This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.
I need to be careful discussing Christopher Priest’s The Prestige (1995). This is one book where any detailed discussion of the plot risks spoiling a first-time read; it’s not so much a whodunnit as a howdunnit.
The novel concerns two 19th century stage magicians, Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden, whose bitter rivalry has tragic consequences that still reverberate a century later. This is a class as well as personal struggle, in that the former comes from an aristocratic background and the latter is working class. The plot focuses on a particularly spectacular illusion developed by Borden, in which the conjuror appears to be in two places almost simultaneously, and on Angier’s desperate efforts to emulate this, which have extremely strange results.
The narrative begins in the present day, with a reporter, Andrew Westley, discovering, while investigating a Californian religious sect, the Rapturous Church of Christ Jesus, that he may be a descendant of Alfred Borden. This opening section is a little contrived (it is omitted, along with the entire contemporary strand of the narrative, in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film); and the religious cult is something of a red herring, although the rumours that its erstwhile leader had the gift of appearing in two places at once is a significant clue as to what is to come. The theme of doppelgangers is introduced early on with the adopted Andrew Westley’s strange conviction, in the absence of any evidence, that he is one of a pair of identical twins.
You might say it’s a theme of re-doubling: there are two protagonists simultaneously at war with and aiming to emulate each other, and each protagonist appears in the course of his stage work to split himself into two.
Priest’s handling of the theme is, in effect, a brilliant conjuring trick in itself. Throughout the narratives that follow – that of Borden, of Angier’s great-grand-daughter, and of Angier himself – there is concealment but no deception. That is to say, the only thing preventing the reader from guessing what is actually going on is the author’s cunning manipulation of his/her attention; but the clues are all there in the narrative. As Borden’s narrative asserts near the outset: “Already, without once writing a falsehood, I have started the deception that is my life.”
In other words, there is no actual “magic” involved. Just as the contemporary stage illusionist Derren Brown insists, while emulating the feats of self-professed mediums and mind-readers, that he has no occult powers and his tricks are just that – tricks – so Priest does not stray into the territory of supernatural fantasy to account for the events he describes. However, at the risk of splitting hairs, he does venture into science-fiction. Rupert Angier invokes the help of the (real life) scientist and pioneer of electricity, Nikola Tesla, in trying to emulate his rival’s illusion “The New Transported Man”; and the technological solution arrived at is, shall we say, an imaginary technology.
That said, the trickery is all in the deception that constitutes fiction itself, whether dealing in fantastic or realistic content. It is the very deception that troubled Daniel Defoe’s Protestant conscience right at the start of the novel’s development – and which still causes some to mistrust fiction today. It’s the trickery of making stuff up.
Along the journey towards the rather terrifying dénouement, Priest inserts sly jokes and fancies. One that amused me, as a fellow Hastings resident, was the introduction of a character called Robert Noonan as an amateur conjuror and early mentor of Alfred Borden. Robert Noonan was in fact the real name of Robert Tressell, a famous Hastings denizen and the author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
But on the whole, though multi-dimensional, The Prestige is not a baggy thing: it is plot-driven and tautly plotted at that, and it is this, rather than its fantastic content, that drives it in the direction of genre. All the more remarkable then that it won, not just the World Fantasy Award but also the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. I shall have more to say about the fraught relationship of genre and “mainstream” fiction in my summing-up.
Two more things to say here. First, the title. Within the novel, this is explained as being the third and final stage of a magic trick. The first is the setup, in which what is about to be performed is explained, and sometimes the audience invited to inspect the apparatus. Then the performance. And finally the effect, or the “prestige”: the rabbit appearing from the hat “can be said to be the prestige of that trick”.
In an interview, the author has subsequently claimed he invented this. Far from being a word used by magicians for centuries, he says, “its use as a magical word only goes back to 1995. I made the whole thing up. It has entered magicians’ language already.”
He claims he was searching for a title to follow his previous successful novel, The Glamour, and because “prestige” seemed close to “prestidigitation” the coincidence (he was already planning a book about magicians) was too good to miss, and therefore he deliberately redefined the word.
But when I went to the first dictionary to hand, a 1972 edition of Chambers, I found “prestige” already defined as “n. orig. a conjuring trick, illusion; glamour…”! So there’s a bit of double-bluffing going on here. It’s probably truer to say that Priest has subtly shifted the meaning to refer exclusively to the outcome of the trick; which has a particular and horrid relevance at the outcome of the plot. I can’t say more for risk of spoiling.
Last, the film. It has a stellar cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johannson, Michael Caine, Andy Serkis and a well-disguised David Bowie as Tesla. Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter, his brother Jonathan, have completely reconstituted the plot to suit the particular illusionistic possibilities of film. It’s worth watching, but if you haven’t seen it yet, read the novel first.
Next episode – Discussion & conclusions