The Jerx, Volume One
Review by Jamy Ian Swiss
“As Ed Marlo would say, the following trick is dope as fuck.”
So goes the opening line in a routine entitled “Will You Let Me Into Your Dream?”, one of 32 tricks and routines, along with a five-page preface that includes a first-person story about a real-life child molester magic dealer out of the author’s youth, and a 26-page opening essay about presentation, that comprise this 348-page hardbound book written by one Andy [last name unknown] who is the anonymous author of The Jerx online blog, and of this new hardbound book.
Okay, Ed Marlo probably never said that. And if you are unfamiliar with the usage of “dope” in the context of that imaginary quote, you’re going to have a hell of time catching up to this book. But I’m going to do what I can to help you get up to speed.
Andy (if that really is his first name) Whatever-his-name-is wrote an online blog called The Magic Circle Jerk circa 2003 to 2005. In 2015 he returned to the blogosphere with The Jerx (a play on, among other things, Theo Annemann’s legendary journal The Jinx), which can be found at www.thejerx.com. If you want to get a quick grasp of what he’s doing up there, have a look and also here, his third post after launching The Jerx in May of 2015. By the time you’re done, you will either be laughing out loud and eager to read much more about the book at hand, or else you will be rushing to erase your browser history and then search your 12-year-old amateur magician son or daughter’s browser history in order to make certain that he or she haven’t yet happened upon this impending hazard to the minds of America’s magic youth.
In short, The Jerx, and The Jerx, Volume One, is NSFW. And if you don’t know what that means, well, you’re probably in for a rough ride.
Now, presuming that I have offered sufficient warnings and caveats, not quite sufficient for Tipper Gore but adequate for readers of The Lyons Den, I shall stop worrying about the delicate sensibilities of some of my readership, and safely get around to offering an opinion of my own, to wit: The Jerx, Volume One, is fucking hilarious.
And that’s a sentence I can confidently state that I never wrote in 18 years of writing reviews for the last independent magic magazine left standing. But that’s just a start in attempting to convey what is provocative and unprecedented about this unique volume.
I like my art to be provocative, perhaps above all else—I’m not a fan of art that sustains the status quo—as well as insightful, thoughtful, beautiful, arresting, inspiring. All of these elements make appearances in the pages of The Jerx, Volume One, and add to that the fact that it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and profoundly sophomoric, and offensive to the point of desperation, at least a few of my readers probably don’t need to know anything more before rushing to order their own copy, even at the breathtaking price of $300. But for those still hesitating …
That’s an awfully steep asking price, residing in a financial neighborhood we rarely trip over in the magic world except perhaps for limited signed slip-cased collectors editions, and richly illustrated coffee table tomes with whole sections of color photography of rare posters or antique props. In this case, however, you get none of that. The production quality is bare bones, a competently assembled but simple hardbound volume (with a nice embossed image of the Jerx logo and similarly stamped title on the spine) with plain white paper that is adequately illustrated for instructional purposes but won’t be winning any design awards. This is a case where you are paying for the content—albeit that while the print run is not formally limited to any particular numbered quantity, it will likely be a very small edition that will increase in value over time, and that by purchasing the book you are also significantly contributing to the ongoing production of the blog. (You can also contribute to the blog by becoming a subscriber to the forthcoming Jerx Monthly and in other ways detailed on the site.)
The next question that logically arises would then be: Is the content worth it? Well, that depends how you assess the value of a magic book. If you’re one of those “If I can find one trick I can use professionally, it’s worth it” kinda guys—well, forget it. You probably won’t be looking at this book as your cup of well-invested tea. In fact, as I read this book, my interior monologue ran something like this:
That’s hilarious. I’ll never use that. That’s ingenious. I can’t do that. That’s brilliant. I could never do that. That’s incredibly creative. I’ll never do it. That’s fabulous. Won’t work for me. And: That’s just plain hilariously ingeniously brilliantly creative and fabulous and—damn, I can’t use it.
And: Boy oh boy—did I ever get my money’s worth!
I know, I know, I should be getting to the actual content. But all these descriptors matter a lot, it seems to me, for a book of this nature. And what’s also important is this: there’s a method to Andy’s madness. He has some distinct theoretical notions about what he’s doing and above all, why he’s doing it—and so while he understands that what he’s doing might not suit me, or you, he has a clear understanding as to why—and, too, why he thinks you should at least think about his reasoning.
