Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Published: Simon & Schuster UK/Touchstone, 1995
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
Nominations: British Science Fiction Association Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

"In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another.  Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other's ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians' craft can command--the highest misdirection and the darkest science.  Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for descendants who must, for their sanity's sake, untangle the puzzle left to them"

I enjoyed the movie adaptation of The Prestige, so I thought I should check out the source material, the novel by Christopher Priest.  While the film did depart in some significant ways from the plot of the novel, I liked them both.  I think that each form of the story drew from the strengths of their respective mediums.  It was also interesting to approach the novel while knowing the secret plot twist, which I will avoid mentioning here, just in case.

My Thoughts:

In the novel version of The Prestige, the story of the rival magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier is framed in a 'modern' story about their great-grandchildren.  The Borden descendant, Andrew Westley, is an adopted child who has always had the unexplainable feeling that he has a twin brother.  The Angier descendant, Kate, is living in a wing of her family home, haunted by a scene she witnessed as a child.  The mystery of Kate and Andrew shows how the magician's feud has affected both of their families for generations, but it only takes up a small portion of the book.  It mostly serves to introduce the two fictional documents that make up the bulk of the story, Alfred Borden's semi-private memoirs and Rupert Angier's diary.

Instead of switching back and forth between the two magicians, as was done in the movie, the first part of the novel follows Borden's story from beginning to end.  After that, the point of view switches to Angier and we learn his complete life story.  Priest succeeded in giving each of the men a distinct voice, and the two documents even differed markedly in style.  Borden's memoirs were vaguely intended to be read by others, so he wrote very guardedly about his professional and personal life.  Due to this sense of having an audience,  his life story was kept very focused and entertainingly structured.  On the other hand, Angier's diary was, in this fictional world, never actually intended to be read.  As a result, it was much more fragmentary and disorganized, and the pacing was inconsistent.  I personally preferred Borden's memoir over Angier's diary, mostly due to the more concise and focused style.

One interesting result of telling the story through two private 'documents' is how it clearly showed each man as the hero of his own life story, with the opposing man as the villain.  Borden was a working-class boy who had the talent and intense desire to learn stage magic.  Angier was an aristocratic gentleman who left his family to perform as a magician alongside his lower-class girlfriend.  Angier, unlike Borden, had no natural talent for devising tricks, but he was just as obssessed with the field. All it took was one incident of youthful arrogance on Borden's part to kick off the feud that would shape their personal and professional lives. 

Neither of the magicians seemed like a particularly reliable narrator, due both to their individual identity crises and the natural tendency of a storyteller to cast themselves in a positive light.  Even when they were recounting the same scene, the tone, intentions, and often even actions or dialogue, differed in a realistic way. I felt that this helped to lend a sense of reality to both of the magicians. I can't deny that they both had significant personal flaws, most notably their obsession with stage magic over the people they supposedly loved.  However, even though they often made decisions that left me infuriated, I typically found it easy to sympathize with them.  I suppose I respect people that are so deeply motivated, even if that drive pushes them towards painful consequences for themselves and others.

Perhaps due to the nature of the story, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier are really the only characters who feel like fully realized people.  The descendants take up only a small portion of the book, and, of course, the reader is only introduced to any other characters through the filters of Angier and Borden.  However, it was curious to me that Borden and Angier seemed to be the most important people in each others' lives, and the most often mentioned in their respective journals. Borden almost never mentioned his wife and children. Angier abandoned his wife and children for years to run around with another woman, and when he finally came back to them, they simply forgave him.  The most notable non-viewpoint character is Olive, an American dancer and stage assistant who is the mistress of both magicians at different times.  Even she is kind of a stereotype, the sexually-liberated American temptress who lured the men from their wives.  I know the story is fundamentally about Borden, Angier and their magic, so I understand why little time was devoted to their wives, families, and friends.  I just feel as though it would have been interesting to get a better picture of how they interacted with the people that were important in their lives.

I was also a little disappointed with the final scene of the story.  It didn't really answer some of the major questions of the magicians' story, or provide much closure for the descendants' story.  Since the descendants' story took up so little of the book, it ran the risk of feeling unnecessary when it was not made clear how it either reflected or enhanced the main story. I'm not opposed to leaving some things open-ended, but I would have liked for there to have been a little more to tie the old and new stories together thematically. 

My Rating: 4/5

The Prestige
is an exciting story about two feuding rival magicians and how their obsession with their craft shaped their personal and professional lives.  I enjoyed the novel, even though I already knew a lot of the plot twists from the film adaptation.  A modern story, which felt slightly extraneous, frames the main plot, which is told through fictional documents authored by the magicians Borden and Angier.  I liked the way these documents were used to give each magician a unique voice, and how their unreliability as narrators enhanced the sense of realism.  I favored Borden's narrative, since I found Angier's to sometimes drag or seem unfocused.  While the two magicians made for intriguing protagonists, I wished Priest would have chosen to show more of their relationships with their families or friends. I think that The Prestige is worth reading, even if you've already seen the movie.  The story and style are different enough that I was never bored, even though I already knew the general plot.


  1. I also had the experience of seeing the movie and then reading the book, but I was delightfully held by the book despite this. The epistolary form of letters/journals/diaries/etc. is something that seems easy to do badly, but the attention to writing styles and the nature of the "found" documents (personal, private diary or memoir) which you mentioned make it all the more intriguing. It did seem like the only job of the magician's descendants was to set up the frame story and to be creeped out by their revelations (and I did find the last scene delightfully creepy) instead of taking action on their own, and Borden's narrative was much more interesting (I think because he was deliberately being conscious of how it might be read), but these didn't detract much from the experience for me. Great review! I'm going to go look for this book on my shelf and look again at how Priest sets up the different voices, particularly since I'm using Dracula, another epistolary novel, for an Intro. to English Studies class I'm teaching this summer. Perhaps I can sneak in an excerpt from the Prestige? I'm already going to work in at least 1 SF short story by Peter Watts. We shall see...

  2. Thanks for your comment! I feel like this is one of the rare cases where both the source novel and the film adaptation are enjoyable. I thought Priest did the different voices really well, so it would probably make a good example. It sounds like your class is going to have a lot of interesting material to read!