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Book Group: The Prestige [Jan. 22nd, 2006|09:55 am]
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[coalescent]
Christopher Priest's last-but-two novel, The Prestige [review by Dave Langford], is not a bad book. But it's a book that won a World Fantasy Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and been generally highly praised, and for the life of me I cannot understand why. It is not, for example, a patch on The Separation.

Actually, thinking about it, that's not quite true. I can understand why; I just don't agree with it. The why, I think, is partly for the way the story is told and partly for what it is used to say. I don't think it is for the story itself. More accurately, I should say stories instead of story. The main narrative, the one that takes up about three-quarters of the pages in the book, is about a rivalry between two stage magicians at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th (reading it now, some resonances with Strange and Norrell are of course inevitable). Each gets a chance to tell us his side of the story. First is Alfred Borden (stage name 'Le Professeur de Magie'), a working-class lad made good whose reputation hinges on The New Transported Man, a teleportation illusion. Amid much musing on the nature of illusion and magic (of which more later), he recounts his feud with to-the-manor-born Rupert Angier (aka 'The Great Danton'), centered around Angier's attempts to obtain the secret to the aforementioned Transported Man. Later, we get to read Angier's diary which, of course, reveals disagreements with Borden's account in a number of places, not least about the precipitating reason for the feud. Around this is a framing story, set in the book's present, the mid-nineties, in which a descendent of Angier tracks down a descendent of Borden, perhaps to resolve the feud, which, it turns out, has been perpetuated down the century.

When I mentioned the way the story is told, I was thinking of the extreme constructedness of the book. The Prestige is built around doubles and doublings: two stories, two accounts of each story, two names for each protagonist, and so on. Pretty much everything that happens has a mirror elsewhere in the book. How much you like this sort of intricate falsity is a matter of taste, but as with, say, David Mitchell, it has a certain unavoidable distancing effect, one upshot of which is that watching the writer's technique can be more interesting--more involving, even--than following the story that technique is being used to tell. Done well, this can result in a feeling of inevitability, as the revelations click into their pre-assigned places like clockwork; done badly, it comes off as merely predictable, and not worth the coincident loss of emotional involvement.

The Prestige is a mix of the two. A lot of things are obvious from very early on, including the fact that Borden is a twin, and that Angier is going to use science to replicate Borden's illusion but end up a twin himself. In fact, it all resembles nothing so much as a Star Trek transporter malfunction in fancy dress, and the psychological implications aren't taken all that much further than they are in similar episodes of that show. In each set of twins--the one natural, the other artificial--one twin is diminished, and the diminishment presents itself in opposite ways. However, the development of this part of the story feels inevitable, not predictable; it is satisfying to watch Angier travel to America and persuade Tesla to build him his machine, because it fits so neatly with everything else in the novel. Less effective, indeed ultimately counterproductive, is the framing story, partly because it makes no sense (why, exactly, is the feud perpetuated?) and partly because it is painfully obvious from about a third of the way into the book more-or-less what Andrew Westley is going to find in the Angiers' crypt, and the eventual sequence isn't creepy enough to justify the wait. (Indeed, it feels a bit abrupt and sensationalist.) Further, because it is Westley's story, and not Borden's or Angier's, that frames the book, and because every question we have about Westley is answered, the calculated uncertainty built up in the stories of the two magicians is wasted. It literally doesn't matter which of the accounts is true, or in what degree they are each true, because whatever the case, the story ends the same way. Or so it seemed to me; but I suspect, as I said, that the intricacy of the book is one of the reasons it is admired.

The second reason it is admired, I suggested, is for what it uses the story to say: comment on the nature of stories. There's always a certain appeal in that, and indeed, this aspect of the book is more successful. From the outset, we are encouraged to see the performance of a magical trick as akin to the act of telling a story. "The wonder of magic," Borden tells us, "lies not in the technical secret, but in the skill with which it is performed" (64), going on to argue that the most important thing is the prestige of the trick, the change it effects on the world.
As every stage magician well knows there will be some who are baffled by this, some who will profess to a dislike of being duped, some who will claim to know the secret, and some, the happy majority, who will simply take the illusion for granted and enjoy the magic for the sake of entertainment.