The author is a committed amateur magician. He’s not a professional, he’s not interested in becoming a pro, and he’s not interested in creating material for pros. More significantly, he’s not interested in performing like a pro, or providing material for those who aspire to perform with a professional’s level of polish and mastery. Not at all. Not in the slightest.
Rather, he’s interested in performing what he calls “audience-centric” magic. His operating premise is that traditionally, magic has been and remains “magician-centric,” and that magic is consistently presented in a context that suggests or implies that the performer possesses some kind of special power, even if that power is imaginary. Now, that’s a very muscular proposal to digest, and I suggest you sit with it a bit before deciding if you are inclined to accept or reject it. I was frankly resistant to giving it much serious consideration at first, particularly while I first read the companion volume (that you can buy separately but is included free with The Jerx, Volume One), entitled The Amateur at the Kitchen Table. This slim paperback is essentially a manifesto explaining the author’s position on his distinct approach to performing as an amateur magician, and I would strongly encourage amateur performers to purchase this for a thought provoking read and potential reevaluation of their goals and intentions in performing magic socially.
In fairness, the author does allow that, “…the amateur can perform things in a professional style. You can gather people around a table and follow a very established structure and ask for volunteers and say, ‘For my next trick…’ And if that’s what you want to do, I think that’s great. I’d be happy to see an amateur put on a ‘show’ like that. But that’s not what [The Amateur at the Kitchen Table] is about. If that’s the style you’re going for, you can follow the maxims designed for the professional magician because the only difference is you’re not getting paid.”
Now that seems fair enough, and by any measure, it is. But it’s pretty much the only nod of legitimacy he’s going to offer toward that approach. In the rest of the 46 pages of that booklet-length essay and the 348 pages of Jerx, he’s not going to give it a moment’s rest. As far as he’s concerned, most of the way magic is presented by amateurs, and many professionals, and almost all mentalists, basically just plain sucks. That’s his story, and he’s sticking with it.
But Andy’s not just a critic and debunker of magic’s conventional wisdom. He has an alternative approach to offer, and he does his best to articulate his approach throughout these two texts. In Kitchen Table he explains that, “For our purposes amateur magic is defined as magic that’s performed in casual settings in an informal style.” And it’s that “informal style” that makes for the real difference here. For Andy, the emphasis is on “presentation over method,” on working for “small audiences,” and on “removing the performer” from the presentation. “That is to say, the trick shouldn’t be about some amazing skill you have.” Because he believes that this approach to magic is not only off-putting, but it is driven by ego—an aspect of his position I do not blanketly accept, but nevertheless, that’s his claim.
He explains further—or tries to: “What makes a trompe-l’oeil painting engaging is that it seems so real, even though we know it’s not. I strive to perform trompe-l’oeil of the fantastic. And what I’ve found is when people don’t have their defenses up against your phony bullshit of trying to come off as ‘real,’ it becomes much easier to create feelings of amazement, joy, fear, lust, nostalgia, and poignancy that are real.”
The use of the word “real” here may be confusing to some readers, or at least it was to me at first, until I began to immerse myself in the author’s perspective. One of the author’s repetitive targets of scorn is Dai Vernon’s presentation for “Triumph,” in which a spectator seizes the pack and shuffles it face up and face down. Now, at first, that can be a bit challenging to process, considering the probability that Vernon seems to have had some success with the idea, as have a few other practitioners since its publication in the 1940s in The Stars of Magic. And very few would at first blush agree to the notion that they ever claimed that the power to right the cards in one direction was in fact “real.”
But the author doesn’t mean “real” in the sense of a phony psychic (or sleazy mentalist) claiming he actually possesses the power to read minds, or body language, or foretell the future, or any other such explicit claim. Rather he means that the presentation for “Triumph,” and indeed of most conventional conjuring, assumes, in an implicit fashion, that the magician is demonstrating a power that he or she in some sense possesses.
Yeah, I know, it took me awhile too.
