I was constantly distracted by the knowledge that this magnificent illusion would have at its heart a secret of infuriating simplicity. The central rule of magic always holds good - what is seen is not what is actually being done.
The Prestige (1995), Christopher Priest's tricksy tale of a pair of feuding stage magicians in Victorian England (recently adapted, of course, into a beautifully-constructed film) is a novel of many layers, and one that is impossible to discuss properly without revealing its secrets. Since I don't wish to spoil the surprise(s) for anyone who hasn't read the book (or seen the film), this (like the book) shall be a post of two halves - I'll signal when I'm heading into Plot Twist Land.
The bulk of the story - beyond a few brief present-day episodes, that frame the action, examine the legacy of the feud and provide for a creepy closing image, but otherwise add little of note - is told through a pair of deeply-unreliable first-person narratives, taken from the writings of our two magicians, Borden and Angier. These are arranged as two consecutive chunks of text, rather than as chronologically parallel accounts. Labourer's son Borden's tale comes first; it is a sober, reflective and rather maudlin memoir, composed after (most of) the events of the novel have taken place, around 1903. Upper-class gent Angier's takes the form of a diary, charting his career from its rebellious adolescent origins to its high point - the runaway success of the central magic trick, his version of Borden's 'The Transported Man' (in which he seems to disappear from one part of the hall, and reappear instantly on the other side) - and beyond. The latter, being of the moment, is much more ebullient, full of excitable mood swings:
10th October 1877
I am in love! Her name is Drusilla MacAvoy.
15th October 1877
Too hasty by far! The MacAvoy woman was not for me. I am planning to kill myself, and if the remainder of these pages are blank anyone who comes across this diary will know I succeeded.
Yet neither is quite what it first appears. Angier, we come to realise, repeatedly tears out the more embarrassing or revealing pages of his diary, continually seeking to reshape his past and his identity to present needs - and to justify his increasingly extreme actions in pursuit of the feud. His phrasings are more often than not carefully ambiguous (witness his euphemistic term "the prestige materials" for the abhorrent side-product of his transportation trick), as though he cannot admit the truth even in his most private records. This fits with his impatiently iconoclastic, corner-cutting approach to his trade - leading him to dismiss tradition, seek to steal the secrets of others, and find shortcuts to wealth and success, such as his fake seances. He has no feel for magic:
My weakness is that I never understand the working of an illusion until it is explained to me. When I see a trick for the first time I am as baffled by it as any other member of the audience. I have a poor magical imagination, and find it difficult to apply known general principles to produce a desired effect. When I see a superb performance I am dazzled by the shown and confounded by the unseen.
For Borden, meanwhile, magic is both an artform, and his whole life; he always seeks to push back boundaries and learn new wonders, all the while viewing matters like Angier's seance with contempt. He weaves magical theory into the structure of his account in order to call into question the veracity of everything he says. He compares the act of his writing to the misdirection required when performing a trick: the false display of empty hands, or box, or hat, just prior to producing the trick's object from apparent thin air. It is a display that the audience knows is false, but one it willingly accepts for the sake of being amazed by the illusion - something Borden calls the "Pact of Acquiescent Sorcery".
I say to you, "After all, what would I have to gain by writing a false account, when it is intended for no-one's eyes but my own, perhaps those of my immediate family, and the members of a posterity I shall never meet?"
What gain indeed?
Because I have shown my hands to be empty you must now expect not only that an illusion will follow, but that you will acquiesce in it.
Already, without once writing a falsehood, I have started the deception that is my life. The lie is contained in these words, even in the very first of them. It is in the fabric of everything that follows, yet nowhere will it be apparent.
Yes, all very meta. In reading any book, we enter into a pact with its author - while knowing that, in a work of prose fiction, everything is constructed and controlled by an external agency, we still, willingly, allow ourselves to be caught up in the trickery (if the work is successful, for whatever value of success we subscribe to). In the suspension of disbelief stakes, we seek - and, hopefully, find - consistency in characterisation, plausibility in world-building, dialogue that rings true for all that it ultimately comes from a single person's imagination. It's all pure sleight-of-hand, but we go into each new reading experience wanting it to work. (Unless we're really, really keen on snark...).
Borden and Angier are each other's audiences, ultimately; in their mutual hatred, they implicitly consent to be so, each needing that mirror image to fuel his own ambition even as he deplores everything it stands for.
The pace is unhurried - indeed, some parts of Angier's section drag rather lifelessly - and the tone is not nearly as mannered as I'd expected (expected for no good reason, I suppose, except that every other book set in the nineteenth century these days seems to pastiche its prose style, too). The feud is slow-burning, unfolding over the course of decades - unlike the rapid-fire, slightly overdramatic process of the film version (in which the conflict is launched in a more striking but also rather more morally black-and-white, and thus less interesting, way). Here, the conflict is also less obviously the spearhead of the story, which in written form can afford to be more expansive in its treatment of character and theme - taking more time, for example, to explore how keeping secrets by trade might impact upon one's personal life (both men juggle a string of affairs alongside their troubled family lives). Finally, while the film telescopes the plot into, essentially, two major revelations, the book works by much more subtle means, wrong-footing us consistently rather than abruptly.
