Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote in instant_fanzine,
Niall Harrison
coalescent
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Book Group: The Prestige

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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