Because of the internationally successful Christopher Nolan film of 2006, The Prestige will probably go down as Christopher Priest’s best work, or most certainly best-known work. And it won’t be an undeserved fate.
The Prestige is certainly the least science fiction oriented of Priest’s works, even if it contains a scientifically implausible achievement an essential part of the story, and it is the most straightforward story in his oeuvre, in both conception and construction.
The book tells of the rivalry between two rival Victorian magicians by means of their own accounts of their lives and, to one extent or another, their hostility to one another. Both accounts – firstly by Alfred Borden, who performs as Le Professeur de la Magie, and Rupert Angier (later the 14th Lord Colverdale) as the Great Danton – comprise the greater part of the book, each preceded by a shorter account from the contemporary great-grandchildren of the two magicians, and ended by a brief contemporary section that ends the story with a twist of horror that, appropriately, has a very Nineteenth Century feel.
I’m going to assume that if you haven’t read the book, you have seen the film (which has a greater dramatic unity, dispensing with the contemporary element of the story, and which makes a greater fetish of the secrets of the two magicians). Dramatically, the story turns upon Borden’s extremely successful stage trick, The New Transported Man, and upon Angier’s inability to comprehend how this is achieved and the lengths to which he goes, on several levels, to better Borden’s trick.
The answer, in Borden’s case, is incredibly simple, even banal. Indeed, Priest prepares us for this in an early section (told by Borden), when he discourses upon magic, and the audience’s expectations of it. All magic is a trick: there is nothing that it genuinely supernatural,and the audience at heart does not want to know how the trick is performed, because it is a product of rationality and simplicity.
How can Borden disappear on one side of the stage and reappear instantly on its opposite side? He is twins, identical twins, an explanation Angier’s bluff, experienced ingeneur seizes upon instantly but Angier rejects. But simple though the explanation is, Priest is interested in, and bamboozles Angier with, the means by which the trick is perpetuated.
Though the truth is not exposed until much later in the book, it is openly displayed (in a manner guaranteed to cause confusion for the first time reader) in Borden’s text (a privately printed book of exceedingly limited circulation). To make the trick work, from a very early stage and for their entire lives, the Borden twins rigidly conceal their existence from everybody else (even the name Alfred is a fake, combined from Albert and Frederick).
The brothers never meet in person for more than fleeting seconds, and they alternate in Alfred Borden’s life, an existence that includes/excludes Borden’s wife, children and mistress. In Borden’s narrative, at times a dialogue takes place between I and I that sounds bizarrely schizophrenic, but which is entirely understandable once the true circumstances are known.
Interestingly, Angier first attempts to duplicate the trick he cannot understand by duplicating it exactly: Angier employs a double to appear after he disappears. This is less successful and satisfactory, for the double is not identical, but mainly because it is Angier who disappears offstage, and the double who appears, and who takes the applause.
The horror that underlies this story derives from Angier’s obsession with squaring this circle, an obsession no less great than that of Borden who has divided himself in two to live one life, creating an illusion in order to protect an illusion.
And he produces his version, In a Flash, which exceeds Borden’s trick in a way that, the roles aptly reversed, Borden cannot understand and, in attempting to uncover the mystery, inadvertently ‘kills’ his rival.
So far, I have been discussing the film as much as the book. The significant difference between the two, and which Priest (who discusses book and film at length in his self-published The Magic) identifies as the element that made him feel that the book was worth writing, is the contemporary framework.
It is through this that we are introduced to Borden and Angier. Andrew Westley, a would-be journalist who has found himself specialising in fantastic and implausible events, is drawn under false impressions to a former ancestral hall in Derbyshire by his near-contemporary, Kate Angier, properly Lady Katherine Angier. Westley was adopted when young, but has consciously avoided tracing his birth family, cutting himself off under the rational (yet petulant) decision that they did not want him so he wants nothing of them.
Only one factor contravenes this decision, and that is Westley’s persistent belief, underlaid by mysterious, super-natural experiences, that he was a twin, and that his twin is still alive somewhere and wishes to be reunited with him. But, in a pre-emption of Alfred Borden’s story, every record shows Westley to be an only child.
Westley discovers Kate has decoyed him to Colverdale Hall to force upon him knowledge of the birth family he has rejected: that his birth name was Nicholas Borden, that Alfred was his great-grandfather, that Borden and Angier feuded aggressively, that Kate is Angier’s great-granddaughter, and that in some way he neither believes nor understands, they are both marked by that feud.
