The Trick Of It

Christopher Priest’s award-winning novel, The Prestige,  is classified as science fiction, although for the first half or so of the book it’s a puzzle as to why. It begins as a piece of solid Victorian melodrama, charting the rivalry between two turn of the century magicians, the ex-working class Alfred Borden, and the ex-aristocrat, Rupert Angier. Both have fallen in love with the spectacle of magic at an early age, and both have thrown themselves into the profession with a passion that is equaled by their difficult financial circumstances. They have a lot at stake, being in it for both love and money. Early in their careers, an incident provokes a bitter rift between them. Borden happens to come across Angier working as a medium, and in his horror of this kind of deception, he unmasks him in the middle of a séance. The reader has to wait a good deal longer to find out why this incident should prove so devastating to Angier (and there is a good reason), but we do know that it triggers a series of acts of sabotage. Angier turns up at Borden’s shows time and again, denouncing the secrets of his tricks to the startled audience. This is only the start of a life-long feud that will have serious consequences on their respective families a hundred year later.

At the heart of the novel lies a fascination with secrets and with doubles. Alfred Borden creates a breath-taking trick called ‘The Newly Transported Man’. He begins by getting into a cabinet, of the kind familiar to anyone who has seen a magic show. Then, he tosses his top hat into the air, the cabinet collapses behind him, and he appears to magically transport himself across the stage to another cabinet, leaning out to catch the hat as it falls. Over time he will add further special effects to this routine by using that recent discovery, electricity. Ruper Angier is obsessed with Borden’s trick because he does not know how it’s done. In his desperation to outwit and to better Borden, he travels across the world to America to track down a mad but inspired scientist, Nikola Tesla, who offers him a dangerous but spectacular alternative to ordinary magic.

It’s hard to say much more without giving away spoilers, and the power of the book resides in the lure of the secret and the desire to crack it. But the novel veers between realistic solutions to the secrets and fantastic ones, and I have to say that in doing so, it rather lost me. How I would like to say I loved this novel! It is very clever and tricky, and the different stories of Borden and Angier, framed neatly by stuggle of their present-day ancestors to understand what happened in the past, intertwine with each other beautifully. But the point about magic, for me, is that something extraordinary appears to have happened, only the solution to it is almost disappointingly mundane. Priest creates a far more exciting, lurid and startling story than that. But it relies on the intrusion of the fantastic, in other words, something that the reader cannot know for sure is possible – most frequently seen these days in the form of the vampire. I’ve looked online at reviews and everyone, but everyone loves this book. I’m the only person I can find to have their doubts, and those we must put down to purely personal taste. I don’t mind the fantastic at all if I know from the outset that it will appear, but after reading three-quarters of a realistic novel, it’s arrival put me off. Once my mind had registered the thought, ‘oh but that can’t really happen…..’ I was half out of the story, and even though the end was very gripping and clever, my heart wasn’t in it.

I also found the early stages of the novel a tad dull. After the brief opening frame, we are recounted the story of Alfred Borden by means of his notebook. And then we get Rupert Angier’s diaries too. Once again, out of purely personal taste, I’m less keen on the diary as a narrative device. Also, having just finished a Victorian sensational novel before moving onto this one, I couldn’t help but notice the differences between what contemporary novelists write as Victorian pastiche, and what the real thing actually sounds like. That slightly stilted, pedantic tone exists only in the mind of the contemporary novelist. This book reminded me overwhelmingly of Iain Pear’s great tombstone of a novel, Stone’s Fall, which was again a narrative of slightly tedious verbosity that built up to very clever tricks of plot, leaving one to wonder whether the wait was really worth it. The Prestige is probably the better novel of the two, though.

But I feel churlish! Objectively, I can see this is a very good novel. And if you like magic and magicians and the fantastic and a little mild horror thrown in, you should really try it. Plus, the greatest compensatory factor for me was how interesting Priest is about the whole issue of duality. Go read it for yourself! Don’t let me influence you unduly on this one.

21 thoughts on “The Trick Of It

  1. I was half way into your review and thought the exact same as you thought when finishing the book… This would not work for me. When I finished reading I realized I had seen the movie. I loved it… It’s beautiful and everythig that might not work in the novel, works very well in the movie.

  2. I’m one of those who loved this book and I also loved Stone’s Fall, but I am a big fan of clever twists.

    I normally have a problem with unrealistic additions to books, but I felt that Priest made it all seem plausible. He used real science to explain why it could have happened and he made it seem realistic to me.

    I enjoyed watching the film, but it was much less complex and I felt that they’d cut out some of the best bits. I recommend watching The Illusionist instead – I seem to remember they are very similar, but The Illusionist sticks to the possible.

