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Thursday, November 02, 2006

All the Pretty Fresh Wild Horses: The Prestige, the Novel

So after a false start on Friday night (we ALMOST tried to see Cowboy Junkies a day early, then we ALMOST went to see The Prestige), we actually made it to see The Prestige on Sunday night. Detailed spoilers for for Christopher Priest's novel follow. Some would constitute spoilers for the movie, too, but I'll address the movie in a separate entry.








I have refrained from talking about the novel, partly because I wanted to wait for the movie to see if Christopher Nolan could resolve some of my issues with the text. And I guess he did. Kind of. Maybe. Anyway, I'm going to talk about the novel for a bit first.

There are at least three things up with the novel that I thought of us as problems. First, there was a very poorly worked out present-day framing device. Priest introduces two people, a man who is putatively the descendant of Borden a woman who is a descendant of Angier. The latter summons the former to Angier's manor under lame and confusing false pretenses, only then to reveal that her real reasons are even lamer and more confusing. Basically, she is determined that the Borden/Angier feud, which has raged through generations, will end with the two of them.

The characters are amateurish. The motivation behind the hatred extending beyond Borden and Angier themselves is highly improbable. And, ultimately, these two seem only to exist to set up an ending to the novel that would be laughably bad if one didn't feel genuine pity for Priest whose suddenly, jarringly lurid prose (seriously, you know when Jo March is committing the heinous sin of writing sensational stories to feed her starving, illness-laden family? I now have a clear idea why the Professor wants to save her and a generation of children from herself.) indicates that he thinks this rilly, rilly RAWKS.

The craptacular ending is, kind of, the second problem with the book. Neither the framing device nor the ending stand up to the level of writing in the rest of the book (comprising the two magicians' journals). But worse than that, the ending reveals, at least to me, that Priest failed to decide what kind of book he was writing. In looking back on that entry on The Prestige, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and Carter Beats the Devil, I see that I linked the three as attempts to cross genre boundaries. I'm not so sure that Priest was deliberately trying to do that. I think he either has the attention span of a gnat, a series case of Neal Stephenson's No Endings EVAR disease, or a shitty editor. Or some combination of the three.

Mostly, The Prestige is a piece of historical fiction about stage magicians. Because of the nature of its main characters, it's also a psychological, character-driven novel. Priest is exploring something for which I'm a built-in audience: To be a magician is to be something of a sociopath (Yeah, I know, it's like being "a little pregnant" or "kind of knowing how to drive stick"), to enter every human interaction, every room, every situation and to think "How can I lie to these people? How can I manipulate them? Which lie will be best to tell?" That's ultimately why the outcome of The Illusionist was troubling to me and why I wanted very much to see how Millhauser dealt with Eisenheim's character in the story (he didn't, which was a let down).

In many ways, Priest deals with the sociopathy of Borden and Angier in ways that are interesting. Even in their journals, they are circumspect, loath to commit anything to paper that will limit their ability to deceive. Rather than discussing themselves, they intellectualize the screwed-up lives of other magicians. And somehow seeing the human casualties piling up around them only through these narcissistic media makes the loss more disturbing.

But then there are holes, gaps, and flaws in the writing that are serious enough to call the whole novel into question. For example, Borden's journal ends with him (or one of them, rather) fighting a . . . kind of Angier ectoplasmic emanation or something . . . and dying of fright (I guess that makes me inclined to diagnose him with at least a case of Stephensonism, given that he really is fucking up three separate endings in the books).

And in Angier's portion of the book, he is obsessed with how Borden accomplishes The Transported Man. Everyone tells him: "Dude, it's a double." Angier is convinced that there's more to it. Everyone says: "Dude, repeat after me: 'It's a double'." Despite the fact that Angier is supposed to be . . . kind of simple, really, and is never able to figure out anyone's tricks, he remains insistent. Part way through his journal, he gets validation on this. He comes across a journalist who has been investigating Borden. He insists that there is no double, no twin, no brother. Olivia, likewise, assures Angier that Borden is one man.

As a reader, you're like, "Dude, WTF?" (And given that Priest's universe goes totally wacky shortly thereafter, you start to get really, REALLY annoyed.) And then near the end of Angier's journal, the journalist and Angier cross paths again for no reason at all other than so the journalist can say: "Oh, remember when I told you there was absolutely no double? There was a double. A twin brother, and Borden went to some serious lengths to erase his existence. My bad." It's the worst kind of epistemological cheat and a fatal flaw in fiction.

And speaking of epistemological cheats: Real teleportation by Tesla introduced 2/3 of the way in? Seriously, Christopher, what the fuck? You cannot write 275 pages of a straight historical fiction novel, set in the world in which the reader lives, assuring the reader along the way that there is no such thing as magic, and on page 276 say: Oh, and by the way, physics works differently in my book than in your world." Because once you do that, why shouldn't I assume that there really is no double and Borden is really teleporting or bilocating or whatever during his trick? Why should I assume that I know how anything has worked up until now?

But the real crime that this sudden attack of science fiction commits is that it ends up transforming the type of novel this is a third time. (So, for those of you scoring at home, or those of you reading this instead [FOOLS!], it's gone from a piece of historical fiction to science fiction already.) Rather than exploring the madness of Borden's duality (there is precisely nothing on the relationship between the two Bordens, and in Priest's eagerness to keep things concealed from the reader, we never even have any idea at all of how they negotiate their dual life), suddenly Priest wants to write a horror novel in which Angier has been storing grotesque Prestiges (who might or might not be alive, might or might not be immortal and/or incorruptible, might or might not even be sapient, and oh, might or might not in any important sense be the "real" Angier, but who cares about that, right?), frozen in a twisted position, in the family crypt. And suddenly, after 100 years, they decide to go lurching about the moors after the present-day Borden descendent opens the crypt door. The End.

Seriously, Christopher, what the fuck?

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