The Prestige (1995) by Christopher Priest

ThePrestigehardThis is cruel, violent, unexplained, and almost certainly illegal. It has blighted my own life (121).

I have seen [his] new illusion, and it is good. It is devilishly good. It is the better for being simple (194).

 I still do not know how [he] works that damnable illusion (205).

 

I am at a loss for how to review The Prestige. I have started and restarted this review a dozen times, delayed posting it, rewritten it again. It’s not that it’s difficult to describe: epistolary collage, dueling protagonists, unreliable narrators, metafictional misdirection… all that fun stuff to think about. Page magic about stage magic, the self-awareness so loud and clear, with bells on. There I go with my highlighter when he talks about intrinsic secrecy and puzzles and the Pact of Acquiescence. I smirk along with him when he splays and rotates his hands while speaking of misdirection. As if I’m on stage with him, as if I’m the volunteer, as if I’m in collusion with the master. As if I won’t get fooled.

So I take notes during the setup, mark pages during the performance, and it’s possible I’ve got it all figured out—a dozen different ways, mind you—and then on the last page I’m left blinking and stunned as the curtains go down.

“Wait, what?” That’s what I said when it happened. “What!?”

Shame on me. I didn’t read carefully enough. Was it I who didn’t get it, or me?

So I review, flip around, possibly reread. The best part of the reread, besides oh everything, is that the whole time these dueling magicians spend the book trying to figure out how the other one does it, I spend the whole time figuring out how Priest does IT.

Not only how he does it, but what exactly IT IS.

A perusal of online forums about the ‘twist’ in The Prestige, besides being mostly unhelpful because they usually focus on the movie, indicates that even the most fervent fans develop a conclusion just short one step from mine. Either that, or they’re so in awe of the reveal that they can’t even bring themselves to directly state it in a spoiler-laden forum. Because if ______ means ______, and _____ means ______, and he was _____, then that means ______, too.

Right?

It’s that last fragment I can’t find explicitly stated anywhere.

And this is where I’m stuck. How to share my own conclusion without spoiling it for future readers? For as much as I believe in expiration dates for spoilers—in fact, I prefer spoilers in some cases—The Prestige ‘twist’ is a different class of spoiler. This ain’t no dumb card trick, it is absolutely intrinsic to the experience, so I feel loyal to the magician’s code.

But most important are the methods Priest employs to misdirect the audience. On first read, consciousness of my confusion in certain scenes and consciousness of his threat of misdirection never coalesce into an understanding that the latter is causing the former simply because Priest pulls my attention elsewhere, before my alarm bells go off. And once I’ve reviewed enough of the text to confirm the truth, I realize it’s not all that shocking because I’ve been subconsciously aware of the fallacies the entire time.

It’s an incredible piece of story engineering, and impressive, this sixth sense Priest and others like him have about readers and where we focus, what distracts us, and what we notice at the conscious and subconscious levels. As much as I desperately want to shout out my solution to the puzzle, I prefer to let future readers wrestle with his sleight of hand, to allow them to be tricked into acquiescence, to chase after literary questions: How does a writer predict where their audience will be lost? How does an author know which confusions readers won’t bother to hunt and hitchhike on? How does a writer know when the reader hasn’t possibly had enough Starbucks to get it?

I promise to keep my mouth tightly zipped*… I will go alone to the end (188, 346).

 Couch House
17/12/15
12:00 p.m.
0g

 

*Except for in the comments. You’ve been warned.

 

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38 thoughts on “The Prestige (1995) by Christopher Priest

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    That good? Okay, I’m reading this soon. Very soon.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, yes it is that good. Yes, you should read it. It’s #1 on my best books I’ve read since I started reviewing (which, OK, isn’t as many books as it should be but is still quite something).
      There are actually several twists in the book, including one that makes you feel clever (“ha! that was the twist! oh, it’s twisty, but I saw it coming!”) and one that makes you feel stupid (“wait, WHAT? *frantically re-reads previous 50 pages*”). I was reeling for much of it. What impressed me most, though, was not the cleverness, but that it was such a well-rounded book. It’s really clever, it’s really well-made, it’s original, it’s likeable, it’s really powerfully visual (it was crying out for a film adaptation*), and surprisingly (for such a good, literate book) it’s also really exciting, at least in places. The only fault I could put to it, other than the maybe weak and underdeveloped framing story, was that it didn’t really pack a big emotional punch, compared to its other virtues, but it’s not exactly frigid either.

      *which is, btw, a really interesting and startling adaptation – a better adaptation than it is a film, though it’s not a bad film. But the way they’ve adapted it is really appropriate to the book: they keep many elements, and are true to the spirit of the book, while changing a lot of details, and changing the order in which things are revealed to the reader. It’s an order of magnitude more thought behind it than goes into most film adaptations. Read the book first, but the film is worse catching at some point.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    I love Priest (great review). I will read this eventually… I think you’ll enjoy The Affirmation as well. The Affirmation doesn’t have the same type of misdirection, you see the move coming, in the two worlds (shadows/reimaginings of each other) a character (a version of the same character) writes the other world as an effort to understand himself…. so both worlds have the “same” character writing the other…. and there’s a whole lot more. So good 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds great. I loved Inverted World and now I want to read all of his books.

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      • The Affirmation is maybe a better book than The Prestige. I rated it lower overall because it’s less rounded, but what it does, it does well. Don’t, however, read it if you have any concerns about mental health! There are lots of books about mental illness, but few that are as succesful in infecting the reader with some sense of the madness of the character – it really shakes you up, I found.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Joachim Boaz says:

          Less rounded? (sorry for the late response but I was thinking about Priest’s novels again and reread this review)

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          • What I meant was that I found that The Affirmation did one thing, but did it very well. The Prestige, on the other hand, did a lot of things very well – it worked in more ways. It was more emotional, more exciting, more mysterious – strip out all the deep themes and complicated tricks, and you’re left with still a basically engaging story, whereas I’m not sure that’s true with The Affirmation.
            Put it this way: if I were recommending one of these books to a random person, an intelligent reader but whose precise tastes I wasn’t sure of, I’d pick The Prestige. I find it easier to imagine someone not having The Affirmation ‘click’ with them than with The Prestige – and if you don’t love The Affirmation, it’s harder to imagine enjoying it anyway, whereas I can imagine people saying about The Prestige “it’s not really my sort of of thing, but I guess it was an OK read anyway”.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Ah…

            I adore The Affirmation — and most of his earlier 70s novels + short stories. The trick IS the story and the story IS the trick in The Affirmation for sure — they are wedded in the most delectable manner to each other.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Which works well. But if you don’t like the trick, that means you probably won’t like the book. Whereas with the Prestige that’s only a problem if you HATE the tricks – there are still other ways to enjoy that book.

            Or to put it more straightforwardly: both books were intellectually stimulating. But in The Prestige, I was also excited by the action and engaged by the plot and had a stronger sense of the characters.

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          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Have you read his short story “The Head and the Hand” (1972)? Umm, it’s intense. Will have a review of his collection Real-Time World (1974) up soon. But, “The Head and the Hand” reminded me of the theatrically of The Prestige. Although, it’s about someone who amputates his own body…

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          • I’ve not read any of his stories yet – just The Prestige and The Affirmation (and I’ve got The Separation for when I get around to it).

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          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Ah, I recommend his short fiction 🙂

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  3. Warstub says:

    I guess, what I want to know is, does the book have the same twist as the film? Yes/no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • From what I can tell, the film twists it up a bit more, and possibly has, somehow, obfuscated that particular fragment that I feel is really obvious in hindsight.

      I never saw the film, and from what I’ve seen in online discourse, I don’t think I want to see it because I’m afraid I will confuse it with my memories of the novel and might influence my interpretation of events.

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      • Jesse says:

        I’ve read the book and seen the film. They are different, but the same. Nolan does a great job of hitting the personality differences and tension between the “2” main characters, and chooses to focus the climax on on the twist – the twist that Priest casually introduces halfway/two-thirds of the way through the book. I consider the novel the richer, deeper experience, but the film is still damn good. As long as you don’t consider the novel a sacred cow, the film is worth watching. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are great.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You make me want to see it, and it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve nudged me toward the screen, but as I explained to Chris below, I enjoyed the novel so much, I’d rather keep it pure in my head.

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        • I think what the Nolans did (and apparently it took them 5 years to write that screenplay) was ask “what would Priest have written if he’d written this as a film instead of as a book?” rather than just “how can we squeeze this text into the running time of a film?” So they lose the literary dimension, but try to find ways to produce a similar effect visually instead. Priest (who took a big gamble giving the rights to Nolan, then unknown, rather than Sam Mendes, who wanted to make it straight after American Beauty) was apparently very impressed by the result – it feels like a Priest film.

          It’s not as good as the book, though.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Nolan wasn’t completely unknown — he had just made Memento — (or wait, that was 2000, which means, did he give the rights over before or after Memento came out?) and I suspect elements of that film appealed to Priest?

