Sunday, January 7, 2007

One you'll want to "escape" from

When I saw Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape by Adam Phillips during my last visit to the library, I had to pick it up. Houdini's such an interesting figure, and one I know little about. I'd been looking for a good Houdini book for a long time without realizing it. I am still looking.

In fairness to the author, I did not read the jacket closely and didn't really know what I was getting. The book is not just about Houdini, but about the psychology of escape. The jacket promises that the author will examine Houdini, Emily Dickinson, and two patients: one, a middle-aged man who realizes he enjoys escaping from women more than developing relationships with them, and the other, a young girl who invites the author to play hide-and-seek but always "hides" in plain sight. That's not quite what Phillips does: he opens with the little girl, closes with Emily Dickinson, and alternates between Houdini and the middle-aged man for the rest of this truly terrible book.

The main problem with the book is that Phillips' framework does not work. Houdini and the middle-aged man are an ineffective juxtaposition. They lived and worked over 100 years apart, and whereas Phillips is intimately familiar with his patient's background and motivations, he can only guess at Houdini's. He provides background information on Houdini's life and career, but it is still not enough for the reader. Throughout the book, you're waiting for more on the little girl with the strange behavior, and by the time Emily Dickinson makes her appearance, you don't really care.

It's also horribly precious: for example, he notes that Houdini's first stage name was "Ehrich, Prince of the Air," and then goes on to explain to readers that the last syllable of that name is "rich" and the first syllable of his better-known stage name is "who". In another, equally horrifying passage, he quotes his middle-aged man describing the vagina of a woman as a "glistening bank", notes randomly that the first letter of the man's last name is "g", then half a page later, states that this patient sees him as a "listening bank." Yes, really!

If Phillips had a cohesive thesis in all this, I sure couldn't find it. The book is only 176 pages long, and I'm not sure if that was part of his problem or not. He may have done better with more space to develop these theories (I strongly suspect that this book is based on his dissertation or master's thesis), but as it is, the book has little to offer the historian, the pop psychologist, the fancier of Dickinson or Houdini, or anyone else for that matter. There are many more things wrong with this book, but the most scathing thing of all that I can say about it is that it is the only book I've ever given up on with less than 10 pages until the end.


cephyn said...

If that book is as bad as it sounds, you deserve a medal!

Matt said...

I'll second that first comment. Houdini does sound like an interesting character to read about, but I'll wait for a good book.