It’s not until Kate provides her own narrative, after Borden has told his half, that we begin to see how that might be. Because Kate has met Westley, or rather Nicky Borden, before, many years earlier, when he was three and she five. It came about through a meeting of their parents, an unhappy, unsuccessful, indeed ultimately disastrous meeting that Kate, from her five year old perspective, cannot understand, nor give her adult audience enough to go on to come to reliable conclusions.
Except for two things. Kate’s father’s actions that night involve the exposure and use of the machinery behind Angier’s In a Flash, and subsequently, his abandonment of the family to disintegration, which in Kate’s case has resulted in fear, inertia, virtual hermitage and incipient, if not actual alcoholism. And those actions involve killing Nicky Borden, alias the very much alive Andrew Westley.
From this revelation, we move on to Angier’s account, given in the form of an extended, if occasional diary, its various lacunae arising from initially deliberate destruction, and latterly indifference and preoccupation.
Though Angier does, late in his account, refer to reading Borden’s narrative and comments upon the differing interpretations they have of certain events, there are no major contradictions, certainly not of the kind we are used to in Priest’s work, where we are left deciding between realities. But we are led, carefully and thoughtfully, back to In a Flash, the illusion Borden cannot decipher.
Which is because, like his own twinship, it has a simple explanation, though perhaps not banal on this occasion. In the book’s one excursion into speculative fiction, into the introduction of something not capable of concrete achievement, Angier is actually physically teleporting himself. In short, he is actually doing what Borden pretends to do, what is impossible: except for him.
At that point, I propose to stop discussing the story at all. The end of Angier’s account, the final contemporary section, these contains increasing elements of Gothic horror, dispensed with in a deliberately condensed manner at the very end, where Priest refrains from pinning answers down and allows his readers’ imaginations to spiral, with the benefit of hints that point me to clear conclusions, but which others may not find so defining – not to mention that there may be hints that others may seize upon but which I have not yet discerned.
Overall, The Prestige is a superb book, and one that I recommend highly. It is in part the product of detailed research which enables Priest to convince as to both the solidity of his Victorian milieu and, more importantly, the thoughts, feelings and obsessions of his magician characters.
His analysis of magic, it’s principles, its effects and its psychological underpinnings, are equally convincing in establishing the reality of the Victorian element. And whilst that one moment of science fiction, the teleportation machine – or rather, the bilocation machine – ought to be jarring, Priest quietly fixes it in the story as a rational component that does not jerk the reader out of either the Victorian stage or the psychological opposition of the two warring customers.
It is, rather, the classic moment when the underdog – and despite Priest’s efforts to make the magicians equals, Angier’s self-confessed failure to imagine makes him the permanently weaker of the pair – goes too far in his rivalry, and unleashes what proves to be destruction.
Though structurally it’s vital to Priest’s conception of the story, and to the final revelation of the Prestige of this superbly maintained illusion, I find the contemporary framework to be the weakest part of the novel. That’s because, whilst we learn about Borden and Angier in great and penetrating depth, we have no such opportunity to learn about Westley and Kate.
Though we see how each regards themselves, and how in contrast they see the other, their actual role in the story lasts little more than twelve hours. Their sections are short, their function as examples of the damage done by their forebears’ feud is overridden by the fact that they introduce us to the much more detailed and, I must say this, fascinating, magicians: in short, they are cyphers, MacGuffins, Old Peter telling tales to Vanya and Maroosia.
I accept that’s an unfair summary, especially given that what happens to Westley/Nicky in his childhood is startling and horrific, and has its central effect on what and who both Westley and Kate are in the modern era.
But beyond a few, deliberately vague details, the modern era is itself a cypher, a shell designed solely to tell a story that occupies two areas of the past, and whose physical ending in that imprecise present is deliberately archaic in inspiration and effect.
Further than that I won’t go. I have an old-fashioned respect for an ending, and whilst Priest harps on in The Magic about Christopher Nolan’s concentration upon the surprise ending and the lengths to which he goes to postpone it to the film’s very last seconds, his own ending is reliant upon strands coming together as late as possible.
At the end though, my main criticism of the book is trivial. My first Abacus paperback edition has been typeset by someone with a totally irritating aversion to the figure 1. In every instance where 1 crops up – and given the profusion of dates, especially in Angier’s diary, that’s a lot – the typesetter has used the capital I instead.
It’s a letter, not a number. Though a small thing, it is a perpetual irritation, an affectation and a sloppiness: letters and numbers look different on the page. Every time I see it, I am jerked out of the story by some fraction, removed from Priest’s world as writer into mine as reader. Nothing worse can be done in a story.
And The Prestige deserves far better.