|Genre||Science fiction, horror fiction|
|Publisher||Touchstone, Simon & Schuster|
|LC Class||PR6066.R55 P74|
The Prestige is a 1995 novel by British writer Christopher Priest. The novel is epistolary in structure: that is, it purports to be a collection of real diaries that were kept by the protagonists and later collated. The title derives from the novel's fictional practice of stage illusions having three parts: the setup, the performance, and the prestige (effect).
The events of the past are revealed through the diaries of magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden. The diaries are read by their grandchildren, Kate Angier and Andrew Westley (born Nicholas Borden) in the present day, and diary entries are interspersed with events of Kate's and Andrew's lives throughout the novel. The central plot focuses on a feud between the fledgling magicians, beginning when Borden disrupts a fake seance being conducted by Angier and his wife after having conducted a previous one for one of Borden's relatives (Borden was upset that they were presenting it as real when in truth he realized it was an illusion). During a scuffle, Angier's pregnant wife Julia is thrown to the ground, resulting in a miscarriage. The two men are mutually antagonistic for many years afterward as they rise to become world-renowned stage magicians.
Borden develops a teleportation act called "The Transported Man", and an improved version named "The New Transported Man", which appears to move him from one closed cabinet to another in the blink of an eye without appearing to pass through the intervening space. The act seems to defy physics and puts all previous acts to shame. We learn that Alfred Borden is actually not one man but two: identical twins named Albert and Frederick who share the identity of "Alfred Borden" secretly to ensure their professional success with "The New Transported Man". Angier suspects that Borden uses a double, but dismisses the idea when he cannot prove it.
Angier desperately tries to equal Borden's success. With the help of the acclaimed physicist Nikola Tesla, Angier develops an act called "In a Flash", which produces a similar result through a starkly different method. Tesla's device teleports a being from one place to another by creating a duplicate at the destination, leaving the original subject behind. Angier is forced to devise a way to conceal the original to preserve the illusion. He bitterly refers to these "shells" as "prestiges".
Angier's new act is as successful as Borden's. Borden, in retaliation, attempts to discover how "In a Flash" is performed. During one performance he breaks into the backstage area and turns off the power to Angier's device. The subsequent teleportation is incomplete, and both the duplicated Angier and the "prestige" Angier survive, but the original feels increasingly weak while the duplicate seems to lack physical substance. The original Angier fakes the death of his duplicate and returns to his family estate, Caldlow House, where he becomes terminally ill.
The duplicate Angier, alienated from the world by his ghostly form, discovers Borden's secret. He attacks one of the twins before a performance. However, Borden's apparent poor health and the duplicate Angier's sense of morality prevent the assault from becoming murder. It is implied that this particular Borden dies a few days later, and the incorporeal Angier travels to meet the corporeal Angier, now living as the 14th Earl of Colderdale. They obtain Borden's diary and publish it without revealing the twins' secret. Shortly afterwards, the corporeal Angier dies and his ghostly clone uses Tesla's device to teleport himself into the body, hoping that either he will reanimate it and be whole again, or kill himself instantly. It is revealed in the final chapter that some form of Angier has continued to survive to the present day.
David Langford wrote in a 1996 review, "It seems entirely logical that Christopher Priest's latest novel should centre on stage magic and magicians. The particular brand of misdirection that lies at the heart of theatrical conjuring is also a favourite Priest literary ploy – the art of not so much fooling the audience as encouraging them to fool themselves... The final section is strange indeed, more Gothic than sf in flavour, heavy with metaphorical power. There are revelations, and more is implied about the peculiar nature of the Angier/Tesla effect's payoff or "prestige" – a term used in this sense by both magicians. The trick is done; before and after, Priest has rolled up both sleeves; his hands are empty and he fixes you with an honest look. And yet ... you realise that it is necessary to read The Prestige again. It's an extraordinary performance, his best book in years, perhaps his best ever. Highly recommended."