But as I came around to considering the possibility that he’s not wrong, I also don’t find the implication as distasteful as he does. The assumptive pretext may be that the power is one possessed by the performer, but few if any conjurors are asking the audience to believe that, and few if any audiences are inclined to. Just as Andy wants to try to create moment of wonder and awe for his audience, without expecting them to believe he possesses any super powers, I think traditional conjuring by its very nature attempts to do the same. Indeed, conjuring is at its core a rational, secular art. Once conjuring separated itself from occult practice, rationality and skepticism is an ever-present subtext in any conjuring performance. Indeed, it is the inherent irony of presenting a feat that is both powerfully convincing and yet obviously impossible that lends all conjuring its innate power. Conjuring from its earliest evolution does not require belief—indeed, it deliberately exists independent of belief.
But the issue does not rest there. What the author is really saying is that the manner in which the performer addresses that assumption (or fails to address it)—namely that the performer possesses a special power of some sort—can often lead to the audience completely disconnecting from the performance, and in the end, simply concluding the performer is a pretentious, foolish, needy and egocentric jerk.
And this fact seems indisputable.
Now, much has been said and written to avoid this problem, especially in the past 35 years or so, and particularly as articulated by Eugene Burger. While countless professionals have adopted material from Mr. Burger’s repertoire (myself included), and while his theories about performance have similarly influenced and indeed transformed much of professional close-up magic in this era (and he is an acknowledged influence on no less than Derren Brown), in many ways, Mr. Burger has had a particularly profound impact on amateur performers. He has showed them a path by which they can become better and more effective performers, not only in the level of polish and professionalism they bring to their work, but also with the use of presentational strategies that avoid old-world habits of one-upmanship and wiseguyishness that often characterizes amateur performance.
But Andy will have none of that. Polish and professionalism, and carefully written scripts and stories, are the furthest thing from his desire. Rather than develop a small repertoire of highly refined material—of five or ten or twenty routines for a traditionally accomplished amateur—the author states: “I recommend an active repertoire of 100 tricks.” Rather than work on a new piece for months of preparation, the author claims that, “If you’re working on a new trick that doesn’t include any moves that are new to you, then it’s something you should be able to have down in a day or two. Another few days to come up with a good presentation and you should really be able to get a new effect on its legs within a week or two.”
Yeah … I dunno.
But make no mistake, the author isn’t just fooling around, or performing in some half-baked fashion on the grounds that amateurs don’t have to do things well. Far from it. His provided list of a hundred proposed tricks is broken down into five distinct categories, along with guidance as to how to regularly practice and keep it all in shape. The author is no duffer!
Even though I’ve invested this much time and text in trying to at least give some fair sense of the author’s point of view, frankly, I haven’t done it justice. You’d need to read the book before you reject these ideas, radical as they may appear to some of us. And since I still haven’t presented you with a clear example of what he really means, and of what he’s really trying to do, here’s a particularly cogent one (drawn from Kitchen Table):
“I’ve done ring flight (sic) this way where I ask to see their ring (Don’t ask to ‘borrow’ something. That’s a performance term. This is a non-performance.) I ask to see the ring and ask if there’s a story behind it. We talk. As I hand it back she grabs hold of my house key. She’s confused. I’m confused. ‘Did you do that?’ I ask. ‘That looks just like my house key.’ I pull my keys out and her ring is dangling from the key ring. I scratch my head. ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ She squints and cocks her head at me. We trade our objects. The rest of the night whenever out paths cross we give either other a look.”
That’s a fine example. There are more than thirty more routines here along similar lines, many with much more original and sometimes complex presentations (and occasionally, complex methods, not in the sleight-of-hand sense, but in the time and effort spent preparing sense).
Now, if you give this presentation for Ring Flight some serious consideration, it would be difficult to deny that it’s going to have a powerful impact on the person who owns the ring.
However, within the undeniable strengths of that approach, also lie its inescapable difficulties. For one thing, this requires a certain degree of acting chops that are not easily mastered. I’m not sure I could pull it off convincingly. Elsewhere the author mentions that he’s been doing improv comedy for many years. Without that particular type of study and experience, the average amateur performer is going to have a tough time making such an apparently spontaneous event convincing.
