Reaction: The Prestige, Christopher Priest

I have now read the first two sections of The Prestige. I am experiencing the unusual sensation of desparately wanting to read on, and being able to, and being yet unable to, not because, as sometimes occurs, the wave of my wish for the book not to end has built itself into a tangible barrier to further progress, but because I have read a full meal, and feel too sated to attempt another course.

It is remarkable to me that I am only one third of the way through this book. It feels like I have finished reading something entire. The second section of the book could easily have stood as a novella in its own right – a mysterious novella, it is true, and one that leaves much unexplained, but all unexplained in a perfectly suitable manner, all symbolically, thematically, concluded.

The first section is capable. It is slow, and mildly intriguing; the protagonist is sketched out sparsely but adequately. It is only a set-up; it needs be no better than that. The second section is superb. Priest is masterful in his efficiency; despite the dry, clean, Victorian writing, my pulse was racing at points; in particular, the way he described the magic tricks was surprisingly exciting, given that it was a verbal description of an essentially non-verbal, and essentially inactive, spectacle; Priest manages to supply the exact attentive eye that we would cast onto the scene, yet never sounds detached, and never loses his grip on the distinctive voice of the narrator. That narrator, we are supplied hardly any data regarding, yet by the end I felt him to be solidly real, solidly believable, and, while not being predictably ‘likeable’ as many fictionable people are, I found him… respectable. More, he evoked empathy – I want him to do well, not because I like him, or because I see myself in him, or project myself into his position, but just because he’s a decent human being. Except, of course, that he is a fiction, and lives only in a novel. It is rare, but not unusual, for an author to so display humanity as to provoke genuine empathy for his characters; it is extremely rare to be able to do so in so short a span, with so little in the way of biographical anecdote or telling detail.

If I have two concerns, they are that the voices of the first and second sections are too similar, and that the later book will fail to live up to the promises made by this section – not in quality, but in content. It is hard to see how the book can progress without devaluing, undermining, even mocking, existentially, this section, toward which I now feel curiously protective.

I do not know whether I can continue to read tonight; or, rather, I know that I cannot continue, but I am unsure as to whether I must. Although there is time for more reading, I do not think that there is time to tackle the entire next section before I must sleep; I think I would have to do that to find any peace at all, and even then, would I not have to read on until the end? I certainly cannot do that tonight. But… I do not feel able, either, to simply stop where I am.

I must read more of Priest’s work. Even though I have not yet encountered much of the machinery that lies underneath the plot of this book, for which contrivances Priest is generally acclaimed, the prose alone is of high enough quality to make me want to read more of it.

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I read the third section last night. I thought it was not long, and it wasn’t, although when I had finished I looked back with surprise at how much I had read. This morning, I read through to the end, and again I am amazed by how much that was; the second section, I think, is simply heavier than the later ones, and so feels more like half a book than the less-than-a-third that it truly is.

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The Prestige is not a particularly long novel – under 400 pages, it feels both longer and shorter. Longer, because of the span of time involved and the degree of detail; shorter, because it is so easy to read, and so dramatic. It addresses – my first thought here was to say ‘chronicles’, but that would be misleading in its intimations of direction and completion – a feud between two Victorian stage magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier; central to the story is a pair of similar, perhaps identical, illusions that they perform. Their story is told through two accounts, one from each magician, and is framed by a story of a meeting between two of their descendents.

There can be no doubt that the novel is immensely good. I can muster only four real complaints against it:

–          The framing story is decidely less powerful than the period tale itself. It feels as though there could be much to explore here, but it is not given enough time or attention; furthermore, elements of the framing story would appear to have consequences for the events of the period tale that are not addressed. The back cover drives the ‘effects of their rivalry have affected even the current generation’ angle – but as these are not the children of Borden and Angier, nor even their grandchildren, but their children’s grandchildren, and as there is only the slightest sketch of any events of the intervening century, this impact, which might be thought central to the novel, is greatly watered down, and the events of the ‘present day’ feel more like a coincidence than a consequence; a coincidence that splashes us in the face with modernity as we attempt to immerse ourselves in an alien time.

