
Each chapter reads like a magazine article filled with many unsupported generalizations. He exaggerates the labe...read more