Review: The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

>>Published: November 1995

>>Finally got around to it: August 2012

Nor are the mental aftereffects, which so scourged me at the outset, a problem any more. I suffer no agonies of depression, or self-doubt. To the contrary (and I confide this to no one, and record it in no other document than in this secret and lockable diary), the wrenching apart of my body has become a pleasure to which I am almost addicted. At first I was disheartened by the imaginings of death, of living in an afterlife, but now I nightly experience my transmission as a rebirth, a renewal of self. In the early days I was concerned by the many times I should have to perform the trick to keep in practice, but now as soon as I have completed one performance I begin to crave the next.

***

Christopher Priest’s 1995 pseudo science-fiction mystery The Prestige is centred on the rivalry between two London-based magicians at the tail end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth—a rivalry that crosses the boundaries of legacy, shadowing their respective families for a further one hundred years.

Rupert Angier is an aristocrat who falls in love with magic at an early age. Though his imagination is lacking, his commercial drive and sense of performance distinguish him from his contemporaries. He quickly makes a name for himself, conducting fake séances for grieving families, before trying his hand at the centre stage.

Alfred Borden is his counterpoint—a working-class magician with a creative eye and the will to maintain his unique magician’s secrets beyond what most men would find them selves capable. When Borden, frustrated by Angier’s séances, confronts him during a performance, he inadvertently injures Angier’s wife and kills their unborn child in the process, thus igniting the rivalry around which The Prestige is constructed.

Told primarily in an epistolary format, The Prestige offers differing degrees of insight into the minds of two men driven equally by professional curiosity, competition, and a growing need for vengeance. Split primarily between Borden and Angier’s journals, detailing the methods that drive their respective madness, and interspersed with a present day mystery between two of their descendents, The Prestige is a magic trick in its own right. Priest makes fine use of a pair of semi-unreliable narrators to tease his endgame without ever fully pulling the rug out from under the reader; the extremes to which both men are willing to go are rooted in emotions that stem more clearly from their mutual compulsion to have the answers behind one another’s most notorious tricks than from the desire to physically wound, injure, or kill the other.

Though intriguing, The Prestige suffers from a few key shortcomings. However, to discuss them with any sort of depth, I’m going to have to dive into spoilers for both the novel and the 2006 film adaptation, directed by Christopher Nolan.

Last chance—if you’ve not yet read the book or seen the film, turn away and do so. Both are certainly worth your time.

The “prestige” of The Prestige is predicated on the trick illustrated in the very beginning of the film adaptation, where Cutter (played by Michael Caine) causes a small bird to disappear, crushing its cage beneath a handkerchief. With the cage gone, he reveals with his other hand the bird, alive and well, to the delight of a little girl named Jess (who, as one eventually learns, is Borden’s daughter). But it is not the same bird. The original bird was crushed within the collapsing cage and swept off the table and into a secret compartment. The “prestige” is in fact a double—a simulacrum of the first bird. In both the novel and the film, Angier’s curiosity is piqued by Borden’s most famous trick, THE NEW TRANSPORTED MAN, in which he disappears in one closet only to reappear in another, on the other side of the stage, only a second later—too fast to have travelled by any means known. Angier spends years and a small fortune pursuing a better form of the trick. He refuses to accept what Cutter assures him is Borden’s method—the use of a double. The man who comes out of the second closet is no hired hand dressed up to look like Borden—rather he is identical to Borden, right down to the smallest details. What Angier is able to accomplish, through Nikola Tesla’s help, is a device that not only transports him across vast distances through the vague use of science and large amounts of electricity, but also creates an unfortunate double—an exact clone of Angier that must be done away with so as not to arouse suspicion or to expose his method to the world. In essence, the man on stage is the bird in the collapsing cage, crushed and swept off the table so that the clone may take the original’s place.

The secret to Borden’s trick? An unconventional, unexpected double—an identical twin brother. However, since the two brothers have not ever been seen together in public, Angier refuses to believe it to be true, as that would mean the unthinkable—that two men are living half lives for their art, neither able to exist as a full and complete person, in public, with the women they love, with the audiences they entertain. In essence, both prestiges are sacrificial in nature: Angier’s sacrifice is literal, dying, in a sense, in every performance he gives; Borden’s sacrifice is spiritual, choosing to deny oneself a full life in order to better serve one’s art. One man choosing to die over and over again, while two men choose to live fragmented, unsatisfying lives, no matter the cost to those that love them.

This theme of mutual sacrifice is explored in both the book and the film, but more expertly in the film. Whether as a result of the epistolary format or the overwhelming focus on the rivalry and how their pasts brought them to certain extremes, the novel The Prestige lacks dimension, most specifically that of the lives surrounding the two magicians. Their wives, mistresses, and their working relationships are all touched upon, but with seemingly little impact to their own character and development. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Borden—more specifically, with the two Borden’s and the half-lives they were forced to lead to remain forever a mystery. The film gives greater weight to Borden’s method and its reveal through the use of Sarah, the wife of one of the Borden brothers, her suicide, and the sad, broken man the surviving Borden is revealed as at the film’s conclusion. While the film sympathizes clearly with the Bordens, the novel falls in Angier’s court, placing him as a spectre of a man, lost, without payment for the crimes Borden committed against him.

The reversal of sympathies between the two mediums is interesting, but where the film succeeds its source material is in the development and maturity of the remaining Borden brother, and how, with their rivalry finished, he has surpassed Angier and all his sacrifices, growing beyond the need to live through tricks and illusions. In the novel, Borden seems forever a child in a man’s body—never willing to let bygones be bygones, and unfortunately, never revealing himself as more than one man when he was in fact two. Because of this, the novel feels emotionally two-dimensional, its signifiers limited to rather basic methods and responses. The film’s success is in the development of Borden’s brother, but without ever developing him in direct on-screen fashion. In essence, the prestige of the film, the reveal of the Bordens’ half-lives and its impact on the brothers (the survivor and the condemned), is what cements the narrative’s themes of sacrifice and perseverance for the sake of art. The prestige of the novel, on the other hand, is more focused on the supernatural, the impossible, and not on the reason behind its existence.

Though this is one of only a few instances where a film adaptation has improved upon its source material (thus joining the illustrious ranks of No Country for Old Men, The Lord of the Rings, and Children of Men, the latter of which is quite a terrible book), Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige is certainly a worthy read. I was surprised at how much it differed from the film, but pleasantly so. While it struggles to give proper definition to several characters, the rivalry between the two ambitious magicians is engaging enough to keep one reading until the very end.

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a few years and keep forgetting about it. I loved the Nolan movie and I’m a sucker for both epistolary stories and unreliable narrators. I stopped reading at your spoiler warnings, so I’m bookmarking and will come back to finish your review once I’ve had a chance to read the book. Thanks for the reminder that it’s lurking on my TBR list!

  2. I just finished reading the novel and loved the film. The duality theme is what stuck with me the most as I read the novel and watched the film. The contrast of Borden and Angier, Tesla and Edison (although he wasn’t mentioned in the novel), nineteenth century magic and twentieth century science was all really fascinating. And now by contrasting the novel and film, you’ve added another layer to the story: Nolan and Priest. Thanks fro the great review!

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