–          Relatedly, the ending is a disappointment. It was not, by itself, bad; in a lesser book, it would have been brilliant; but it did not live up to the expectations raised either by other readers or by the rest of the novel. It did not so much leave loose ends as leave entirely new and loose beginnings and middles; I don’t understand the point of it in the novel, although as a scene in its own right it was executed superbly. The whole of the book felt like a built-up to some shattering revelation (not of the mere magical kind, but of something dramatic or philosophical), and I felt that there was none, leaving me with a strange, heightened but deflated sensation. Just as Borden’s account by itself could have stood as a novella (and was, I think, the best part of the book, although that is hard to judge), so too this book could, and perhaps should,  have been (or, who knows, might yet be, though it seems unlikely) only the first part of a trilogy.

–          The entry of unmistakable speculative elements is left too late in the novel, and is too sudden, and consequently feels unearned and unfair to the reader. John Campbell once said that it was impossible to write a science fiction mystery novel (which is what this is, at heart, though it is also more than that), because the author would be free to pull out explanations that could not be known to the reader in advance, negating the pact under which a mystery is considered (Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel to disprove this point) – in this case, his concerns are borne out. That the speculative elements – which toy with the appearance of possibility for a moment before leaping into the unsupportable – do not wholly sink the novel, and in the end appear justified, is a credit to the author, but it is also a handicap that the novel has to work to overcome. As a reader used to overwhelmingly fantastical fair, I forgave the author his foibles – but I do fear that many readers used to realism, not given any warning by the cover or by reviews, and lulled into false understanding by the realism of the early parts of the book, may throw down the book in disgust when they realise what is going on.

–          Finally, the book is full of contrivances and concepts that are eye-catching and ultimately unexplored. Fascinating ideas that could have been the basis for a book – some of them ideas that maybe should have been the basis for THIS book – are given no more than a superficial paragraph or two of musing, or even less. Half a dozen books could be written from the bones of this one.

None of these complaints, in the end, stop this from being a truly enjoyable and impressive work of literature. None of them, in that sense, are genuine problems. Rather, they frustrate me, because they serve as hints of what could have been an even better book. I hope that Priest, clearly an enourmously talented writer, is able (or perhaps has been able) to write a book that lives up to the whole of the promise of this one.

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Adrenaline: 5/5. A perfect score does not mean a perfect novel. It means only that I could not ask for more. So, there are probably more thrilling novels than this one – but it is impossible to hold that as a flaw in any way. Repeatedly, my heart was racing, even at things objectively, or in the hands of poorer writers, not that thrilling, and despite a prose style that would never seem, at first glance, to be rousing or fast-paced. Indeed, the writing appears slow, ponderous, old-fashioned. Yet I was gripped; I put it down once, to eat, and once again, to sleep, and not for a third time, save in obedience to nature. I wish I knew how that excitement was accomplished. If I had one complaint on this score, it would be that perhaps the beginning might be a little slow for some readers, but that is a minor issue.

Emotion: 3/5. I was disappointed, in that I had been expecting something more affecting at the end; but I would recommend the book as regards the affective experience. The central characters all feel extremely real, and their pain is empathised with even when they are not entirely sympathetic. It lacks perhaps a knock-out punch, but was continually affecting throughout.

Thought: 5/5. It is true that some ideas are not fully explored; but there are so many ideas! I was puzzling my way through this from the start – not only the simple mystery of how the magic tricks might be performed, but the dramatic mystery surrounding every character (the limited viewpoints cast the motivations and even actions of the other protagonists in shadow, and no viewpoint is entirely candid from the first about their own situation), and the literary mystery regarding the status of the text itself (the accounts of Borden and Angier are texts-within-a-texts, of dubious reliability, and part of the framing story is told in the first person; what’s more, at the heart of affairs lie – or perhaps do NOT lie – some simple secrets that have implications for every other word of the novel). I don’t get the feeling that I’m going to be thinking about this for weeks to come, but my brain was thoroughly taxed as I was reading it.

Beauty: 4/5. The prose is superb, if you care for its style; I do. It is old, and it is sometimes long-winded, but it is never flamboyant, never unclear, never affected. The magic tricks – both those performed by Borden and by Angier, and those performed by Priest – are stunning, and there are many highly cinematic scenes. I score the book down because of the slight disjointedness of its construction, because of the superb but incongruous ending, and because the flight to speculation felt inelegant and unearned.

