Mysterious Stranger: A Book of Magic
by David Blaine
Reviewed by Ian Carpenter
Jostling for place among the recent seasonal cash-ins, there appeared David Blaine's Mysterious Stranger. The first pleasant surprise then, on examining this monochrome tome, was to find that it most definitely was not just a piece of fastprint flotsam. Those of you looking for a reason to take Mr B more seriously, could do worse than start here. Because the book, like the man, comes across as both dramatic and youthful, yet somehow impressive beyond its years.
Large part of the credit for this, as David openly acknowledges right at the start, is down to Ratso. Not Midnight Cowboy's magician of the New York streets, but one Larry Sloman, a non-magician and already a respected author of On The Road With Bob Dylan. Blaine states, with apparent accuracy, that Sloman's research led him to a place where he was "much more knowledgeable about the art than most magicians."
Let's back up a bit though - because before even starting to read, Mysterious Stranger's fabulous visual style bursts from the page, like Houdini from a prison cell. Unusual and superbly reproduced photographs, truly beautiful draughtsmanship and an abundance of elegant typographical flourishes, lend to the whole an almost tangible richness. If there were books good enough to eat, this would surely be cordon bleu.
Strange as he does reveal himself to be here, though, Blaine at no point suggests attempting to consume his book - at least not in the literal sense. (Perhaps he is keeping this for a future stunt). However it is also not a coffee-table, 'dipping in' affair. The quite dense text is nothing if not ambitious: it attempts, and largely succeeds, in providing a potted magical biography of Blaine to date, while placing him in the historical context of magic as a whole. Both aspects are sufficiently fascinating to make an absorbing read, for anyone at all interested either in this contemporary icon himself, or the traditions from which he has sprung. Being stylishly written is a welcome bonus.
Inevitably for such a publication, the spectre of self-mythologising peeks over the sitter's shoulder. There are moments when reading of his playground experiences, that even a sympathetic reader would suspect embellishment. In general though, the abundance of frank detail is often surprising: Blaine's strategies for getting himself noticed, the work that went into creating a viable Modern Shaman persona, the pantheon of brilliant contemporary magical minds from which he has benefited. It is the mark of someone confident in the uniqueness of their own abilities, to proffer such generous credit and praise.
So, is this then a book for the general public, or for magicians? Well - yes. Of course it is aimed at the broader market; but there are also some significant pieces of magic described here, which would not shame the repertoire of any serious performer. Rather than leaf through every previous magic publication for carbon-impression details of jumping rubber bands or linking paper clips, Blaine has here contributed genuinely fresh and personal effects - including one which apparently helped seal his TV contract. This is just one more example of the lovingly meticulous care, which has clearly gone into producing a book he can be proud of.
Those of you - and there are many - who feel that there is 'obviously a trick' to Blaine's Big 3: Premature Burial, Frozen In Time and Vertigo; will be disappointed. The 'trick' seems to be - that he really is kind of a wild and crazy guy. Not possessed of a death wish; far from it: he details the exhaustive research and training which preceded each stunt. The more one absorbs these though, the more it seems apparent that in each case, the element of risk is simply too high. Blaine's response is to acknowledge this, and then to proceed anyway.
For those - and there are many - who feel this is not magic, there is appropriately a chapter on Houdini, the first world-famous mystifier to have this accusation flung at him. And not the last, to find that audiences love your magic more, not less, when from time to time you hang it out for all to see, on the ledge of a pole or the jib of a crane. This Houdini material is impressively well researched, and provides illuminating insights into magic's original master marketer and self-publicist. For those who like to uncover such things, there are also distinct parallels with Blaine's life and Houdini's, though this is not in any way suggested directly.
Among the pleasingly eclectic choice of Great Magicians populating other chapters, we find obvious characters such as Houdin and Herrmann, alongside less well known but equally significant characters like master conman Titanic Thompson. In each case there are well-chosen stories, replete with background, which bring out the special qualities of these men.
If there is a criticism to be levelled at Mysterious Stranger, it is perhaps the same one applicable to Mr Blaine himself; and that is, a shortage of leavening humour. That he takes himself seriously is understandable, and even admirable; however one senses - and occasionally sees - in his TV appearances, that he is a young man with a love of laughter and humour. Significantly, this aspect of his life is described within the pages, but rarely captured in the writing, even when recounting what are genuinely comical moments - such as when part of him nearly left the ice cube prematurely. For a performer sometimes in danger of being perceived as a little one-note, more humour would have helped dimensionalise Blaine the man.
As for his take on magic itself, David Blaine would probably be the first to admit that defining or encapsulating it is impossible, indeed undesirable. The nature of magic is something which can rather only be suggested and alluded to tangentially. In that respect too, one has to applaud his book, which as well as providing rich content, has also managed to capture as a subtext, something of the vast range of influences which somehow synergise into that fleeting but powerful experience of real mystery. It is perhaps appropriate then, that each copy of the book (and there are supposedly variations), carries concealed in its pages numerous clues to the whereabouts of a $100,000 prize, hidden somewhere in America.
This is a handsome reward by most standards, and will doubtless provide a further bout of publicity if found. In any case though, it is already small change, to a globally famous magical monomaniac, still in his twenties, who in his own closing words here, knows "this was only the beginning."
© Ian Carpenter, February 2003
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