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Things are seldom what they seem
on 25 June 2010
Like most people, I have a vague interest in the coulisses of stage magic, but no wish ever to stand up and do it. However, I'd rather like to know how it's done. Derren Brown, for his part, makes a living as a professional conjuror, and therefore depends for his continued livelihood on not giving too much away. Still, he wants to entertain us, and sell his book. How far does he succeed?
Pretty well, on the whole, is the answer. "Tricks of the Mind" is part confessional/autobiographical, part meditation on the many perennial ways a brain can be fooled, and part description of the mental arsenal that a conjuror must acquire - a chapter leading by degrees through useful and easy memory tricks up to the focussed discipline by which a conjuror can, ultimately, memorise the order of an entire shuffled pack of cards. Which goes to show us that some effects can't be picked up from a pamphlet in the course of an evening, but, on the contrary, are - in the words of the professional gambler - "damned hard money."
Brown's early steps into conjuring, we learn, came at university. A bright, maverick, restless student, he was given to anarchic hoaxes which can't have helped his coursework much, but which have proved a great rehearsal for his career. He started trying to hypnotise his friends. For my money this is the best part of the book.
Have you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of a stage hypnotist? Here's the answer. Brown seems at once fascinated, conflicted, and slightly paranoid at the thought that people do seem to grant him (or at any rate act as though they'd granted him) a surreal degree of control. Are they winding him up? Is it his Svengali-like influence? A heightened sort of role-playing? He explores the various theories of the hypnotic state, its capabilities. People fall asleep suddenly, they undergo surgery without anaesthetic; and I'd also add they can be captivated by storytellers ... or galvanised into madness by a screaming dictator. Granted, we now know that no mystical force is emanating from the hypnotist, so presumably, the hypnotic state must originate within the subject himself - but could it originate in solitude? I don't think so, and neither I suspect does Brown. The hypnotist must be, at the very least, a catalyst. So how far can the hypnotist be held responsible? What do we mean by a trance state anyhow? After hypnosis, Brown probes his subjects further - how much did they feel they were in control? What did they experience? - but afterwards begins to worry that a good hypnotic subject might seek to co-operate by giving answers that the hypnotist wanted to hear. Who's fooling whom? I bet Christopher Nolan could make a whole movie out of this. I'd pay to see it. Though you might find it revealing, as I did, that Brown has apparently chosen not to find out the answer simply by undergoing hypnosis himself.
Subsequent chapters deal with the "Tricks of the Mind" of the title. There's a section on NLP, which, reassuringly, turns out to be not nearly as sinister as it sounds (it reminded me a bit of "The Game" by Neil Strauss). There's a layman's overview of Scientific Method (with a somewhat idealised view of what actually goes on in the lab); there's a chapter on how we humans, even scientists, usually guess wrong when it comes to statistics; there's a section on New Age remedies, and one on fraudulent mediums and psychics. All very commendable, although there is one thing that jars throughout, and it is this. At university, it seems, Brown fell in with a charismatic wing of the Christian Union, and is now going through a phase of militant apostasy, a bit like St Paul in reverse. This is clearly a major preoccupation with him, and takes up a fair bit of the book, recurring frequently. Exasperatingly, the anti-theism extends as far as the bibliography - so Francis Wheen is in there, but there's no mention of the late, great Martin Gardner, amateur conjurer, recreational mathematician, and author of the classic, seminal text, "Fads and Fallacies".
Towards the end of the book, I'd more or less made up my mind to give it a four star review - five stars for being entertaining, and for the chapter on hypnosis, minus one star for the public crisis of faith, and the wit which sometimes feels a bit scripted. I was thinking maybe I should check out the TV show. Brown represented himself (especially in the fake psychics section) as being averse to the seamy side of the media that seeks to drag mad or inadequate people out into the glare of the spotlight for a few moments of public entertainment. So it's a pity that right at the end, he can't resist doing the same, by sharing with us some of the loopier contents of his mailbox. Look, readers! What a load of crazy wackoes! Side splitting or what? This, to me, is hypocrisy. Three and a half stars.