Craft: 5/5. Again, not perfect – I think the modern scenes could have been improved, and the end more fully integrated – but I could not ask for more. In particular, the whole novel was a magic show – not just with the obvious literary deceptions, but with the continual misdirection, redirection, and reconsideration. Everything is plotted superbly. The prose and the characterisation were likewie exceptional, and even the dialogue was unobjectionable, once allowances are made for time period. In fact, some lines of dialogue in the Angier section do appear quite off – but I felt that this was intentional, as they appeared very much as dialogue will appear when it is written down after the fact by a man with no ear and an eye only for the content. There are few things that are as sure signs of skill as the ability to succesfully replicate artlessness. Also of particular note: at one point, near the end, I laughed out loud in stunned disbelief when the author revealed something that was obvious in hindsight but that I had unaccountably neglected to think of at the time. Not only was it obvious, it was exactly the sort of thing I should have been on guard for, and thought I WAS on guard for, but it still slipped by me.

Endearingness: 4/5. The ‘flaws’ I note above mean that I do not adore this book. In addition, it might be added that although there is much excitement, there is little progress, and although I empathise with all the characters and vaguely like some of them, I never felt the sort of bond that inspires love. I remain, to a degree, detached. That said, it is impossible not to hold it in some high but decorous degree of affection.

Originality: 5/5. I am unable to think of any serious elements in which this was derivative, predictable, or overly familiar. Where I may have predicted events at times, this seemed an intentional characteristic to enhance drama – and even when something seemed familiar or understood, the presence of so many misdirections meant that no safe surety could be felt in any conclusion, even those that proved to be correct.

Echo: 1/2. I confess, I expected more of an impact on reaching the end, but as I have said, it felt more like the first act of something than a stunning-to-the-knees conclusion.

Overall: 7/7. Brilliant. Oh, I know, it could have been better. It’s not the best novel I’ve ever read. I’m not shaken to the core. I’m not going to instantly go out and read all his other books. But… 7/7 does not mean ‘perfect’. This is, I think, at the lower end of brilliance – but it is more than ‘very good’.  Even if I look with a more critical eye at the scores I gave above, and try to mark it down, it is still ‘very good’ at the very least. And as I have not been so critical with the other books I have given my reaction to, it would be unfair to do so here. It’s not the best novel I’ve read, but it’s the best novel I’ve read in the last year. It is a rare thing – a book that is entirely literary (the most snobbish postmodernist could not deny its merit), and yet entirely readable. If you don’t mind the prose (which is old-fashioned, but far more accessible than genuinely Victorian novels), and you don’t mind being confused a little (not by what is going on, for it is entirely clear, but by its significance), I can’t imagine you not liking this book.

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[Incidentally, a strange and heretical thought occurs to me: if I had to compare Priest’s writing to that of anybody else, it would be Isaac Asimov. Bear with me – I know that sounds strange. Asimov’s prose is not usually acclaimed, and it is nothing like Priest’s – in realisation. But where Priest does mirror Asimov (albeit while being a far better writer) is in the aim, the essence, of his prose – clear, sharp, precise, determined not to distract, and functional. It’s a quality much acclaimed in a populist novelist, but Priest is able to use it for more literary purposes. Also like Asimov, Priest’s ‘action’ scenes are not sensationalist, but functional – they advance the plot, and perhaps raise the pulse along the way, but are never allowed to take over. Also like Asimov, the characters are never truly explored – they are sketched out effectively and efficiently through telling details, without really giving much away about what goes on inside them. The result is that we feel we know them, even though we know little about them. And, again like Asimov, Priest centres his novel on intellectual concepts – The Prestige is not an action book, though it is exciting, nor a character study, though it has strong character, nor even really a mystery, though it is mysterious – everything, as in Asimov, has its function in addressing us to The Ideas (not in the sense of, say, Leibowitz, where the aim is thinking itself; Asimov’s, and Priest’s, Ideas are like fireworks or canapes – the aim is more to enthrall and inspire us than to teach us, I think). Priest happens to do every part of this better than Asimov, and he does more around the sides as well; the book is brilliant not because of any overwhelming quality but because it does everything well and most things very well. It may also be that this is not the case with every novel of his – I have so far only read the one! – and it is likely that the parallel comes to mind because I have just read The Caves of Steel. And I certainly admit that it is a counterintuitive connexion. I think it’s an interesting thought, though.

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6 thoughts on “Reaction: The Prestige, Christopher Priest

  1. […] The Prestige – Christopher Priest […]

  2. Paul says:

    Have you watched the film adaptation yet?

  3. vacuouswastrel says:

    No, I haven’t, although I do own it, and I’m hoping to watch it in the near future. I must say, I’m curious – it sounds as though it’s completely different while still being essentially the same.

  4. […] The Prestige, by Christopher […]

  5. pinkbambi13 says:

    Great review and a book I shall be adding to my own reading list.

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