Publishers Weekly said, "This is a complex tale that must have been extremely difficult to tell in exactly the right sequence, while still maintaining a series of shocks to the very end. Priest has brought it off with great imagination and skill. It's only fair to say, though, that the book's very considerable narrative grip is its principal virtue. The characters and incidents have a decidedly Gothic cast, and only the restraint that marks the story's telling keeps it on the rails."
Elizabeth Hand wrote, "There is a certain amount of grim humor to The Prestige, the blatant Can-You-Top-This? careerism of dueling prestidigitators whose feud is carried out against the lush backdrop of fin-de-siècle London. And the novel provides the pleasures of a mystery as well, as the reader attempts to find the man (or men) behind the curtain, and discover the true parentage of Andrew Westley, who may or may not be related to Borden. But at its core The Prestige is a horror novel, and a particularly terrifying one because its secret is revealed so slowly, and in such splendid language... The Prestige is both disturbing and exhilarating – one closes the book shaken, wondering how it was done; and eager to see what the master illusionist will produce for his next trick."
Adam Kirkman called the novel "vastly underrated... Priest weaves together a tale of two feuding stage magicians at the turn of the century, a dark but mesmerising story that sees two men become consumed with, and eventually destroyed by, obsession. While the film hammers you over the head with clues about the final twist, so much so that you feel embarrassed when re-watching it, Priest's novel is more subtle, although a smart reader is in on the trick from the start. The real beauty of this novel is the characters, who are fleshed out more fully here than on screen, and the magical elements of the story achieve a fantastical, creepy edge. If you enjoyed the film, then Priest's novel is grander in scope and more chilling in nature, and is a gem that should not be ignored."
The Guardian review said, "Behind all the surface trickery lies an intelligent and thoughtful novel about the nature of illusion and secrecy, and about the damage done to those who appoint themselves keepers of such dangerous secrets."
A review in Kliatt of the audiobook version narrated by Simon Vance described it as "a spellbinding and entirely original neo-gothic thriller that moves the listener adroitly from the world of staged illusion to the otherworldly, from the historical...to the horror-laden, with all sorts of strange and dazzling stops along the way. The plot is convoluted and occasionally technical, spanning generations and incorporating multiple narrators and a large cast of characters. A lesser audiobook narrator might inadvertently muddle the story, but, as usual, Vance displays a dramatic and vocal range that is more than equal to his task. He enhances Priest's novel with superb pacing and a host of highly convincing voices and accents."
Awards and nominations
- British Fantasy Award nominee, 1995
- James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner, 1996
- Bram Stoker Award nominee, 1996
- World Fantasy Award winner, 1996
- Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee, 1996
2006 film adaptation
A motion picture adaptation, which had been optioned by Newmarket Films, and which was directed by Christopher Nolan, was released on 20 October 2006 in the United States. It stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as Borden and Angier respectively, as well as Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie. The novel was adapted by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.
References and notes
- Iffergrin, Don (October 2006). "Christopher Priest – Future events". Retrieved 1 March 2007. – Christopher Priest states he created the terms in 1995.
- "1996 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 28 September 2009.
- Langford, David (1996). "Christopher Priest, The Prestige". Ansible. Retrieved 12 July 2013.
- "The Prestige". Publishers Weekly 243 (30): 226. 22 July 1996.
- Hand, Elizabeth (August 1997). "The Prestige". The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 93 (2): 24+.
- Kirkman, Adam (30 March 2007). "Reading for Pleasure: the White Horse Publications Publisher on the Subtleties of Christopher Priest". The Bookseller (London) (5274): 28.
- Clark, Alex (18 November 2006). "Now You See It". The Guardian (London: Guardian News and Media). Retrieved 11 July 2013.
- Levitov, Francine (May 2007). "Priest, Christopher. The Prestige". Kliatt 41 (3): 55.
- "1995 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 28 September 2009.
- "Bibliography: The Prestige". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 11 July 2013.
- Cohen, David S. and Michael Fleming (3 October 2005). "Magic Mojo for Thesp Duo". Daily Variety 289 (1): 1.