But there are always one or two who will take the secret away with them and worry at it without ever coming near to solving it. (34)
This is a list of responses that could easily be replied to readers, particularly of books like Priest's whose reason for being seems, at least in part, to be to cause unsettlement. When we read a story we temporarily suspend our reality and enter into a new one, a reality where the writer really is a magician; and when we do so, we may value the prestige of a story more than its substance.

But the interesting thing about this line of thinking with respect to The Prestige is that Borden is wrong. Borden approvingly reports a comment by another magician, that "Magicians protect their secrets not because their secrets are large and important, but because they are so small and trivial." (49) In the case of Angier, this is self-evidently not true. Angier, in contrast to Borden, believes that the secret is key, that figuring out how a trick is done is the most important thing. For all his childhood wish that magic was real, that makes him a scientist at heart (as he himself admits, late in the novel, he believes in the scientific method), and it's not in the least surprising that, faced with his inability to figure out Borden's trick, he turns to science. Ironically, it is Borden who sets him on the path, directing him towards Nikola Tesla. However, the attempt at diversion backfires.
I am learning about my old adversary. Through Olivia he was trying to misdirect me. His illusion uses the sort of flashy effects that ordinary people think are the power of electricity, but are in fact nothing more than flashy effects. He thought I would go on a wild-goose chase, while Tesla and I are actually confronting the heart of the hidden energy itself. (253)
Earlier on in his career, struggling to make his name, Angier and his wife set themselves up as mediums, using tricks of memory to pretend reception of messages from the dead. At the time, Angier notes that "In opposition to the methods of a magician, the secret of her performance was exactly as it seemed", and by the novel's end he has achieved the same thing a second time, with Tesla's teleporter. And so Borden is wrong: Angier guards his secret not because it is trivial, but because it is so immensely, world-changingly big. The Prestige is set at is the turning of an Age, the birth of a world in which science replaces magic (the world in which science fiction is being born; there is a Wellsian flavour to some of the book's events). A world in which miracles don't need any skill at all.

This leads into another problem with the novel, which is its characters. Bluntly, they do always not act like real people. Never mind the cartoonish Tesla or the interchangeable women, and I've already mentioned the inexplicability of the ongoing family feud, but Rupert Angier, in particular, seems to have no conception of what the machine Tesla has built him actually is or what the implications of it are. It is almost unbelieveable that he'd want to keep such a device secret, and completely unbelieveable that knowledge of such a radical invention could be contained in the long term; it is, in fact, Michael Crichton-level plotting, and makes everything else Angier does equally hard to fathom. Borden is somewhat more successful. His psychology is never explored much beyond 'he is a magician, so he keeps secrets/he keeps secrets, so he is a magician', but the effect of his secret is convincing, and the more tragic because the secret is so obvious. Watching two personalities subsumed into one identity is disturbing, up to and including the final revelation, when Angier's ghostly double attacks Borden, that Borden himself no longer knows which twin has done what. (I was almost expecting Borden to say that "he doesn't know which one of us I am these days," but perhaps that would have been too blatant.) In fact, the characters act like characters. They act as thought they know, subconsciously, that they are in a story, that the limits of the story extend no further than the page, and that they only have to behave within the confines of that story. Priest's story is not concerned with any larger implications the magicians' feud may have--the world is changing, but that is irrelevant to the story--and so neither are his magicians.