Also, to me the situation risks leaving the participant with an underlying sense, when the dust settles, of having been the victim of a practical joke. I am willing to accept at face value that the author manages to avoid this, largely by way of his degree of conviction and commitment, and probably a fair degree of personal charm. But I’m not much of a practical joker, and the kind of magic that is sometimes presented with that implied sensibility invariably rubs me the wrong way. At the end, the spectator recognizes that you were prepared for the event, you planned it, you carried it out, you made it happen. Some people will delight in that. Some might be profoundly turned off by the sensation of a sneak attack. And the alternative to all these possibilities is that the spectator becomes convinced that whatever happened was real, and that indeed—explicit or not—the magician does in fact possess some kind of strange power—which is the antithesis of what the author is advocating.
I’m not accusing the author of being unaware of these risks. He tries to address some of these issues, and he occasionally (albeit rarely) admits that the lines between what he despises and aspires to are not always clear-cut. But most of the time he is stridently didactic, and uncompromising in his judgments. For every case in which he insisted that all magic suffers from this or that failing, for one or another reasons, I could often and readily think of exceptions to his argument and examples. But such is the role of the polemicist; he often, to quote Otto and George, “exaggerates to clarify.”
While despite best efforts I’m afraid I’ve still failed to adequately present the author’s theories of amateur performance and presentation, the only thing left is to provide descriptions of some of the contents. And so:
“Spectator Cuts to the Aces” is presented (in one of three alternatives) as a last ditch practice effort before the card handler finalizes a deal to go out and pull of a “big score” with the “crew” that he’s recently put together for the purpose. Your friend (and audience) ends up bearing witness to a tense phone call that takes place in between attempts to field-test the hustler’s (that’s you) procedure with a pack of cards.
Yes, it’s very difficult to describe some of these feats as presented.
In “Bazillion Dollar Bill,” the halves of two borrowed bills are transported to two different impossible locations—the second of which is verified by a stranger via a Skype call, since it has arrived halfway around the world.
In “Limitless Ahead,” you give someone a pill to take which briefly (and harmlessly) enhances their senses for a few moments—enough to be able to detect your thought, your feeling, a word you quietly whisper in another room, the scent of a scratch-and-sniff sticker that is scratched in another room, and to successfully guess how many pennies are in a jar. The effects wear off quickly, but for awhile, they experience the possession of wondrous abilities of their own.
In “Donny Ackerman,” you demonstrate the ability to briefly pause time—just long enough to go to the kitchen, make a sandwich, open your friend’s tightly closed hand, remove the piece of folded paper locked therein, unfold and read the word she has written on the paper, and refold and return the paper to her hand. (Shades of Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata turned into real life.)
In “The Miracle Worker,” you ask a friend to help you attempt an experiment in sensory deprivation. After you are blindfolded, closed your nose with a clothespin, donned gloves, and cover your ears with headphones blaring loud music, you ask the person to write a word on a piece of paper and fold it in quarters. As you talk about the idea that people who lose a sense often develop enhanced other senses by way of compensation, you explain that since all of your other senses have been temporarily blocked, you’re going to use your last remaining sense—the sense of taste—to taste the word written on the paper. Whereupon you tear the paper into pieces so that you can slowly begin to consume the pieces, bit by bit, until indeed you succeed in tasting the word. The thing I love about this idea (and recall my interior monologue of variations on “That’s great—I’ll never do it.”) is that, if you think about the premise, you will realize this might well amount to the most perfect misdirection for a Center Tear that you have ever encountered.
In “Shutterlock,” you are with a group of people. You ask one to think of an object, the other to think of a verb. These words are written on a business card, then shown to everyone in the group, out of your view, and then the card is folded and subsequently set aside or destroyed. Now everyone present is asked to pose for a group photo, taken with one of their cell phones, in which the group pretends to be looking at the bizarre thing or event that was described on the card. (Read that sentence again so you get where this is going.) At this point you examine the photo, and thanks to an uncanny ability to decode the participants’ expressions, bit-by-bit you manage to determine what it was that they had been imagining they were looking at. Of course they get to keep the photo (and many will want copies sent around) as a lasting souvenir
Come on, admit it: Whether or not you ever use it, this is ridiculously clever. Better than just, “I’m getting a letter—is there a vowel in the second word?” Donchathink?
In “Dream Weavers,” events unfold over two days, with a night of dreams between, in which you appear in another person’s dream, and the actions you began on the first day are subsequently proven to have been altered by actions taken within the dreams that occurred overnight. (And I’m just not going to tell you anything more about this. It makes for great reading, just to think about it, whether or not you or I will ever—you know—use it.)
