Monday, March 31, 2008

Christopher Priest

The Prestige
by Christopher Priest
Recommended Age: 14+

I admit I read this book after the movie based on it was released. I didn't see the movie, though. [EDIT: I still haven't seen it.] Judging by the book, I may want to reconsider that. I have always liked creepy movies, the kind that play with your mind. And this book is nothing if not macabre.

The present-day action of the book mainly serves as a frame for the memoirs of two stage magicians who carried on a bitter rivalry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Each of them specialized in an illusion in which he seemed to vanish from one part of the theatre and instantly appear in another. Apart from this superficial similarity, the two illusions were as vastly different as the character and motivations of the two conjurors.

Spurred by lofty ideals, personal revenge, professional jealousy, and finally a kind of paranoid compulsion, the two men attacked each other every time they met, deepening an enmity that began with their first meeting and leading, finally, to the interconnected tragedies that destroyed them both. And beyond that, each man carried a gruesome secret - the secret that made his illusion work - a secret that continues to haunt their descendants to the present day.

You may guess each illusionist's secret as you read this book. In fact, I believe you are meant to figure it out for yourself, well before each enormity is spelled out in plain letters. Enormities they are indeed, these "prestiges," these secrets the two men guarded with their lives.

To explain what a "prestige" was, one of the illusionists wrote in his memoirs about a stooped, decrepit Chinese magician who used to conjure an enormous bowl of fish out of thin air, with no apparent way of concealing it before its appearance. The trick was really very simple: the magician carried the fishbowl under his long, flowing robes, clutched between his knees. Carrying that heavy object between his legs the whole time meant walking awkwardly. The "prestige" - the secret the magician kept his whole life, on and off stage, to safeguard this illusion - was his stooped, decrepit appearance. Actually, the Chinese conjuror was a strong, vigorous man. But he hobbled around like a cripple, even offstage, to keep people from guessing how he managed the goldfish trick.

That anecdote is chilling enough in showing the lengths to which stage illusionists might go to protect the secret of their trademark trick. But it doesn't come close to the "prestige" Alfred Borden concealed, or Rupert Angier's "prestige." The great tragedy is that, under any other circumstances, these two men should have been intimate friends. But when each man inadvertently threatened the other's ghastly secret, they turned on each other, bringing on a series of events that will make your blood run cold. Even when you know how they did what they did - which will blow your mind - the horrors continue to mount as Angier and Borden pay for their sins, and as the awfulness of the price they paid continues to mount all the way to the last word of the book.

My advice: Read this book during daylight hours only. The thoughts and images it conjures may not make pleasant companions during a long, wakeful night.

No comments: