Friday, September 23, 2011

The Prestige Becomes A Masterwork

Many people had never heard of the book The Prestige by Christopher Priest until the movie by the same name broke five years ago. Starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale and reasonably well-received by critics, the film treatment of The Prestige inspired people to pick up the book.

But like many of the magic tricks that grace the pages, not everyone was prepared for the original treatment. Priest conjured up this story as epistolary, a series of documents, rather than as an author spinning out an imaginary tale set mostly in Victorian-era England.

His work is more elaborate too, as the story isn't only about two illusionists with a career-long rivalry and obsession for revenge. It's also about their descendents, and how what began as the debunking of a fraudulent seance would eventually spill across generations.

An accidental rivalry between magicians. 

While Alferd Borden had already known the name of Rupert Angier, the fellow magician who would become a bitter nemesis, it was only fate that brought the two together. Angier, who also peddled his craft as a clairvoyant and spirit medium, had paid a visit to Borden's aunt.

Since Borden knew the seance was a ruse, he takes it upon himself to stop the sham, a decision he later regretted but all too late. Angier decides to return the favor, visiting Borden's performances and outing him on stage or, sometimes, even before the show.

He has more cause than Borden might suspect. In proving the seance a fraud, Borden had done much more harm than he ever knew or imagined. But that is part of the mystery that propels the men's hatred well behind rivalry alone. Angier does not want to mess with Borden's life. He wants to ruin it.

The ultimate twist toward pseudo-science. 

Much like his greatest influence H.G. Wells, author Christopher Priest has always been fascinated with the real mechanical and fantastical allure of invention. And in The Prestige, while some people scoff at the pseudo-science behind the magic, it's the thread that ties the book tightly around the ethical and moral consequence when ambition marries science.

Priest makes this complete by bringing in fantastical sciences that might have been pursued by Nikola Tesla. Although later dismissed as a mad scientist, most people today regard Tesla as a genius who rejected any notion that anything was impossible.

Part of the illusion brought into the book is the notion of the wireless transmission of electricity. The other is something much more sinister — a failed teleportation experiment that Angier later brings into his act anyway. But what it actually does, mind you, is better left a mystery.

A hat tip to the talented Christopher Priest.

Born in Cheshire, England, Priest began writing almost immediately after leaving school. He started his freelance career in 1968, going on to write 12 novels, four short stories, novelizations, and near countless other works.

More recently, Priest recently had his newest novel published, The Islanders. The science fiction tale is one of murder, artistic rivalry, and literary trickery. Already out in the United Kingdom, it was published by Gollancz, the same publisher that recently included The Prestige as part of its classic reprint series this year. Another one of his books, The Separation, had also been been included in the Master Words series.

The Prestige By Christopher Priest Appears At 6.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Priest has always enjoyed using the art of misdirection in his novels. He does so expertly in The Prestige, often using point of view and what isn't written in the diaries to make it complete. For those who think of it as falling short (a feeling confined to the States), it never does. It only paints a darker side of human nature with roughness and honestly. And sometimes, we don't want the truth.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest is available at Barnes & Noble. An earlier printing of The Prestige  in paperback can still be found at Amazon. In 2006, Simon Vance voiced the audiobook, which can be found on iTunes. The movie, also made in 2006, is available on iTunes as well. It's a good movie, even if it doesn't include the full force of consequence.
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