The lives of magicians are destroyed by the secrets they keep, whether trivial or not. Indeed, even the rewards of magic, their prestige, can be unwelcome, as the (inevitable) fact that Tesla's machine is a duplicator as well as a teleporter makes abundantly clear. And if, elsewhere in the novel, Priest is likening his magicians to storytellers, perhaps all of it is simply to say that no sane person would want to be a writer; or at least, no sane person would want to be a science fiction or fantasy writer, whose stock-in-trade are the big lies, the grandest illusions. There are certainly grand elements of The Prestige: the setting is convincing, the narrative (mostly) has drive, the structure is clever, and it's flattering to get to the end having discovered the book's secrets. I have also seen it referred to as Priest's most accesible book, and that may well be true; it is certainly not as demanding as I have been led to believe his work can be. All of which, perhaps, starts to explain why it is well-regarded, and why Christopher (Memento, Batman Begins) Nolan is currently making a film of the book, starring Christian Bale as Borden (ok) and Hugh Jackman as Angier (huh?). It'll be interesting to see how Nolan handles the book's structure--the competing stories, and the frame--since I can't see them working the way they do in the book. And hey, if he botches it completely, at least we still get David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. That's got to be enough of a prestige for anyone.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: benpeek
2006-01-22 10:41 am (UTC)
it's odd, but i actually tried reading THE PRESTIGE over xmas. nothing to do with the books here, just one of those odd things, but i gave up after about fifty pages because it felt too contrived, to artificial, i think, now. there was nothing particularly wrong with that, or wrong with the book, with what i read about it, but i just felt no urgency to keep reading, so i just gave up after the book had lain round for three weeks.

reading about it here pretty much says i made the right choice not to continue, i think.
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From: deadcities_icon
2006-01-22 10:53 am (UTC)
I REFUSE TO READ THIS POST!!!

But I'm sure your thoughts are ace, Niall. Heh!
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-22 12:06 pm (UTC)
But I'm sure your thoughts are ace, Niall.

Given that you rated the book a five and I only rated it a three, I wouldn't be so hasty to make that call. ;-)
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From: deadcities_icon
2006-01-22 12:25 pm (UTC)
But that's precisely why I'm excited to work with you. I like having my views and theories *challenged*, by god!

Makes for a mutually beneficial atmosphere, no?
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-24 12:12 am (UTC)
Well, we can hope. :)
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-22 12:35 pm (UTC)
Amazon reviews, of which my favourite is by Mr Foley.
I was not too familiar with author Christopher Priest. I knew he was primarily a fantasy writer who occasionally dabbled in the world of comic books. I honestly wasn't expecting much from The Prestige, but when I picked it up and saw that it had won a World Fantasy Award, well, it immediately seemed that Christopher Nolan and the previously mentioned actors knew exactly what they were doing.
(Christopher Priest is not Christopher Priest, and seems to be a bit tired of people saying that he is.)
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2006-01-22 04:25 pm (UTC)
Someone should point out to Mr Foley that he's got Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer slightly confused.

Let's face it, I'd be seeing a film with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in it anyway. I think Jackman will make a decent Angier, although he's not who I pictured while I was reading it. The only downside to the film that I Can see if they have cast Scarlett Johannsen as Olivia, and she really gets on my nerves. It'll need a bit of work to make a decent film - with the Borden/Angier plot being the main part of the film, it really needs a strong ending to happen there and not in the modern parts, so I would expect some changes there.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-22 04:32 pm (UTC)
I have no objections to Scarlett Johannson. Funnily enough.

It'll need a bit of work to make a decent film - with the Borden/Angier plot being the main part of the film, it really needs a strong ending to happen there and not in the modern parts, so I would expect some changes there.

My guess would be that they'll use the Kate Angier-narrated section from the middle of the book as a prologue, jump back to the magicians for most of the film, then jump forward again to the reveal in the vault. I think the vault will feel more like an ending when it's less from Andrew's point of view, if you see what I mean.

I am wondering how they're going to build in the uncertainty you get from the differences between the diary and the memoir. There are ways they could do it, but part of me wonders whether they'll just rewrite it as a straight conflict/mystery story.
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2006-01-23 01:17 am (UTC)
I have no objections to Scarlett Johannson. Funnily enough.

I don't know - I don't mind her in Ghost World, and I think she's a decent actress, but something puts me off. I don't think it will help that Olivia isn't a well-developed character. Nor are any of the female characters, TBH this is the Borden and Angier show, wwith the odd scene-stealing moment from Tesla.

I'm wondering how the whole diary/memoir style is going to translate, and whether there will be extensive voiceovers or some other way of doing it. One thing I have no worries about, after Memento, is Nolan tackling a book with a complex structure like this.
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2006-01-22 04:18 pm (UTC)
Well, I liked it, but I'm not sure why I liked it that much, and I think a lot of your criticisms are fair ones.

