7 August 2017

Before They Were Blockbusters: The Prestige

Edit: This review has been updated on August 8, 2017.

Welcome to the first episode of Before They Were Blockbusters, a whole new series where I review books that became the basis for popular movies and movie franchises. My goal with this series is not to compare the books with their big screen adaptations, but to discover the books behind some of my favourite movies.

First book in this series is The Prestige by Christopher Priest. The book was adapted to the big screen in 2005 by Christopher Nolan. I liked the movie quite a bit, even though I found it a little melodramatic. When I found out that the movie was based on a book, I immediately wanted to read that book. 

So, without further any ado, here's The Prestige

Note, that is a spoiler free review, so if you haven't read the book (nor seen the movie) you have nothing to worry about. 

Title: The Prestige 
Author: Christopher Priest
First published in 1995
I read the 2011 edition by Gollanz
Language: English
Source: I purchased it.

In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another. 
Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other's ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians' craft can command--the highest misdirection and the darkest science. 
Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations...to descendants who must, for their sanity's sake, untangle the puzzle left to them.

The Prestige tells the story of two stage magicians in Victorian England - Alfred Borden, and Rupert Angier, and of their life-long feud with each other. The feud begins when Borden - a young and naïve illusionist, is trying to expose Angier during a seance he is conducting with a bereaved family. From then on, the two equally brilliant, and equally obsessive men will stop at nothing to ruin each others careers. Their feud does not end with their deaths, and is instead perpetuated by their children and grandchildren, surviving way into the present-day.

It is in the present-day England that we meet a young journalist by the name of Andrew Westley, as well as Katherine Angier, one of the last descendants of Rupert Angier. One of the first things we learn about Andrew is that he's adopted, and that the name of his biological family is Borden. We follow Andrew and Katherine as they are trying to uncover the truth about the feud by reading the journals of their respective ancestors. By finding the truth, the two of them hope to shed some light on the traumatic event Katherine experienced in her own childhood, as wells as answering the questions that have been plaguing Andrew his entire life.   

The Prestige is one of the most finely crafted, and cleverly constructed stories I have ever read. In order to fully appreciate the complexity of this story, one needs to try and understand how it is told. I know, I have been thinking about it for a good two weeks now, and I'm still trying to figure it out. A thorough re-read is not that far away. 

The story centres around the three stages of a magic trick - the setup, the performance, and the prestige, or the effect. In fact, once you break the book down into its essential parts, it is constructed like a magic trick. The last chapter is literally titled, The Prestige.

"Let me then first consider and describe the method of writing this account. The very act of describing my secrets might indeed be construed as a betrayal of myself, except of course that as I am an illusionist I can make sure you only see what I wish you to see. A puzzle is implicitly involved." 

So begins Alfred Borden's own journal. And much like Borden, Priest constructs his story so that we as the audience only see what he wants us to see at a given moment. The story is riddled with twists, and shocking revelations but there are clues and foreshadowings placed discreetly and strategically throughout the book. Priest plays a great game of deception by hiding clues in plain sight, and by making you think about what the characters are really saying. 

This is achieved, in part, by having Borden and Angier each tell the story in their journals. As illusionists, there are some things that they cannot reveal, and they end up writing around these secrets, explaining just enough so that the reader won't get lost in their stories. But they also actively deceive their readers - and each other - by withholding simple but crucial facts.
Because we get to read Borden's journal first, and Angier's second, there is a great element of surprise. At first, you're thinking "Wow, that Angier fellow is a really bad guy!", but once you learn his side of the story, you get a more accurate, if not an entirely clear picture of the situation. Also, because their accounts are told in consecutive order, the story reads like a puzzle, and you can't have the complete image, until you have collected all of the pieces. 

One of Angier's many obsessions regarding Borden is the stage trick that Borden performs, called The New Transported Man. Angier becomes obsessed with this trick, as he can't figure out how Borden does it. His quest takes him to America, where he meets with Nikola Tesla in hopes that the genius inventor will build a device that will enable him to create his own version of The New Transported Man by using electricity. 

This is something that I didn't expect, but the part with Tesla is my least favourite in the whole book. This is where the story slows down, as Angier and Tesla are literally stuck in one place for several weeks as they are trying to make the device work. However, this is also the part where we are introduced to the science fiction element of this story. And I love the way the sci fi fits in this world, and how realistic it seems. Let me explain: 

The story takes place in the late 19th century. It's the beginning of the modern era, and electricity is taking the Western world by storm. When Angier goes to the US, he is amazed by how far this country has come in terms of technology. On his way to see Tesla, he meets a salesman, who tells Angier about his vision of the future: 

"He confirms that as we move towards the 20th century there is no limit, no bound, to what we might expect electricity to do for our lives.  He predicts that men will sail the seas in electric ships, sleep in electric beds, fly in heavier-than-air machines, eat electrically cooked food... even shave our beards with electric razor blades! (...) I believe that in this enthralling country, as a new century dawns, anything really is possible, or it can be made possible. My present quest into the unknown heart of this land will give me the secrets for which I hunger."  

While electricity is still considered a gimmick by a lot of people, there are visionaries who foresee a great future with this technology, and Angier's idea fits well within this mindset. This is the time, when people are still discovering the possibilities that come from harnessing electricity, so what Tesla ends up creating doesn't seem that fantastical at all. 

Even though the book is supposed to be science fiction, to me it feels more like a Gothic horror story with science fiction elements in it. Ironically, it is the present-day parts that breathe this chilling Gothic air. The atmosphere here is creepy, and unsettling. The mood oscillates between disorienting, and genuinely scary. It is infused with a sense of unease, as if you're being watched. There are some Gothic horror tropes here, too: the big creepy house with a sole female occupant, a scientific experiment gone horrifically wrong, and the metaphorical ghost of Borden and Angier's feud haunting innocent people. 

The ending itself is very abrupt. There is no real conclusion. We get the final revelation, and then it cuts to black, leaving us with our own imagination to fill in the blanks, and to draw the logical conclusions. It makes you think about what the ending says about the feud and the devastating effects it has for everyone involved.

Both Borden and Angier make terrible life choices; they hurt the people they love, and in a lesser book it would have been very difficult to empathise with them. They're selfish, and vindictive, driven by their obsession with each other. However, by letting us read their journals, they allow us to get an intimate look at the people they really are. It's ironic that they go to great lengths to keep their professional secrets, but they end up revealing so much of their feelings, and insecurities. 

They're obsessive, but their obsession is the dark side of the love and the passion they have for their art. They're also funny, naïve, and painfully vulnerable. These characters ended up growing on me, and when I finished the book I felt like I got to know two very complex people. I felt protective of them, despite all their vices and shortcomings. Most of the time, they mean well, and both eventually admit to themselves how fruitless, and mutually destructive their feud has been. Of course, they never admit it to each other, even though they want to. Their relationship is as complex as they themselves are, and had The Prestige been a hit TV-show, I could easily imagine some fans shipping these characters.

I don't often say that a book floored me, but The Prestige came close to doing just that. This is a beautifully written, masterfully constructed, challenging book, that is full of surprises. 

My rating
Plot: 4 stars
Story: 5 stars
Characters: 5 stars
Language: 5 stars

Average: 5 stars

Well, this has been the first episode of Before They Were Blockbusters.  

You can also read this interview with Christopher Priest, where he talks about The Prestige, and the art of deception in fiction. Or you can follow this link, and learn more about some of the Gothic horror tropes I've mentioned.

For my next review, I have a new book. In fact, this book hasn't been released yet. I had the opportunity to read the advanced readers copy, and it's very... interesting. 

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