I was supposed to spend the week in Aspen Colorado, with a serious and bipartisan group of formers and yet-might-bes, plus a few oracles and deep thinkers, deliberating the future of international politics. Admittedly, things being what they are, this eminent group is now largely reduced to whistling past the graveyard of American foreign policy, but that’s not why I played hooky. I wanted to go to a magic convention. I wanted to be a pop-eyed 11-year-old kid again, to experience joyful amazement, a particularly potent balm and restorative in these troubled times. And so I forsook Aspen with its chichi restaurants, opulent mansions, and magnificent mountain views to join a thousand other magicians at a gaudy off-the-strip hotel and casino in sweltering Las Vegas.
Magic had been my hobby as a teenager but I had let it drift away over the years. Fourteen years ago, however, a chance dinner with an acquaintance, a steely-eyed spymaster, rekindled my enthusiasm. With the cunning of his kind, a week after the dinner he gave me a seductive gift: the first volume in a five-book set on sleight-of-hand with cards by an obsessively thorough Swiss magician. I became a magic addict, and we became good friends.
Any magic convention has roughly the same basic ingredients. The mornings and afternoons are filled with lectures on various aspects of the art, ranging from how to perform for kids, to the delicate question of whether you let the audience think you actually have uncanny skills at reading their minds, to how you get two rubber bands to melt through each other. In the evenings there are shows, ranging from grand spectaculars in full-sized theaters to more intimate displays of what is sometimes known as parlour magic. This year, for example, we watched a Chinese gymnast pluck a dozen doves from thin air, witnessed two madcap Brits reenact a Victorian conjuring show, and observed a traditional séance with the aid of low-light cameras.
The magicians themselves are an odd assortment—retired and practicing stars mobbed by groupies of all ages; the wise men and women of the art, most of whom are unknown to the public but revered among wizards; the brilliant inventors, such as the highly successful industrial chemist who has invented the world’s greatest version of the torn-and-restored newspaper trick; lawyers; bikers with brawny tattooed arms; accountants; doctors; bus drivers; social workers; and nimble-fingered 15-year-olds who can make the cards spin. I hung around with a literature professor by day who is a producer at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles by night; a venerable retired marshal of Harvard University; and a top Washington litigator. As my friend the (now retired) steely-eyed spymaster observed, one eyebrow lifted, “In the mansion of magic there are many rooms.”
Any magician’s favorite place in a convention is the dealer’s room—in this case a good 17,000 square feet with 50 or 60 companies selling all kinds of neat things. There are drones that do card tricks; gizmos to produce fire and smoke; elegantly machined (and exorbitantly priced) sets of cups for the oldest trick of them all, the cups and balls; used books; vintage posters; silk handkerchiefs by the crate; tables that float; and gaudily painted boxes that make things appear, disappear, or transpose. But it isn’t simply the wares. The salespeople demonstrate the latest tricks cooked up by inventors from around the world, including Korea, Japan, China, South Africa, and Germany, as well as the United States. The more you perform, the better you get—and since these folks are performing all the time, they are really, really good. Knots of magicians cluster around these little shows. We buy stuff, but we also chatter. The dealer’s room is a Diagon Alley that accepts Muggle credit cards.
Most of the people manning the booths are single-proprietor artisanal manufacturers, so good-natured friends take turns demonstrating just for the hell of it. (Another friend of mine, one of the top arbitration lawyers in Washington, used to take his lunch break working the counter at Al Cohen’s famous magic shop here many years ago.) Often the demonstrations turn into discussions about the best techniques for pretending to do something you didn’t, impractical suggestions for improving a prop, and tall tales about the miraculous effects achieved with an ever-so-slight twitch of the right thumb. Magicians are a friendly lot. You may be an elegantly attired nightclub artiste, a roly-poly middle-aged guy with a flowing beard, a teenager with purple hair, an eminent psychology professor, the guy with the bright orange overalls and porkpie hat, or a train conductor. It really does not matter. They all mix amiably, social and economic differences mattering a lot less than whether you’ve got the chops to do the four aces trick really well. That is part of the appeal of magic too. You never lack for generously-given advice—profound, competent, or completely beyond your performing range.
Magic is a serious art that has attracted some powerful minds, because its heart consists more of psychology than technique or equipment, essential though those are. Some Spanish magicians, for example, have given exquisite thought to how you subtly close off every possible explanation of an event to your spectator, thereby maximizing the astonishment. Others have observed that an effect occurs three times: in reality, in the memory of the spectator, and in the story she tells about it later. The key is the third occurrence, actually, so a clever magician will say and do things that reshape that memory. It is at once diabolic and innocuous.
At the heart of the appeal of magic is wonder, the turning-upside-down of our beliefs about how the world works. Some people hate that rupture of reality: They either shun magic or spoil it for themselves by trying to figure out how an effect was done. Learning those secrets is inevitably a disappointment, because the explanations are often pedestrian. But when done well (and there are a lot of terrible magicians, one must confess), magic is a powerful art form. It restores the sense of astonishment that we knew as children, which is why mature and sober adults have been known to yelp, cackle uncontrollably, and even leap out of their seats at a performance by my friend the spymaster. Encountering impossibility is fun, but it can also be profound in reminding us how much of life remains mysterious.
And real magic exists. I began going to magic conventions shortly after returning to conjuring. About a decade ago, I invited my mother to join me at a small convention on Cape Cod. My father had passed away two years before, and she was as bereft and downcast as only a loving life partner of more than six decades could be. She enjoyed it all—the lectures as well as the performances. And then one night, as we settled into a high school auditorium for the big show, her neighbor to her right struck up a conversation, as magicians are wont to do. He turned out to be an architect, as she had once been, and they soon began talking. I turned to my neighbor on my left, but after a few minutes was startled to hear a sound I had not heard for years—my mother’s giddily delighted laughter. Her new architect friend was pulling a stream of silver dollars out of her nose and making them fly invisibly from hand to hand, and she was happier than I had seen her since my father’s final illness. If that is not magic, what is?