I think it's partly that I didn't it half as obvious as you did. I wasn't sure that Borden was definitely a twin, I didn't know what they were going to find in the vault from early on, it all unravelled a lot more gradually for me. I can see that without the mysteries, the plot fitting together, the book isn't as good. I was reading it to find out more, not because I cared deeply about any of the characters who were telling their stories.

The feud doesn't quite ring true - I'm not sure why the subsequent generations has reason to continue it. I don't think it helps that the present-day strands were much less interesting than the Victorian ones (with the exception of Nicky being thrown into the machine, which was a terrifying bit). And now you mention it, while it doesn't seem too far-fetched that the device Tesla invents would be used for a magic trick, it seems absurd that neither Tesla nor any of the Angier descendants would have revealed it before now.

All the characters and ideas in the book seem to take a back seat to the intricate and complex plotting and structure, and if the latter doesn't grab you then there's not much else there. I enjoyed The Separation far more, but they both felt a bit inconclusive, and I wanted more of an ending.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-22 04:36 pm (UTC)
I think it's partly that I didn't it half as obvious as you did. I wasn't sure that Borden was definitely a twin, I didn't know what they were going to find in the vault from early on, it all unravelled a lot more gradually for me.

There is an element of bringing in knowledge from outside the book here. I know Christopher Priest likes writing about twins, so although it was possible Borden could just have had multiple personalities, I was expecting a physical twin, especially from the point at which the New Transformed Man was explained. Similarly, from the Nicky sequence onwards--which was deeply creepy, you're right--everything seemed to point to a machine that copied as well as transported.

The reason I like The Separation much more than this is because, as an alternate history, all the uncertainty built into its different narratives actually has consequence. Which one is true, or how true the different ones are, matters a whole lot.
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2006-01-23 01:21 am (UTC)
Yes - I knew The Separation had twins in it, but I didn't know if this was a common feature of Priest's work that would reappear, or if it would turn out to be something altogether different. Especially as The Prestige is a more fantastic novel than the alternate history of The Separation, and I felt it could be some kind of supernatural explanation.
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[User Picture]From: i_ate_my_crusts
2006-02-14 06:36 am (UTC)
Well, I liked it[...]I think it's partly that I didn't it half as obvious as you did.

I'm in the same boat. I figured that Borden was a twin, and that Angier was using science, but it wasn't until extended talk of "the prestige materials" that I realised that the gadget was creating duplicates, and I hadn't anticipated the vault. I guessed duplication from the Iron rod experiment, but discarded it because it didn't seem to be the case for the cat experiment.
Reading your comments helped me gel together some thoughts.

I can see that without the mysteries, the plot fitting together, the book isn't as good.

I didn't find that. I found two insights that really pull together why I enjoyed the book.

1. That what matters is not what the secret is, but how masterfully you stage it.

Even if you know the secret, you can enjoy the trick, and admire the stagecraft. It's for this reason that I don't mind reading spoilers, and sometimes seek them out: because how the trick is performed is more important to me than the secret of the trick.

But the secret matters more for Angier than for Borden. If Borden's secret is discovered, he gains a full identity for each of him. He gains something by revealing his secret, even if he loses the ability to perform that trick.

But being a macigian, we know, is central to Borden's identity. Nothing else matters to him, not even having a full personality and being his own person. He doesn't value privacy, or personal relationships, or ANYTHING over his identity as a magician. Everything is sacrificed upon that altar. The way he stages his *entire life* as twins is paramount to his identity. He is the quintessential masteful performer.

For Angier, being a magician is nothing more than a means to an end -- it's the only way he knows of making money, and as soon as he finds a better way of making money, he uses it (even at the expense of himself - his prestiges that are created each time he duplicates his coins during the stage show. If his secret is revealed, not only does he lose the ability to make additional money, because everyone would know, and it would rapidly be outlawed or compensated for, but he also loses his ability to be himself; he is consigned forever to being a magician.

Gosh. I just thought all that then, and I think my thoughts on the book are not fully formed yet. I only finished reading it a couple of hours ago.

2. The secret is important only if it's all about the secret.

Think of movies like "The Sixth Sense" where the secret is a tiny one, and is protected by the director. The secret is central to how the trick works.

