an extract from the afterword of The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett
'My disappearance boy is always slipping between the light out on a beach and the darkness of a tatty old theatre, with the imprisoning darkness of a magician’s cabinet.'
Getting magicians to talk about magic is hard; famously, they are all sworn to secrecy. However, Neil persuaded mentalist extraordinaire Derren Brown to join him for a revealing and sometimes decidedly queer conversation about the art and craft of illusion.
NEIL BARTLETT Good morning, Mr Brown! Nice to meet you.
DERREN BROWN Likewise...
NB Can I jump right in?
DB Go for it.
NB Okay... So, The Disappearance Boy is set in 1953, in a world where stage magic was in decline but where an illusionist who made people disappear for a living could still be found third on the bill in a seaside variety show. Seventy years later, in a world where CGI has got all of us used to the idea that manifesting impossibility is something that happens at the click of button, why do we still need magic?
DB Great opening question! I often ask myself why it is that what I do for a living remains intriguing—I mean this whole business of magic and illusion. Well... I think there are two main reasons. It seems to me that maybe the reason why the mysterious is so intriguing for all of us still is probably because we have such a bad relationship with it in real life. Since the birth of psychology as a soft science, we’ve all been devoted to the idea of statistical truths about ourselves and society—the idea that general truths cover us all—but somewhere not too deep inside ourselves we all know the very things that make us individual tend not to be accounted for by a worldview based on averages or statistical frequency. A psychological study can tell us—metaphorically—that the average and predictable weight of a pebble on a beach might be let’s say, 5.1777 etc grams—but in real life you’re unlikely to ever find a pebble that weighs exactly that. So the very things that make us who we are—the inexplicable things that make each of us an exception to all known rules—tend to be lost in a statistical account of the world. And this means there is a huge part of human experience that just isn’t being represented in our modern ways of describing the world. The mysterious, if you like; the unaccounted for. And yet... we all know about those things, because we all experience them. So where do we put those experiences? We’re very good, I think, at dumping them into pre-manufactured and conveniently bottomless pits—psychoanalysis is one, quantum physics is another, ‘New Age’ thinking of a lot of different varieties, religion—they are all places where we can say well that’s where mystery lives. They allow us to label it and tidy it away and make it less mysterious. And yet—and I guess this is where I come in—we also sometimes want someone to get mystery back out of the box and try to re-integrate it into our lives.
NB I love your image of the pebble; pebbles on beaches play an important part in my book. You said there could be two main reasons why we still want magic?
DB I think the other way you can frame this idea of ‘mystery’ is by talking about it in terms of dark and light. We all have a hard time incorporating our ‘shadow’ selves into daily life—the selves that we know are there, but that never see the light. And so having someone whose job is to bring hidden things into the light—even the spotlight—is a very attractive thing. And of course, that also connects with us as queer people, with the whole coming out story…
NB To come out of the shadows...
NB What you say about darkness and light reminds me of something about the book that I didn’t realise until long after I’d finished it: my disappearance boy is always slipping between the light out on a beach and the darkness of a tatty old theatre, with the imprisoning darkness of a magician’s cabinet at its heart. And the book ends with a kind of light that’s poised between the two—both Reggie, the disappearance boy, and Pam, the illusionist’s assistant, find themselves starting their future lives in the clear light of a very early morning. The dawn of freedom, if you like.
DB You mention freedom, and that reminds me that there’s actually a third reason why the business of magic and illusion remains so compelling. I think magic is always in some fundamental way about showing us that the stories we tell ourselves about the world actually aren’t the whole story. It reminds us that there are other agencies, other stuff that maybe we’re missing out on. I mean it’s there, all the time, but we’re just not being brought face to face with it in ‘normal life’. Which means it’s very easy for us to confuse our story of reality with reality. Magic—good magic, anyway—brings you face to face with another possible story.
NB I can really relate to that. The Disappearance Boy is all about stories which are there, but which nobody wants to acknowledge. Even when they are staring them in the face. Or smacking them right across it.
DB Plus, of course—and this would be a fourth reason for why people love magic—there’s the intellectual puzzle of working things out. The ‘how did they do that’ part of the whole thing. That tickles us.
NB I hope so! One of the biggest challenges of the book was that I had to show the working of a magic act from behind the scenes—revealing how it’s done, if you like, while keeping all the atmosphere and the simple bloody weirdness of doing that for a living intact...
DB Go on…
Neil Bartlett lives in London with his partner James Gardiner. His first novel, the queer love story Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall, was written in a council flat on the Isle of Dogs, published in 1990, and translated into five European languages. His second, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, was nominated for the Whitbread Prize in 1996; his third, Skin Lane, was shortlisted for the Costa Award in 2007; his fourth, The Disappearance Boy, earned him a nomination as Stonewall Author of the Year in 2014.
You can find out more about Neil and his work, and contact him, at www.neil-bartlett.com
Marisa Carnesky disappears Neil Bartlett's head at the launch of The Disappearance Boy