In “Then There Were None,” you find yourself in a group with at least four other people, and you are talking about, perhaps, a new puzzle of sorts that you recently came upon using dollar bills, and you kick in one of your own and borrow four more, one from each of the others present. In positioning the bills for the puzzle, you notice some small random pen marks on portions of each bill. Trying to figure out what they represent, eventually you (or even better, your compatriots) arrange them in such a manner that suddenly, with the correct positioning, a line drawing of a skull appears from the assembled elements. “That can’t be good,” you observe solemnly. And eventually, you notice that on the opposite side of each bill, in tiny letters along the bottom border, is written: “Tonight. All but one will die. Choose who lives.”
Like so many pieces in the book, I find this a fascinating and delightful thought experiment, at very least. And the method for this (which was apparently first applied in somewhat related fashion by Asi Wind, and published by Gregory Wilson, although The Jerx does not mention this, which is perfectly understandable, and I mention it only for the record, not by way of complaint or judgment) is so incredibly clever that it immediately got me thinking about other applications (which turned out to be the first application that Asi Wind utilized the idea for, but I digress).
“Dear Penthouse Forum” is a story trick that is apparently created spontaneously by the performer (an idea that Eric Mead convincingly used in comedy clubs decades ago and that was initially mentioned in Magical Arts Journal), resulting in an X-rated narrative not suitable for most readers but if suitable is then turned on its head with the revelation of a page out of an old issue of Penthouse magazine, that clearly tells the story that you spontaneously created with a pack of cards thoroughly shuffled by the spectator. The resultant prediction of sorts is a weirdly twisted effect, and the required well-produced and quite perfect prop is provided to purchasers of the book (one of two such props included).
And here are a few more, described briefly: “Multiple Universe Selection” is an elaborate scenario that demonstrates the surreal ability to move yourself and a friend in and out of an alternate universe, and also puts to use a custom phone app designed for the purpose and available from The Jerx site (free with the book), that will make the participant doubt their own experience and memory. At the other end of the spectrum, “Meta-Bored” simply provides a presentational approach to Simon Aronson’s “Shuffle-Bored” that expands on John Bannon’s version, “Wait Until Dark,” with the addition of “a strange, self-referential, recursive moment.” “And Now He Is Me” is a set piece that begins with your screening the 1978 film, “Magic,” builds on the scene in which Anthony Hopkins performs “You Do As I Do” for Ann Margret, leading to a reenactment of the scene and the trick, takes a turn in which reality somehow synchs with the film in an impossible way, and concludes on a stupidly funny sight gag. (Look, I’m just the reporter here, okay?) In “The Mad Libs Ploy,” people make random selections (as in the word game of Mad Libs) that eventually serve to create an idea for a magical effect with found props. Everyone then gets to watch you assemble the props and creatively brainstorm the materials into an impromptu magical effect, whereupon you open a piece of recently received mail that reveals the workings of the trick. In “The Baby Who Knows,” you and your pregnant friend discover that her unborn baby is clairvoyant. (You think this is odd? I’m not even going to tell you the plot of “Toxic Shock.”) And in “A Very Unusual Camera,” you demonstrate that your smart phone camera can take photographs of randomly determined future events—a scenario inspired by a “Twilight Zone” episode, and that, like a number of pieces in the book, firmly plants you and your companions within a Twilight Zone experience.
What are we to make of all this? More specifically: What do I make of it?
First and foremost, The Jerx, Volume One is a terrific book. It is spectacularly original and inconceivably provocative. The author is wildly creative, filling the pages with arrestingly imaginative and freshly conceived ideas. Many pieces read like thought experiments that, whether or not I will every perform them, I found utterly engaging and wildly entertaining just to think about. And it doesn’t hurt that the writing is sometimes insanely funny, despite a tendency toward the sophomoric and downright vulgar (while he appears to be, according to certain clues, between thirty-five and forty years old, his sense of humor, as well as some of his social and sexual sensibilities, seem to have fossilized at about the age of 16. Or perhaps he’s actually 22 and the age clues are a smoke screen.).