Would Borden's trick work if we knew he was a twin? No.

Would Angier's trick work if we knew it was science? Yes. We'd be appalled at the prestige, I think, but the marvel remains.

The feud doesn't quite ring true - I'm not sure why the subsequent generations has reason to continue it.

Ditto...

while it doesn't seem too far-fetched that the device Tesla invents would be used for a magic trick, it seems absurd that neither Tesla nor any of the Angier descendants would have revealed it before now.

Even if Angier expected his descendents to discover its use as a counterfeiting machine, and use it for that? I saw that as a "only one time machine will ever exist" conceit.

I did wonder why Tesla didn't duplicate his cash to get out of debt, though.

All the characters and ideas in the book seem to take a back seat to the intricate and complex plotting and structure...and I wanted more of an ending.

Oh, I loved the ending. I loved the vault, and Andrew's recovery of part of himself. Andrew values *himself* over either the secret or the performance. He is the resolution of the feud, because he chooses to become a whole person, doing what he wishes to do. Do we doubt that he will ditch his job, having become a whole person? I don't doubt it. And his other half - Nicky - broke the machine, thus ending Angier's secret. By becoming whole, he also releases Angier from that secret, and fulfills his side of the feud.
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From: lyth
2006-01-22 04:45 pm (UTC)
It does work better as an intellectual exercise than a story. The first time I read it I had no idea what was going on, and the mystery elements did make it rather compelling, and I remember being quite disappointed that it turned out to be twins after all. Reading it for the second time, the secrets are all signposted well in advance, even introducing the notion of twins on the very first page. So I could appreciate how well-constructed it all was, but it doesn't really work on any deeper level than that (though the same could be said about any mystery story, really). The ending still makes very little sense though - has Angier just been hanging round the crypt for the past hundred years? Why didn't he escape when they brought Nicky's body in? Hopefully the film will do a better job with it, if they don't omit the framing story entirely...
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[User Picture]From: grahamsleight
2006-01-22 10:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks for a long & interesting discussion. This was, I think, the fourth time I've read the book and so its surprises of construction weren't surprises any more. I certainly remember my first read of it, back in 1995 or 6, as being one of the best reading experiences I've had: yes, it's very *constructed*, but it's constructed so that the reading experience runs extraordinarily smoothly. So I'm going to wind up being more of an advocate for the book than you have been, though not unequivocally.

I think I'm repeating stuff I said in The Interaction, but the whole thing is constructed to be a demonstration of the costs of the fantastic. (In that sense, as I kinda said re Camp Concentration, Faust not Frankenstein is the ur-myth of sf.) In those terms, I think it works rather well. Angier and Borden's acts are implausible, to some extent, but because they're locked into the overreaching that their profession requires. Angier wouldn't be interested in doing world-changing stuff with the Tesla machine because he can't see any further than his rivalry with Borden.

I've never found the final crypt scene as spooky as some (Clute raves about it, for instance, in his piece in Scores), but it does have a certain symmetrical logic to it. I've never, come to think of it, been *moved* by a Priest novel, but I don't think that's often their point. I *have* been scared, involved, intellectually excited. I realise I haven't actually done much advocacy so far, so I'll try to be a bit more positive in the morning, when I'm less sleepy.
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[User Picture]From: communicator
2006-01-23 02:02 pm (UTC)
demonstration of the costs of the fantastic

I was thinking exactly that. Like M John Harrison's short stories about English Magic. It's all cost, and precious little reward. And the same feeling of sickness. Jonathan Strange too I think (though less oppressive and repellent).
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-24 12:12 am (UTC)
I think I'm repeating stuff I said in The Interaction, but the whole thing is constructed to be a demonstration of the costs of the fantastic

My problem with this is while I'm all for it as an aesthetic position and an argument, it's not actually a measure of literary quality. You're quite right that the reason Angier doesn't do anything with the machine is that it's All About Borden, but that reason was never justified enough to convince me. It was just presented as a fait accompli, almost.

More advocacy, please. :p
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[User Picture]From: communicator
2006-01-23 01:59 pm (UTC)
David Bowie as Nikola Tesla

OMG. Now I have to cast all the great scientists of history.

