Saturday, September 1, 2012

Fooling Houdini

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, & the Hidden Powers of the Mind
Alex Stone (2012, Harper Collins)

    When Alex Stone was a five, he was given some magic tricks by his father, and an interest was born; more than a hobby, really, an obsession. In 2006, Stone engaged in a particularly brash piece of participatory journalism. He took his card tricks to the World Championships of Magic, where he did so poorly he was not even allowed to finish his act. He returned home in abject humiliation, exposed as a rank amateur, and wrote a piece about the experience for Harper’s magazine. That might have been that, as Stone applied to graduate school in physics at Columbia, but the hook was in too deep. 

    Fooling Houdini is his memoir of the next five years, as he went deeper and deeper into the theory and practice of close-up magic, (that is, tricks with coins and cards, as opposed to stage magic, like cutting people in half.) At the same time, he became interested in the “...connections between magic and science--especially psychology, neuroscience, mathematics and physics.” Both magic and science take an interest in what perception is, how it can be influenced and manipulated, and the joys and perils of secrecy and deception.

    It sounds like nerdy stuff, and it is, but it’s very entertainingly told. Stone freely admits that no ordinary person would spend whole days (let alone months, or years) learning to deal cards from the middle of the deck, or train his palm muscles so that he can make a silver dollar leap eight inches straight up; it’s not the usual thing to skip physics classes in New York in favor of magic lessons in Las Vegas; or to spend more on new tricks and fresh decks of cards than he spends on his rent. He doesn’t actually want to become a professional card sharp, or three-card-monte dealer, he just wants to know that he could.

    Devoting himself full-time to practicing magic, he puts the physics degree on hold, gets dumped by a girlfriend, and gets eighty-sixed from his local bar. He spends every Saturday in a seedy pizzeria getting instruction from a senior practitioner, unless he’s on the road at a convention, lecture, or seminar. “Eventually,” he says, “I had to face the facts. My hobby had metastasized into a full-blown obsession. I was a high-functioning magicaholic.”

    There are some practical results to all this. He performs at weddings and bar mitzvahs. (“It felt great when people paid me to perform. Then again, I imagine just as many would have paid me to stop.”) He gets involved in research in the psychology department of  the New School, studying ‘inattentional blindness’ and other holes in our perception; his gift for stealing the watches right off people’s wrists was evidence of the tactile equivalent of not seeing a car coming because you’re talking on a cell phone. “As with any magic trick, the mechanics are but a small part of the illusion; psychology is the secret sauce.”

    Four years after his calamitous performance at the World Championships, when Stone applies to compete at the 2010 International Brotherhood of Magicians competition, he has considerably more technical chops for the contest. He  has also become aware that he needs to polish his performance skills, which leads him to mentalism, “a branch of magic that includes telepathy, mind reading, palm reading, fortune telling, ESP, clairvoyance, and metal bending.” It’s good practice in the psychology of magic, seeing what people want to believe, and what makes them care about the performance. It also presents ethical issues--the magician is often a liar, but he’s always an honest one, while the mentalist may be tempted to let people believe he has super-natural powers.

    Never one for half measures, Stone also studies yoga, dance, screenwriting, voice, and improvisational theater. One day, on his way to clown school, he meets an actress. (He asks if she wants to see a card trick. “Sadly, this was my A-game.”) He survives the initial meeting, and accepts her coaching on his performance skills. “Kate turned out to be more helpful than any drama workshop or chapter on Stanislavsky. She showed me how to block out an act, find my light, and project onstage.” She also helps him recognize the authentic, nerdy core of his performing self, his genuine Inner Geek. 

    Writing is like prestidigitation--the harder you work, the less the effort shows. In contrast to all the people who decide to undergo extreme experiences so they can write a book, Alex Stone did impossible things because he loved to do them, and then made a perfectly beautiful book out of it. Comfortable in the realms of Harry Houdini, Isaac Newton, Martin Gardner, and Richard Feynman, he is also utterly comfortable with himself, and you’ll be glad to know him.

email edition, September 1, 2012

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