Derren Brown's Confessions of a Conjuror: funny memoir is also a meditation on attention, theatrics and psychology

Mentalist/magician Derren Brown's new memoir, Confessions of a Conjuror, is a very odd sort of book. Technically, it's a kind of autobiography, but what it really is is a kind of meandering shaggy dog story that presents narrative in the same way that a great conjuror presents a trick.

Brown begins by recounting a night from the start of his career, when he was performing close-up table magic at a restaurant in Bristol. He recounts in eidetic detail his nervous thought processes as he begins his work for the night, conjuring up the scene with language. And then, just as you think he's about to tell you about the trick he performs, he veers off into a meandering story about the effect that the smell of pink industrial soap and blue ink has on him, taking him back to his unhappy school days. This seems to just be a kind of stalling trick, but when Brown returns to the present day, you find that the anaecdote has a purpose, that it explains the way he approaches the performance he is about to give.

The description of the performance inches forward, and then, again, Brown wanders off the road to explore the hedges, more stories about his boyhood, about his personal habits, about the things he hates about himself, about his little compulsions, about his work habits. And so the story inches along, pushing forward just a nudge on the trick in the restaurant, then going for a long stroll around memory lane, and these asides take over the book, and they develop their own asides, in the form of sprawling, multi-page footnotes, and so forth, but each time you pop up one layer through the narrative, you discover that you've been informed of something vital to understanding the layer above it.

Brown is explaining how misdirection, attention, social dynamics, and dexterity combine to make a baffling effect out of a set of finger gymnastics. He's trying to unpick the thing that makes magic work -- and to explain why audiences and conjurors put up with one another, and even seek each other out. Along the way, he is, by turns, funny, gross, embarrassing, informative, thought-provoking, and even infuriating. It's not so much a story as a performance on paper, and it's told with great showman's instincts. What's more, even the most seemingly self-indulgent material (a detailed explanation of Brown's career in nose-picking, for example) pays off eventually.

It's a lovely kind of magic trick in book form -- the kind of thing that shows you exactly how it's done, but manages to amaze, anyway. Brown is one of my favorite magic performers, ranking with Penn and Teller in my view, and the experience of reading Confessions is, improbably and wonderfully, much like going to a Brown stage show.

There's an unabridged audio edition coming out on Oct 28 as well -- read by Brown, which should be a treat, as he has a great stage voice, and I can imagine he'd be great narrating this material.

Confessions of a Conjuror