:: Article

A Sleight of Hand

By Max Dunbar.


The Blue Book, A L Kennedy, Cape 2011

Writing is an art of misdirection. In Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, a man wakes from a coma to find himself experiencing huge predictive flashes, triggered by touch. After a couple of high-profile episodes, Johnny Smith retires to his father’s house to recover so that he can get back to his real passion of schoolteaching. There he’s tracked down by Richard Dees, a yellow journalist from the Inside View tabloid which specialises in ‘flying saucers carrying off whole Brazilian villages (usually illustrated by out-of-focus photographs of lightbulbs hanging from strands of thread), dogs that could do calculus, and out-of-work daddies chopping their kids up like kindling wood’. He doesn’t believe for a moment in Johnny’s powers, but offers him a deal: syndicated and ghostwritten columns, plus the opportunity to keep any personal possessions of the bereaved, sent by hopeful relatives for psychic handling. After listening to this spiel in a growing and silent fury, Johnny damns Dees for ‘a ghoul. A grave robber of people’s dreams’ and throws him off his porch.

Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black is even darker. In it Alison, another genuine psychic surrounded by fakes, uses her gift to help the lonely and bereaved but suffers a terrible price for it. The dead men who abused Alison as a child use the conduit to torment her. Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks has a psychic as its villain: the unassuming Gabriel Lafayette, who has taken his act way beyond its music-hall origins. His TV show, Borders of the Known, that claims ‘to reconcile science with the paranormal’, is such a critical hit that credulous academics invite Lafayette to found a ‘Spiritual Science chair’ at their university. Christopher Brookmyre makes Lafayette so likeable and self-deprecatory about his own apparent talent that the few sceptics ranged against him seem like narrow-minded bad guys.

A L Kennedy spent three years researching her novel about psychics. She was appalled by what she found. Kennedy told the Scotsman that ‘a lot of the people claiming to be psychics were unfriendly and bullying and deeply unpleasant, which is stupid, because even just bog-standard magical effects work better if people like you. But no, they just want to dominate you.’ The frauds in her novel know how to work a weakness, and attract it in spades: a typical sitting contains ‘regulars, virgins, occasional, desperate; big women in sparkly tops, short sleeves on hefty arms, purple spangles and silvers and pinks, butterflies, starbursts, little girl images of fun’. (The narrator adds: ‘No black, you won’t see black unless it’s on a sceptic’.)

Her protagonist, Beth Barber, has a great imaginative empathy for others; she can look into a stranger’s face and see his life. It’s that gift of empathy – so similar to a writer’s gift – that has made her such a success as a fake psychic. The Blue Book takes place on a cruise where Beth, long out of the woo game, runs into her old lover and mentor, Art Lockwood. Art has taught her that ‘most people have one story, one place in their lives where the ground gave way’. Psychics see people at their lowest and weakest. Easy to ‘get tight up inside somebody’s story – we could make them invite us in.’ The power of coincidence helps. People don’t understand that coincidence obtains far more often that you think.

For the New Humanist Kennedy enumerated techniques of cold reading:

Phoney palmists, ghost-botherers, nastily effective salesmen of all kinds will use a battery of techniques: vague phrasing, suggestion, knowledge of human behaviour and responses, vocal tone and body posture. They will learn statistics on illnesses, causes of death and common dreams, on occupations, gender probabilities and the stages that most of us pass through during our lives in order to feed back apparently credible information to sitters. Even without the addition of physical phenomena, whether they involve ideomotor movements, wishful thinking, Yvette Fielding over-reacting, dodgy photography or the full-blown rigging of special effects, the people who specialise in playing people take advantage of something rather beautiful – that we are all the same species and can communicate very deeply if we simply pay attention to each other.

A student sceptic in Brookmyre’s novel, trying to debunk Lafayatte to one of his fans, talks about a database or sucker’s list – personal information about regular users of mediums, circulated among mediums nationwide. The list is called the Blue Book.

It has been years since I’ve read Kennedy’s fiction and although I like her creative writing blog for the Guardian, it often exasperated me – to get to the needles of insight you have to fight through a haystack of verbiage. The Blue Book, therefore, came as a shock. It dazzled me how good Kennedy’s prose is. The cruise setting gives Kennedy the opportunity to nail the uneasy solidarity of communal leisure, and our sad flails at connection.

Boarding the ship: ‘Docile blocks of humanity are summoned from their benevolent detention and disappear through doorways which smell of oily mechanisms, fuel and – unmistakably – salt water.’ Shops, shows and activities offer ‘an environment prepared for people who are quite terribly afraid of being left to their own devices.’ For the hardcore, there is ‘a bar decorated along tropical lines, forlornly suggesting late nights, cleavages, reckless cocktails and Caribbean flirting.’ A ship’s photographer ‘poses his subjects in a small range of sentimental configurations.’ There is a suicide camera on deck, just in case ‘anybody succumbs to the attraction, plummets in to join the creamy, long perspective.’

If Kennedy is good on routine detail and interaction, she just takes your breath away when we get on to the real stuff of love, sex, communication and death. It’s hard to think of a contemporary novel where intimacy – of the self and of the two – has been depicted with such intensity. The psychic theme enhances the love and the death. For a bereaved customer it’s ‘absurd that she continues and he does not. It is much less absurd to demand he come back’. Art justifies his deceptions because the real truth is so horrendous: ‘you go past the curtain, or you lift up the cloth and there aren’t any wonders – the secret’s no use, or it doesn’t exist, or it’s terrible and you shouldn’t have to see.’ Art Lockwood appears unsympathetic to start with – we first meet him hissing obscene sexual knowledge to Beth in company – but as the story goes on the reader feels quite sorry for him. He is, after all, a failed magician. He wants to hide his marks from ‘the truth of a world that doesn’t know them and won’t care’.

Watching the ship’s magic show, Beth realises the true sadness of her craft. Many magicians, like James Randi and Penn and Teller, are also sceptics: they know there’s far more magic in the possible. But the paranormal, like religion, acts as a reducing valve for the imagination: the mysteries of death and the universe stripped down to scraggly planchette messages, tiresome numerology and sleight-of-hand, pious intonations of things everyone expects to hear. As Beth says: ‘If I could make anything I wanted to appear, if I could take the broken and ripped to pieces and make them whole and show the multitudes that here is a genuine, absolute miracle – would I waste my gifts on newspaper and milk?’ And yet writing is also an art of misdirection – a kind of prestidigitation.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 9th, 2011.