            That said, I echo what others have pointed out, I too enjoyed the film. And, it doesn’t feel much like Priest BUT, it is absolutely watchable and before Nolan went in directions which were much less appealing to me (Inception, etc.).

            Liked by 1 person

          • It seems there are two stories. Wikipedia, based on Nolan’s story, says that Priest liked Following and Memento and arranged for Nolan to read the book, after Memento had launched at festivals and in Europe, but while they were still unable to get it shown in the US (it debuted in the US a year after its debut in Europe). Priest, however, says that it was Nolan who liked the book and approached Priest, sending a man on a motorbike to deliver a copy of Following (not Memento), begging him not to give the rights to Mendes until he’d watched the film and imagined what Nolan could do with an actual budget.

            Either way, it all happened as Memento was coming out, either immediately before or after, and before it was Oscar-nominated. At that point, Nolan had one zero-budget film to his name, plus the impressive but relatively niche Memento just coming out.

            Apparently Priest loved the adaptation (saying ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ at points), and also really likes Memento, and presumably Following. But he hates Nolan’s later films. Which seems fair to me, although in Priest’s case it seems mostly motivated by the belief that anything involving superheroes is inherently garbage that corrupts the soul of all those who touch it…

            Liked by 1 person

          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Ah, thanks for the background. It would have made more sense if Priest had seen Memento for sure…. Especially as it became a critical and cult hit.

            Liked by 1 person

    • As Jesse says, the film’s big twist is halfway through the book. The book has other twists too, some of which are also in the film.

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      • Thanks for commenting! Looking back now, I think I’m starting to classify one of those twists as an ‘untwist,’ considering Priests leads us to think one thing, then something else, and then back. Very interesting.

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  4. Kat says:

    I watched the film a few years ago, and never new it was adapted from the book until now. Considering how good the film was, I’m desperate to give the book a try—see if the book really is better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kat! Priest’s work is just so compelling and tricksy, I think his novel is well-worth the read. I’m not sure if seeing the movie beforehand will spoil some of his moves, but I bet it will still be enjoyable to experience from behind the curtain.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yup. Gotta read it now. And then argue with you about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Anton says:

    I read it years ago, and I don’t remember being awed, but also don’t remember hating it. Sadly, it is the only book of Priest’s I’ve ever been able to finish.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The movie was a pretty neat trick, there were gasps in the audience on opening night when some of the twists were revealed. I can only imagine how much better the book is, and I say that having really enjoyed the film…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I considered watching the movie during the holiday break, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold both versions in my head without confusing then. I enjoyed Priest’s original so much, I’ve decided to keep it pure. Plus, I’d rather read.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t usually recommend SFF movies that originated as books, but The Prestige would be one of the few exceptions. Then again, I haven’t read the book, so I may end up complaining about how watching the film first ruined the perfection of the original novel…

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s really high praise for a movie, but it’s hard enough for me to keep Priest’s sleight-of-hand straight in my head. Plus, that’s two hours I don’t want go spend in front of the TV (says the woman who just watched two episodes of Peep Show– BUT THAT HARDLY EVER HAPPENS AND WE’RE SNOWED IN!).

          Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Clearly, The Prestige pulled a disappearing act here. I’m not crazy about any of the novels on this list, but if I must rank them: […]

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  9. Okay, I have to ask: what is IT? I’m dying to know if your theory of what the big twist is is the same as mine, and if not, if yours is better. (I won’t say mine now, in case you’ve changed your mind about allowing spoilers in the comments.)

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    • Oh dear, I’m not sure if I even remember now? I know my theory had to do with the little boy being killed in the machine at the beginning, so I think my thinking was something along the lines of “he was dead the whole time”? Ugh, I’m horrible at remember these things. What did you think? Maybe it will jog my memory (or I’ll like your theory better and pretend that’s what I thought the whole time 😉

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      • My theory actually involves three twists. (Spoilers follow, obviously.)

        1: At the time of the book’s frame story, Angier (the magician who visited Tesla) is still around, having lived a ghost-like existence since the other magician interfered with his trick. (Reading the Wikipedia entry, it seems I overlooked an event relating to this, although I was right about Angier still being around.)

        2: The extra bodies left behind by Angier’s machine are not dead, but live on in a sort of half-life, so the duplicate Angiers at the end of the book are all half-alive.

        3: The twin brother the frame story’s narrator was convinced he had is actually his half-alive duplicate, produced when he was subjected to Angier’s machine as a boy.

        Does any of this jog your memory?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, yes that’s it! #3 is the one that brought it all home for me, but it didn’t occur to me until the end of the novel bc I’d forgotten all about it. I love how simple yet complex it all is.

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