  3. I don’t think you’re being churlish. I am a fan of sci-fi, etc and I thought this novel simply wasn’t as good as it could have been. Also, the ending was embarrassingly bad!

  4. I thought the film didn’t work for the same reasons you describe the book not quite working … it seemed to start as one thing, and then I was like, “So … there’s supernatural stuff happening? Really?” Then again, my eye-rolling threshold is very low. I’d considered reading the book to see if it might be better, but I’ll skip it and go back to what I’m really enjoying right now, which is everything Dorothy Whipple ever wrote. I am now her biggest fan.

  5. Litlove–I suspect my reaction might be like yours, but of course I can’t be sure unless I have a go. But what is most interesting to me is how you contrast the Victorianish contemporary novel with an actual Victorian novel. Food for thought.

  6. I have seen the film ‘The Prestige’ and loved it. I actually didn’t know that it was originally a novel, so thanks for reviewing this.

    Even though you weren’t too sure about the book, I’d be interested to read this to see how it differs from the film.

  7. I did like the book a few years ago, but I’d already seen the movie, so the Victorian ending wasn’t unexpected. The modern one was though and I found that part a bit unsettling and weird. I would have liked it better if it had just been the Victorian story, you’re right, it could have had a better ending. Also right that Victorian historical novels often aren’t quite like the real thing somehow — perhaps some of them are trying to show up the Victorians and show how much cleverer they are with postmodernism, to incorporate so much more than just a standard plot that tells an exciting and moving story?

  8. “That slightly stilted, pedantic tone exists only in the mind of the contemporary novelist” — exactly! That’s why I so seldom read pastiche. It’s usually so poorly done. Patrick O’Brian, to my mind, gets the 19th century just right (in dialogue) and that’s almost where it ends.

  9. I was so sure I was going to like the film of The Prestige, and I didn’t at all. It was just what you said, the intrusion of the fantastic on a realm where you don’t want real magic. I was disappointed with the resolution of the film, when it could have been so cool, and that’s why I never picked up the book. And probably won’t, to be honest… Stage magic is stage magic, and science fiction is science fiction, and I do not like overlap.

  10. Isn’t that interesting! So many movies are actually based on literary sources. I’ve seen both The Prestige and The Illusionist, both came out in 2006, both about magicians and trickery. I’d enjoyed The Prestige for its technical fare (what do you expect from Christopher Nolan?), and The Illusionist for its emotional and human dimension (a marvellous cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel). While The Prestige is based on a novel by C. Priest, thanks to your post now I know, The Illusionist is based on a short story by the Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Milihauser. Seldom though do we read posts that actually review these literary sources for popular movies. Thanks for the in-depth write-up, litlove.

  11. I wouldn’t like it if fantastic elements were introduced that far into the book. It seems that you’ve set your mood by then, and it’s fatal to change it. This book wouldn’t be for me anyway, since I’m not much into magic and the fantastic.

  12. Hmmm…guess it wouldn’t have occurred to me to read the book having seen the movie and having fallen momentarily for its “pop” effect. The best thing about it, overall, was the reference, though clunky and “off”, to Tesla. (This household is fascinated by Tesla and always interested to see/find mentions of him.) Yet it wasn’t quite right.
    Ah, well, I greatl appreciate this review because I need to “stretch” in my reading yet don’t want to wade through “faux” Victorian language (oh, that’s irksome to me, when people write the way they think Victorians spoke, with children all polite and distilled, etc.).
    Nope, you’re not churlish. You have informed us while also saving some of us from a long trek with just not quite the right reward – heck, we do that everyday at work. Yet it keeps us coming back, hoping that it will be all good, all right the next time.

    So I will now return to my sure “quick” winner: a mystery called “Murder on the Eiffel Tower.” I know; it’s mind candy. However, it’s loaded with wonderful World Exposition detail, which I’m eating up!

    Looking forward to what you have next up on the “read” list!

  13. Hmm, at first I thought this sounded like a ripping good book, but then you didn’t really like it in the end and from the comments many others didn’t like it so much either so now I’m thinking I might have to skip it. Plenty of other things to read! 🙂

  14. I can’t remember if I’ve read this, which is probably telling in itself. Christopher Priest is my favourite science fiction author. It’s all he wrote for a long time, and I found all his books engrossing, disturbing and amazing. The kind of science fiction that uses the genre to say something about human nature and the way we think and feel and perceive. Then he moved in slightly other directions, not necessarily strictly definable as science fiction (but once a writer is well known for something, his books tend to get sold and shelved under that category willy-nilly, which really annoys me. I’ve noticed some of Henning Mankell’s definitely not crime novels shelved in the crime section) and some of that was terrific too (The Separation). I think I must have read the back cover of this one and decided it was not for me. My favourite of his novels is the Dream Archipelago.

