Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review of The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Mankind’s (emphasis perhaps on the first three letters of that word) competitive instinct is strong, indeed, perhaps innate.  If something can be made bigger, it is made.  If it can be raced, it is raced.  If someone can do something, someone else wants to do it more, better, faster.  Whole economies and power in government are based on the idea.  Corporations, governments, empires, even the quality of a person’s home television are caught up in the quest to outdo another.  At times competition benefits, and at others the health of mankind itself is threatened; the Cold War pushed humanity into both space and to the edge of nuclear war.  Christopher Priest’s 1995 The Prestige, featuring two rival magicians, is an examination of the inhuman lengths humans will go in fulfilling its competitive instinct.

The Prestige is foremost a frame story—the story nestled within echoing through the years.  Matters begin in the present with Andrew Westley, a young investigative reporter working for the Chronicle writing articles of dubious veracity—UFOs, séances, witches covens, and the like.  An adopted child, he remembers little of his youth but has constantly had the feeling a twin was separated from him at birth.  Following up on a report of an odd religious sect in the countryside, he uses the train journey to familiarize himself with a magician’s journal recently mailed to him by a stranger, a stranger who believes he may have some interest in the contents considering the magician is his long dead ancestor.  When the newspaper story proves a dead end, Westley decides to contact the stranger, a young woman named Kate Angier, who  lives nearby.  Welcomed into her estate, the two begin poring over pictures and ledgers from their families’ pasts.  As night settles in, so does Priest, letting Borden’s journal take over the narrative with the tale of the rivalry of two magicians. 

The Prestige is a masterfully structured novel.  Broken into five parts of predominantly epistolary form, they present the story of the magicians and the consequences of their actions in a thrilling escalation of suspense.  Priest a superb storyteller, the lives of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier play out page after page in refined, engaging prose that fully develops the characters, the life of stage magicians at the turn of the 20th century in London, and the mystery of their illusions in sublime, interesting-building fashion.  But it’s getting inside the characters’ heads that is the real meat of the story. Neither seeming to know the limits, Angier and Borden go back and forth in ever more perilous fashion—jealousy, duplicity, and enmity pushing both to cross the line in one way or another.

The Prestige is thus at heart the story of two people who lose sight of reality and allow their obsessions to take them to ruthless lengths to outdo the other.  In fact, each sacrifices his very humanity in one fashion or another: Borden for the lifestyle and Angier for pride—their wives, friends, and descendants suffering in the process.  Narrow-sighted to say the least, neither consider the long term consequences of their actions, not to mention the dangers inherent to performing their acts in public and private.  These aspects are mentally glossed over thinking upon the satisfaction of one-upping their rival, but come full term when generations later Kate and Andrew must attempt to settle the consequences.  

A parallel to numerous situations in reality, the magicians’ rivalry is representative if anything else.  The dark side of mankind, it emphasizes the here and now, and pushes onward blind to the future.  The technology Angier invests in, with the support of Nicolai Tesla, is anything but beneficial for society.  Like inventing the gun or nuclear weaponry, Angier’s focus seems to forever be on short term benefits rather than long term effects.  But what Kate, Andrew, Borden, and Angier are each left with at the end of their respective stories would seem to indicate one should take a second look to examine their motives before acting.

In the end, The Prestige is a masterful piece of storytelling that goes deep.  Borden and Angier’s pursuit of the other’s ruin darts back and forth until it seems they will be destroyed in the process.  And they are, indirectly.  Pushed beyond the limit, it is their descendants who must try to pick up the pieces and put real humanity back into their lives.  The characters wholly developed, Priest examines pride, obsession, the aspects of rivalry, and the effects of technology in such an aggressive environment.  Thus while the majority of content focuses on story, there is still a fair amount to think on.  Reading like no other novel I’ve ever read, The Prestige is a unique work that transcends the genre and comes highly recommended.

(A side note regarding the film: Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of The Prestige into movie format is not precisely faithful.  Filtering out the modern day storyline and intertwining the journals of the magicians, he focuses entirely on the dynamics of the relationship between Borden and Angier, twisting and tweaking their stories as he sees the tale fit to be told.  Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman give laudable performances, but overall Nolan maintains focus on the story and character elements, any thematic content seemingly incidental.  As such, the novel offers more layers with greater context afforded to the two magicians.  Given the number of changes Nolan made to Priest's story, readers will find more than enough twists and turns to make reading the novel, well, a novel experience.)


  1. Superb story that I just finished reading. The ending gave me more questions than answers, which was disconcerting for a bit but then I decided it didn't really matter. Reading it was pleasure enough. Will definitely be reading more or Priest's work.

    1. Priest is one of the greatest sf writers of all time. I'm jealous your experience with his work is just beginning. Would love to re-experience reading some of his work all over again for the first time.

  2. Ha, perhaps with the passage of time, you'll experience anew at the next re-read. Affirmation's next on my list but need to pace the reading (every 4th book, maybe?). Watched the movie yesterday. Good but book was better.