Ian Frisch's Magic is Dead
My Journey into the World's Most Secretive Society of Magicians
Ian FrischMagic is Dead
(Dey Street Books, 2019)
Ian Frisch, a young Brooklyn freelance journalist, expected only a long article about the "mind of a magician" to emerge from his contacts with underground magic performers. Frisch has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Playboy, and Wired. But what evolved from his conversations and research was a first book that expertly shuffles memoir, brief bios, and anecdotes of modern and bygone magicians, with descriptions of a few magic tricks. Like a George Plimpton or a Hunter S. Thompson, Frisch becomes so involved in the story that he becomes part of it—in this case, a magician—which is probably less risky than being tackled by a bunch of huge football players or getting beaten up by bikers. The book's title, Magic Is Dead, like magic itself, is deceptive, but it is borrowed from the title of a manifesto by one of the magicians, Daniel Madison. Magic is ever-changing and evolving; young performers continually transform and spread magic through social media, bringing the art to a wider, more diverse, younger audience. Instead, think: "Magic is dead. Long live magic."
Canadian magician Chris Ramsay, tells Frisch about his membership in a mysterious magic society, "the52." Soon Frisch meets its founders, the British magicians Daniel Madison and Laura London, who've created a secret order of magicians and others who have contributed to the magic industry in some meaningful way. Members of the group must wear a tattoo of a playing card on their middle fingers. Madison is the Nine of Clubs, London the King of Diamonds, and Ramsay the Four of Spades.
Those three and others like them are the future of magic, but Frisch includes tidbits about bygone magicians going back to the apocryphal Dedi, a conjurer who might have entertained Egyptian royalty in the third century B.C.E. and who's credited with creating magic's oldest routine, the Cups and Balls. It's a trick that is still performed today, and probably spawned the shell-game con. Frisch also drops short bios, more akin to shout-outs, on 19th and 20th century magicians Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, S. W. Erdnase, Harry Houdini, and Dai Vernon.
The history is compelling, and it's an integral component of the big magical picture. But it's modern, media-savvy performers like Madison, London, and Ramsay who will spread and grow magic by performing, teaching other magicians, involving more women, and promoting themselves on TV and social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram. Frisch often mentions websites where you can look up and watch magic—one of the coolest features of the book. But it's also one of its weaknesses: When Frisch says you can find a video of a trick online, you're apt to leave the book and go find the video. Then you Google some more about sleight of hand, close-up magic, card manipulation, and get back to reading later.
Madison and London each have appeared on the TV show Penn & Teller: Fool Us that you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nfjSMvZUog and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-XXAKCUi20
Short biographies and anecdotes make the book personal, revealing the secret lives of magicians, just like the revelation of the tricks "Angle Z" and "Flipside." Ramsay, actually born in Germany, was an outcast as a kid. His father was a military man, so the young Ramsay bounced around several schools and was often bullied. Madison battled several demons most of his life and tried self-medicating with alcohol and later cocaine. When London was 16 she was ditching class, partying, and, like other destined-to-be magicians, selling drugs. She was expelled from high school and never returned. These teenagers had one thing in common—they found refuge in magic and reinvented themselves through magic, a trick in itself.
Frisch lost his father to cancer before his 14th birthday, consequently he was close to his mother, who played poker as a young woman and who taught young Ian how to play—and how to cheat—at the game. So, it seems inevitable that Frisch would write about magic, especially card tricks and sleight of hand routines. You get an idea of Frisch's mentality when he says magicians use "magic, deception, and trickery as vehicles of escape" and a "means of reinvention." Frisch did need to reinvent himself and he sought his mother's approval. She tells him, "I say this with my whole heart, Ian: you've turned into the man you were supposed to be."
Eventually, Frisch creates his own magic trick, becomes part of the52, and gets his finger tattooed with the Two of Clubs, which is a lot less painful than being tackled or beaten up. Frisch crushes it with a cool debut. The book is funny, illuminating, and personal. To paraphrase Frisch, the book is not really about card tricks or stage illusions, it's about adjusting the lens through which you view magic and, consequently, the world.