Your review reads as very fair, but I think there is something more in this book. Perhaps something emotional. Perhaps the feeling of nausea and being complicit in a very bad mistake that I think the story builds up in the reader.

the calculated uncertainty built up in the stories of the two magicians is wasted. It literally doesn't matter which of the accounts is true, or in what degree they are each true, because whatever the case, the story ends the same way

I think the idea is to hold all conflicting stories true at once, and never collapse them into one. Hence the nausea and disorientation. That's why Nolan might do a damn good job of it.
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From: abigail_n
2006-01-23 02:02 pm (UTC)
I read this book three or four years ago (and therefore it is highly likely that many of the details have slipped my mind) and disliked it intensely. Later on I read The Separation (on the grounds that any book that grabs the Clarke away from Light has to be worth a look) and found it so thoroughly dreadful that, in comparison, The Prestige has taken on a somewhat nostalgic glow. These days, I tend to think of it as a somewhat promising experiment that went kablooey.

The book's construction was certainly a major problem for me. There really is no reason for the existence of the modern framing story (the same might be said of The Separation) and the historical segments don't make very good use of the epistolary format. I can't remember whether at the time I felt that the book was, as Niall puts, obviously constructed, but this strikes me as an apt description.

Even worse than The Prestige's construction is Priest's use of narrative voice, or lack thereof. I have a very low threshold of tolerance for misuse of the first person voice. It's a common narrative trope that many authors use because it strikes them as natural and simple - they've been narrating their own life for years, after all - but very few of them manage to get it right. For every Pale Fire, Number9Dream, or Jane Eyre (I've noticed that classic novels tend to do a better job with the first person voice, possibly because their authors were accustomed to writing their lives down in diaries and letters), there are dozens of narratives that read like what I did on my summer vacation essays. When misused, the first person voice actually distances us from the narrator by preventing us from seeing them completely, and of course the narrator's prominence obscures the other characters in the story. This is what happens in The Prestige. Priest doesn't give his three narrators individual voices, and he doesn't make us believe in them as human beings (and again, this same problem was also present and far more prominent in The Separation). I found it impossible to care for these men or for the people around them, and as a result my experience of reading The Prestige was a flat one - I don't think I guessed the twin solution for the simple reason that I was never interested enough in the problem to really think about it.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-24 12:24 am (UTC)
Question: did you feel invested in the characters in Cloud Atlas? Because for all that Mitchell is brilliant at first-person voice, I wasn't, in part for the same reason I wasn't invested in the characters in The Prestige: I find that level of conscious story-construction somewhat distancing.

I'm going to defend Priest's first-person narrators somewhat, because for the first fifty pages or so of The Prestige I was in the same position as you--flat, all the same--but I gradually changed my mind. I think the first voice, Andrew, is meant to be flat, for starters. He tells us flat-out he's a not very good journalist, and his section is written in a very matter-of-fact style that reflects that. (Reminds me of the first segment of Veniss Underground.) Borden's memoir is, to me, clearly in a different voice, much more prone to descriptive language and metaphors (the bit about holding out his hands to show you his honesty, if you remember that). It also has the interjections from Borden-2 which are effective enough. Angier's diary is probably not as good, but I think it is different again from the first two. The problem is that when you get down to it, the three men--particularly Angier and Borden--are actually very similar. In fact that's part of the point. So no, the narrators are not as flashily differentiated as in Mitchell, but I think they are distinct.

My defence of The Separation, which I do like, is basically the one upthread: the framing story is tied into the variant history stories (indeed, it eventually cancels itself out). All the narratorial tricks that Priest plays without real consequence in The Prestige do have consequence, and emphatically so, in The Separation. That said, I would not have wanted to be on the Clarke jury that year; it was a very strong shortlist.
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From: abigail_n
2006-01-24 07:40 am (UTC)
Question: did you feel invested in the characters in Cloud Atlas? Because for all that Mitchell is brilliant at first-person voice, I wasn't, in part for the same reason I wasn't invested in the characters in The Prestige: I find that level of conscious story-construction somewhat distancing.