  15. How odd! His website describes The Dream Archipelago as a book of short stories. Not what I remember. But I do remember how much I loved it, and how much it captured my imagination. Also The Glamour.

  16. Caroline – I saw the movie in the dvd store and considered getting it for my menfolk. But then I didn’t in the end. After that, I discovered it was a novel, and decided to read it. Maybe I should have gone for the movie in the first place? Well, but this was a good book, just not a great one for me.

    Jackie – The Illusionist is new to me – I’ll certainly look it up. I suppose I struggled with the science in The Prestige because I knew it wasn’t possible to use electricity in that way. But reading is an odd process, and maybe on a different day or in a different mood, I could have suspended disbelief better. I will certainly grant you the clever twists in both this and Stone’s Fall – I thought they were the best bits!

    Colleen – I must admit I’m relieved to read your comment! All the reviews I saw of this book were very laudatory, and I really thought it was just me!

    David – I am right with you as far as Whipple is concerned (I’ll be in the queue for fandom, right alongside you), and just delighted that you are enjoying her novels. How I laughed at your comment about eye rolling – my threshold is fairly low, too!

    Lilian – I’ve often thought that contemporary Victoriana can be a bit stilted, and it was only after reading Lady Audley’s Secret that I realised how different the quality of the prose is. It’s true there is a different cadence to 19th century language, but it doesn’t quite translate to that slightly precious tone you sometimes get in modern historical novels. I feel for historical novelists, though – it must be SO difficult to get that right!

    Karen – if you loved the film, I would certainly urge you to give it a go. It’s a good book really!

    Carolyn – having read your blog, I think you must have been reading Possession when you wrote your comment! It’s a good case in point of pastiche that is brilliant in places and not quite right in others. Alfred Lord Tennyson, for instance, was much easier to read than Byatt’s approximation of him. But I am more intrigued to see the film of this now that so many people have said they liked it.

    Jenny – I have never read any Patrick O’Brien, being unsure of the boat element in his work (not something that hugely appeals). I will have to get Mister Litlove who adores boats to try him and read me out the good bits.

    Jenny – well, that is exactly how I feel. It was the reveal of the real magic that kept me intrigued, because those secrets are good enough on their own, I feel. It’s very nice to find blogging friends who felt the same way about the story!

  17. Arti – and thank you for the in-depth information about the films! Now, of course, I can’t decide which to watch, although I think we should see both in time.

    Dorothy – you’ve put your finger right on it. My mood was set and so it seemed an unnecessary change of direction to me. And yes, if you’re not keen on the fantastic (and I only like it under certain circumstances), this is not quite the book to add to the tbr!

    oh – I am all for brain candy! And I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the book, as I’ve seen the series around and wondered if the books were good. And I’m delighted if I have saved you the trouble of reading something. Book blogs are wonderful for that, no? I’m sure I have found many more books and wisely put aside many others that I would never have been so well informed about otherwise. I didn’t know that Tesla was a real person – I wondered, but of course it’s not made clear. I shall have to look into him.

    Grad – lol! Maybe it was a bit of both….:)

    Stefanie – I’m surprised to find so many people here who didn’t get on with it. I promise you that ALL the reviews I looked at (and they were all science fiction blogs) really loved it. It is a good book, really it is. If you run out of books at any time, you might still consider it! 🙂

    Jean – I’m really interested to hear that about Christopher Priest. I felt The Prestige was well-written and very cleverly plotted, so I can quite believe that he is a wonderful writer fundamentally. I think I should definitely give him another go. Thank you for the suggestions – I shall certainly look into them!

  18. I thought they made a movie of this one but the plot in the book and the one in the movie sounds quite different. I know the movie was very clever and kept me guessing until the end.

  19. I’ve not read the book, but I did see the movie and I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the ending completely baffled me. Now this was years ago so I don’t actually remember the ending, but I do know I went back numerous times to try and figure it out and read reviews of the movie for help in getting some sort of explanation. I wonder if I ever did… I should also not admit this maybe, but I really like Victorian pastiche. Some is definitely better than others but I like the feeling of immersing myself into the place and period. I know it doesn’t work for a lot of people, but in the hands of someone like Sarah Waters it can be very good.

  20. Just wanted to note that I really liked both book and film (which I saw before reading). I suppose since I knew there was “real” magic going on in the movie, I was expecting it all along in the book, so mood or expectations were never a thing for me. Also, I shamelessly enjoy Victorian pastiche.

    I was really impressed with Priest though and went on to read another of his novels, Inverted World. Fabulous science fiction (which I don’t read a lot of). Highly recommended. Have had The Affirmation on the shelf for a while now too and your post has actually made me want to read it.

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