[And here we head into spoiler-ville...]
This wrong-footing is integral to the structure of the book, since the unreliability of the narration goes even deeper than is first apparent. It becomes obvious quite quickly that Borden's narration is the work of two individuals - he and his long-hidden brother - who are so absorbed in playing the same role that they can no longer quite tell themselves apart. Yet we also learn, near the end of the novel, that a third hand has interfered: that none other than Angier was responsible for the eventual publication of Borden's memoir - and that it underwent substantial revision:
For a start Borden will be appalled to discover, as he soon will, that what he sees as his greatest professional secrets have been published without his permission. His chagrin will be the deeper when he realises that I was responsible. He will be further confounded when he works out that somehow I was able to do this from beyond the grave. [...] Finally, should he read the annotated text he will discover the true subtlety of my final revenge.
In short, I have improved his text by making it less obscure, by expanding on many of the interesting general topics which he merely adumbrate, by illustrating his absorbing theory of acquiescence with numerous examples, by describing the methods of many of the great illusionists.
This throws everything we thought we knew into confusion (and probably also explains why - as Abigail Nussbaum recently complained - Borden's writing seemed oddly polished and verbose for a man of his education and class). To what extent is Borden's account really Borden's at all? Are remarks like the following really his, or more of Angier's revenge?
Jealousy made my rage worse. IN A FLASH, Angier's catchpenny title for his version of, his damnable improvement on, THE NEW TRANSPORTED MAN, was unmistakably a major illusion, one which introduced a new standard into our often derided and usually misunderstood performing art. For this I had to admire him, no matter what my other feelings about him might be.
The misdirection also takes place on the level of thematics. We are led to look for secrets both by Borden's cryptic statements, quoted above, and by what we know to be the subject matter (stage magic) - so much so that we might easily, like Angier, overlook the obvious (that Borden has a double, his brother, that he signals his technique right from the start in his anecdote about Ching Ling Foo and the glass bowl) in our eagerness to tease out the complex. At the same time, the constant talk of the simplicity and triviality of a magician's secrets is itself a feint, concealing (in Borden's case) the long years of cruel sacrifice and self-discipline that lie behind the trick. The real revelation is not that there are two 'Borden's, or that the solution to the trick is simple - it is that Borden's commitment to his art runs so deeply. This is something Angier realises only late on:
This is not because the premise itself is implausible - after all, my man Cutter had worked it out for himself - but because of the endless ramifications of living with the deception. What about everyday life?
If Borden is not one man but two, and one of the men is always in hiding so that the other might seem to be the 'only' Alfred Borden, where and how is the hiding going on? What happens in the life of the hidden man while he is hiding? How does he make contact with his brother?
[...] what of Borden's wife? And what of his children?
Angier himself, the flashy showman, out for fame, money and the quickest possible route to the top, can barely conceive of such clarity of purpose. In his editing of Borden's account, he admits, he has deliberately made Borden's secret sound even more mysterious - all the while playing up its supposed triviality (this quotation comes from Borden's section, but seems from tone and content to be the sort of thing Angier would have added):
Some years ago, a magician (I believe it was Mr David Devant) was reported as saying: "Magicians protect their secrets not because the secrets are large and important, but because they are so small and trivial. The wonderful effects created on stage are often the result of a secret so absurd that the magician would be embarrassed to admit that that was how it was done."
Angier's own secret - that his transportation is done by creating copies of himself - is even more horrible. Yet it is, characteristically, one that was enabled for him by another's invention, one that is achieved and over very quickly each time, and one which his assistant can help him with when it comes to the grislier aspects ("with a minimum of fuss"). (I assume these copies are dead, or very short-lived, unlike in the film, although I don't think this is ever clear and may be another example of Angier's willingness to leave out the distasteful parts of his story).
Angier himself, meanwhile, gives the impression of losing a grip on his identity, increasingly referring to himself in the third person, and talking of his "transmission" as "a rebirth, a renewal of self". This sense of a double life created through fidelity to secrecy, to such life-shaping deception, is seen repeatedly through the novel: Borden and his hidden brother, Angier and his "prestige materials", Angier and the abandoned lifestyle that comes with his real name - plus, Angier and his limelight-stealing drunken actor double (in an earlier version of the trick), the trend of both men dressing up to infiltrate and sabotage each other's acts, and assistant Olive/Olivia's switching of sides for various reasons. Borden even has twin children. Angier's use of Borden's identity - in the memoir - as a shell to be animated by his own musings on magic is but another example, and perhaps its most striking.
So, then: a slow novel that was expertly pared-down for the cinema, but also an extremely clever one that definitely rewards reflection - even if said reflection almost leads me to wonder whether the whole thing perhaps only exists in Angier's head (which, I suppose, is where the framing story comes in - it at least confirms that Borden really existed...).
Every word I have written here is true, and each one describes the reality of my life. My hands are empty, and I fix you with an honest look. This is how I have lived, and yet it reveals nothing.
I will go alone to the end.
(So says Borden. Or maybe Angier. Argh!)