Prestige, The by Christopher Priest

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Reissued by Gollancz: first published 1995, reissue March 2011.

ISBN: 9780 575 09941 8

370 pages

First published in 1995, Priest’s novel is a masterclass in deception.

In the new Introduction to this edition, reviewer Graham Sleight makes the point that we readers will probably have picked up this book not because of the book’s reputation but because of the Christopher Nolan-directed film (2006).

I suspect so too. Certainly it was for me. However, as clever, ingenious and skilful the film is, I’m pleased to find that for me the book is better.

On the surface, this is a revenge tale about rivalry between magicians in the early 1900’s. It is a book about the power of magic and the ability to deceive. But it is also about the magic of science. Like a magic trick, there is so much more to it. Priest takes elements of fact – the rivalry between Tesla and Edison mirrored in a fictitious rivalry just as compelling.

The key idea is that in any magic trick there are the three elements:

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”

As the title suggests, this is about ‘the prestige’ or the need to beat a rival. This could therefore be seen simply as just a tale of magician’s rivalry, an attempt to out-best the other after a tragic set of events that set them against each other. It may be further seen as a tale of societal class, as one is from a labourer’s background whilst the other is from the aristocracy. 

What the film does not do so well, yet the book does, is show Priest’s deft skill of dealing with words, of adeptly using the written form to tell an imaginative and clever tale of magic, duality, misdirection, sleight of hand, secrecy and deception.

The novel, more so than the film, covers a much broader canvas in this tale of trickery. The novel, after an initial contemporary setting of an epistolary mystery diary, tells this tale of rivalry through the untrustworthy narrative of magician Alfred Borden. Borden is at first a fellow magician, and then a rival to, Rupert Angier (Robert Angier in the film.) Angier is found by Borden to be performing a fraudulent séance for his aunt, which to his indignant mind sullies the reputation of Borden’s obsession, magicianship. Outraged, at another ‘séance’, Borden confronts Angier and shows the event to be a mere trick.

Henceforth there is a determined rivalry between Borden and Angier, as each attempts to outdo the other and simultaneously ruin the other’s reputation. The culmination of this is the illusion of IN A FLASH, which appears to move the magician instantly from a place on stage to a position at the back of the theatre. As the tale develops, it is clear that (according to Borden) the latest trick was an illusion originally designed by him (THE TRANSPORTED MAN), yet unfairly stolen, re-designed and embellished by Angier.

All of this is told as the narrative flits forwards and backward in this memoir of unreliable truths.  Throughout Borden’s script, the Gothic ambience of the Victorian magicianship is rather seedy and melancholic, eerily steeped in gaslight gloom and electric arc. It is supremely readable and immersive, effectively creating the world of subterfuge and rivalry that no doubt existed in the early 1900’s.

Halfway through the book, the narrative then tells of these events from a different perspective: that of Kate Angier, the daughter of Rupert Angier. Her story connects the viewpoint of Alfred Borden through his journal to the beginning of the story, and so brings the tale up to date in the present day.

The final main section of the book is a journal from Rupert Angier, giving his version of events.

This tryptych leads to the final twist in a dozen pages of conclusion, which is…. well, that would be telling. Suffice it to say that it is worth the read.   It is a little different to that of the movie, a little bit more HG Wells, perhaps, and for me more logical, though admittedly less easy to produce in film.

As in a well-rehearsed magic performance, this novel’s success balances on the so-called ‘Prestige’ of the tale, a key plot point. In the film the twist in the tale becomes pretty obvious towards the end. In the novel such a twist is more shocking because it is much less apparent, as Priest manages to deliberately obscure the key aspects of the tale, via smoke and mirrors, with clever little scenes and events that deflect the reader’s attention.  There are sentences and paragraphs in the early stages of the book that do not initially make sense, until the end. And then, like a great trick, the reader is left with the feeling that he/she should have seen it sooner.  As indeed we should:

‘The wonderful effects created on stage are often the result of a secret so absurd that the magician would be embarrassed to admit that that was how it was done.’ (Page 49)

What makes The Prestige so brilliant for me is that it is science, if not SF, that is the apparatus used for the final denouement. The use of a real person, Nikolas Tesla, and his experiments in electricity to enhance a stage performance helps elevate this into a revenge story that uses science as magic, the sense of wonder that those reading SF aspire to attain.  Like Bradbury’s interest in SF being inspired by Mr Electrico, the marvel of science here creates a rapture that is difficult to ignore.

The heart of this tale is that people want to be entertained and mystified. This book is in that regard an unalloyed success. Stylish, enigmatic and enthralling, I wish I had read it sooner, and envy those who have yet to do so. Perhaps that is the real magic. 

Highly recommended. The Prestige was a World Fantasy Award winner in 1996.

Mark Yon, February/March 2011

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