What’s more, the author’s thoughtful approach to performance, and specifically amateur performance, is one that is worthy of serious discussion and debate, despite the fact that it throws decades of operative assumptions of the magic culture directly out the window. There is no doubt that the writer is well informed about magic, and one interesting aspect of this is the handful of utility tools and techniques he provides, specifically “Third Wave Equivoque” and the “Reverse Psychology” force. In both of these, the author’s ego looms a bit large, as he presses the claim of his own ideas being revolutionary, rather than the perhaps more reasonable evolutionary thinking they comprise. Be that as it may, these approaches to utilitarian methods can readily be put to use by thinking performers; the equivoque wording strategy being of particular use to mentalists (somewhat ironically, since the author trashes most mentalism, yet there are many excellent mentalism-related ideas in the book), and the force, while essentially consisting of a verbal strategy that can be added to a number of forces (such as a Classic Force, despite the author’s ignoring this point while itemizing the weaknesses of that method), can certainly be put to use by any conjuror.
The author tends to present most of his arguments in an either/or, zero sum fashion, with little acknowledgement that artistic approaches exist on a spectrum and artists can draw from many elements. It’s quite possible he recognizes this fact but simply enjoys his role as professional shit-stirrer. For serious teachers of magic like myself, or Eugene Burger, the author presents compelling challenges to our longstanding approaches. I’ve been teaching magic seriously, to amateurs, part-time pros, and pros, for more than thirty years, and I’ve helped countless performers to raise the quality of their work and, in many cases, move their work to another level of accomplishment, from amateur to part-time pro, part-time pro to fulltime performer. But the operating assumption in all of my efforts when it comes to working with lifelong amateur magicians is to help them to make their work more accomplished, more polished, more authentic and reflective of themselves, and ultimately more enjoyable and rewarding for them. I believe I know a lot about how to do that, and have been doing it with success for many years. And I also know something about being an amateur magician, since I was exactly that for more than twenty years before I ever did my first paid gig at age 29.
While the author largely derides such an approach (notwithstanding the nod to potential validity that I quoted early on), I certainly agree that his attacks on badly performed magic, be it amateur or professional, are often spot on (and to which I would at times add a hearty “Hear, hear!”). Nevertheless, I also think that his own approach, while potentially effective in the right hands (and certainly in his own), risks potential drawbacks already mentioned, and is in fact extremely demanding in its own right in the realm of performance and social skills, at a level that many practitioners would be hard-pressed to achieve.
What’s more, one of the key factors that drove me to become a professional magician is that I craved audiences of strangers. I grew progressively less and less interested in performing magic for friends, and eventually realized that I only did so because it gave me the chance to perform magic, but that even so, I rarely did so for my closest friends because performance of any sort is distancing from intimates, as it can never be the completely natural and authentic you that is performing—I don’t care what the premise is, no matter how apparently spontaneous or uncertain or experimental seeming, the fact is, it is deliberate and, in a sense, manipulative. I virtually never perform socially unless I’m meeting someone for the first time and perhaps asked by a close mutual friend. To me, if I performed these sneak-up kind of “experiments” for friends, in the end I think they would feel manipulated and dishonestly deceived in a way that is far from the up-front social contract of conjuring as most present it, to wit (and in the words of Karl Germain): First I promise to deceive you, and then I do so.
But these are disputes to be discussed over a coffee or a cocktail and a pack of cards, among thoughtful and passionate colleagues and co-conspirators. Andy is nothing if not passionate, and that is something I greatly respect, and that we need more of in the world of magic and the world at large. For his passion, as well as his intelligence and creativity, he has earned my esteem. No one can argue with the closing pages of The Amateur at the Kitchen Table, in which he declares that, “…I wrote this because I wanted to champion amateur magic for what I know it can be. We hear the dismissive refrain so often of, ‘Well, you just perform for family and friends,’ that I think amateurs often adopt that mindset themselves and become comfortable half-assing their way through this hobby. And that’s a shame because putting your time and energy into something for the purpose of entertaining and bringing joy to your family, friends, and the people you meet in your day to day life—without looking for anything in return—is probably one of the most worthwhile things you can do.”
The Jerx, Volue One. Illustrated by Stasia Burrington, clothbound, 348 pages, 2016, published by thejerx.com. Available online $300. Includes a free copy of The Amateur at the Kitchen Table, perfect bound 46 pages, $22 if purchased separately.