The Prestige

published: Tue, 24-Oct-2006   |   updated: Mon, 13-Nov-2006
US cover of The Prestige

Last weekend we went to Chicago so that my wife could run the Chicago Marathon. When I booked the plane tickets online I neglected to see the little "1" under the "Number of Stops" column (or maybe I assumed that the plane was stopping once, in Chicago). So we had in fact two flights on the way there, one from Denver to Dallas and one from Dallas to Chicago and on the way back there was just the one flight. I decided to pick up The Prestige by Christopher Priest to reread on the lengthy journey, especially as last Friday, 20 October, the long-anticipated movie by Christopher Nolan, loosely based on the book, was released. Getting a good feel for the book again before seeing the movie was my goal.

All I remember from the first reading (some ten years ago now; the book was first published in 1995 and I bought the British paperback) were the basic plot details, the denouement, and this weird feeling of unease and magic throughout. In essence, the story is about two Victorian magicians, or prestigitators, who are bitter rivals. They both develop in very different ways a marvelous magic trick, one calling it the Transported Man, the other In a Flash, where the conjuror appears to travel several tens of feet in a blink of an eye. Part of the novel's interest is that, despite what you read in what seems to be the personal journals of the rivals, you are never really told explicitly by each how they did it, you have to piece it together from the rival's entries.

The novel is beautifully structured and riveting to read. Apart from one single chapter, it is entirely written in the first person, but using several different people's viewpoints. The first part is Andrew Westley's and is set in the present day. He's a reporter for a London paper, assigned to cover paranormal or supernatural events with a critical eye. He's brought to the Peak District, ostensibly to cover an occurrence of bilocation (someone being in the different places at the same time) but, as he soon discovers, he's really been brought there by some trickery to meet Kate Angier. It seems that they are both descendants of rival wildly successful Victorian magicians, Andrew the great-grandson of Alfred Borden (stage name "Le Professeur de la Magie") and Kate the granddaughter of Rupert Angier (stage name "The Great Danton"). Kate has sent Andrew a copy of Secret Methods of Magic by Alfred Borden, the first half of which is an autobiography and second half an exploration of various magic tricks. The whole book was edited by Lord Colderdale, a self-professed amateur magician.

The second section is this autobiography, where Alfred Borden describes his childhood, his interest in conjuring, his meeting with Rupert Angier, and their subsequent rivalry. Borden, from his autobiography, comes across as rather stuffy. There are certain passages which are a little bizarre, perhaps schizophrenic, but two main things come out of this narrative: he never describes how he does his fantastical Transported Man trick, and he deliberately says very early on in his autobiography, with deception aforethought:

"I have misdirected you with the talk of truth, objective records and motives. Just as it is when I show my hands to be empty [in a performance] I have omitted the significant information, and now you are looking in the wrong place."

In other words, although the autobiography is cast as being real, misdirection is being applied. You cannot be sure of anything. Indeed the second sentence of his autobiography is "My name, my real name, is Alfred Borden." His real name? But that is the only name we know him by!

The third section is Kate Angier's and she describes a horrific incident from her childhood, where she sees Nicky Borden, a three-year old child, killed in Rupert Angier's infernal electric machine, the one he used for his magic teleportation trick. Except that Nicky Borden is the original name of Andrew Westley who was adopted early on in life and who is obviously very alive and who, against all evidence, is positive he has a twin brother.

The fourth section is Rupert Angier's diary, kept in his fastidiously organized and voluminous papers and discovered by Kate. Whereas Borden deliberately warns of misdirection in his autobiography, Angier's diary is full of holes. Sometimes he says that he's ripped out and destroyed parts of the diary, sometimes he just doesn't write down everything that happens and months pass with no entries. For example, early on in the diary, Angier admits to destroying several years' worth of pages. Later on, Angier's unloved brother (he'd cut Angier off from the family fortune without a penny) perishes in an "accidental demise" but Angier never says anything more than that.

Angier's method of the teleportation trick was devised by Nikola Tesla as an offshoot of his discoveries in electricity whilst working in Colorado Springs. Tesla's device actually transports matter some distance by using enormous electrical energies, so Angier's magic trick is more of a scientific event. But here again, Angier does not tell us everything and alludes later to "prestige materials" that have to be disposed of.

The final section belongs to Westley again as he uncovers the truth and the horror.

Rereading it the second time brought to the fore Priest's ability to weave an enthralling story about conjurers and their methods and tricks, using the mouths of several unreliable narrators. When reading Borden's story, you are trying to not be misdirected, but you are drawn into his version of events. It's hard to resist: at the end of it you think you understand what has happened, but then you read Angier's diary. On one level, it's just the same history told by a different protagonist, but it doesn't explain why it diverges so much (Borden's seems to be "set" some two years later than Angier's, for example).

And then you learn that the editor of Borden's book, Lord Colderdale, is none other than Angier. Who then is really telling the truth? In fact, what is the truth? Can it even be determined? Which events really happened and which were just invented as misdirection to make the narrator look better? Did Angier, in editing Borden's journal for publication, change anything materially? Can its version of history be trusted now? And who wrote the one and only chapter that is not in the first person? It's facile to say Christopher Priest (because he obviously wrote it all) but he wouldn't have made a mistake: no, the chapter is very deliberate.

In short, the novel is fascinating, interesting, spellbinding. Priest's story-telling skills hypnotize you like a conjurer. It ducks and it weaves, you feel for one then the other magician, and then neither. It stays with you long afterwards as you try and work out the threads and what they mean. It's certainly one of my favorite Priest novels (my all-time favorite being The Affirmation), and it serves as a great introduction to his work.

So now I've got to go see the movie.