That's interesting. I found the characters in Cloud Atlas thoroughly believable, largely because Mitchell is such a good writer and so smart in his use of the first person voice. I wasn't bothered by CA's construction - possibly because I have different reading ticks than you and possibly because Mitchell is so good at it.

I don't remember enough of my reactions to the specific narrators in The Prestige to discuss your individual assessments of them (except to say that I'm baffled by the comparison to Nicholas in Veniss Underground, who is anything but matter-of-fact), but I have to believe that a better writer would have been able to convey personality even through a flat voice. Going back to David Mitchell, the Luisa Rey segment is intentionally written in the flat, unliterary style of an airport thriller, but we still get a good idea of who Luisa is and how much we ought to care about her. Priest simply isn't that talented, and between The Prestige and The Separation I have to wonder if calling the flatness of the characters intentional isn't giving him too much credit.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-01-24 09:25 am (UTC)
I wasn't bothered by CA's construction - possibly because I have different reading ticks than you and possibly because Mitchell is so good at it.

Yeah, that's fair enough. I wasn't at all bothered by the structure in Ghostwritten, as it happens, which is almost as carefully built. (Haven't read Number9Dream yet.)

(except to say that I'm baffled by the comparison to Nicholas in Veniss Underground, who is anything but matter-of-fact)

Sorry, perils of commenting at 1am. The similarity between Andrew and Nicholas is that they're both deliberately less-than-capable writers. Their actual styles are very different.
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[User Picture]From: greengolux
2006-02-14 08:32 pm (UTC)
There really is no reason for the existence of the modern framing story

Yes there is. It's there to heal the rift that opens up in the historical historical segments. Borden and Angiers stories are stories of creating a divide not only in themselves, but between each other. The framing story is about breaching that divide and bringing two halves together to make a whole. Andrew finds his twin Nicky and in doing so becomes a whole person. His having been split is the legacy of his ancestor's feud and own personal divisions. He has inherited their split in self, and his story is about mending that, becoming a whole person again.

When misused, the first person voice actually distances us from the narrator by preventing us from seeing them completely, and of course the narrator's prominence obscures the other characters in the story. This is what happens in The Prestige. Priest doesn't give his three narrators individual voices, and he doesn't make us believe in them as human beings

That's the whole point. It's a deliberate (and explicit - Borden's book comes edited through Angiers) confusion of narrative authority. The Prestige is a story about personal identity. Borden and Angiers aren't fully human, because they've split themselves. We're not supposed to see them completely because they're only half a person each. I can see why you might this off-putting, but it's not sloppy writing, it's very carefully constructed.
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From: abigail_n
2006-02-14 10:07 pm (UTC)
Again, it's been several years since I read the book and I'm sketchy on the details.

It's there to heal the rift that opens up in the historical historical segments.

I guess I just didn't care that much about healing that rift, and I certainly didn't feel that Priest lent either of the contemporary characters enough weight and presence for me to care about their fates in their own rights. I also don't quite understand why Andrew was split in the first place, or why it was so important to his parents that the 'rift' be healed - what is it about the rivalry between Borden and Angiers that so thoroughly poisons the lives of their offspring? I didn't think Priest justified this 'curse'.

We're not supposed to see them completely because they're only half a person each.

I'm sorry, I can't accept that. A good writer can make even a dull or incomplete person uninteresting, and the fact that Borden and Angiers are 'split' doesn't justify their not having individual voices.

And I do think that writing a dull character, even intentionally, when you don't have the writing skills to make that character compelling, is sloppy writing.
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[User Picture]From: i_ate_my_crusts
2006-02-14 06:46 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed The Prestige. I'm a firm believer that the stagecraft is more important than the secret, and the stagecraft here is definitely more important than the secret (We're given the secret!)

I love the symmetry and elegance of the book. The structure of the book has symmetry, the themes, the feud, the current day and the past, Borden and Angier. Elegant. Made me admire the stagecraft on so many levels. The book is The Prestige, as well as the Prestige -- it makes me want to clap my hands at the cleverness.

But why on earth is Kate's section in there? Is it really necessary? She does reveal Nicky's fate in the machine, but ... oh, it unbalanced the symmetry for me.

See my response to Liz's comment for some more, very long and unformed, thoughts.
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