Wednesday, June 25, 2008

19. The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The Prestige picture

I am not a big fan of the unreliable narrative or whatever it's called. Christopher Priest writes such enjoyable prose (I might call it modern Victorian, or would that be post-modern?) and his stories so engaging that I excuse him. But it was tough reading this book, because I was constantly weighing my suspicions of the narrative against the very narratively solld (and clever) screenplay of the movie version of The Prestige. It's almost always tough following a movie with the book, but it was especially distracting for me in this case as there are some significant mysteries in the movie that are fully resolved. The story in the book has a lot of differences and I kept wondering whether Priest was going to resolve the mysteries in the book. I had this constant concern in the corner of my vision most of the time I was reading.

All that individual context aside, the story is a really cool one. It's the narrative of a career-long rivalry between two Victorian stage magicians, framed by their modern-day ancestors who stumble upon each other and try to solve the various mysteries their legacies left behind. The world of Victorian stage magic is so richly drawn and the pursuit of the two rivals careers so enjoyable that this part of the book is worth the read alone. The twists, tricks and mysteries Priest perpetrates on the reader (which are not anywhere near as open to interpretation as The Separation thus making The Prestige a much more satisfying read for unsophisticated empiricists like me) are extremely well-crafted (not unlike the stage props the magicians use) and move this book from good to great. Priest is a smart fucking guy and he does his work. I'd love to read about his technique because the structure of his books is so solid, from the whole down to the smallest detail. The Prestige could be annotated (not profusely; maybe a note or two every few pages). It would make for a very interesting read because you know that Priest hides little clues in the tiniest details. Sometimes they are facts in the narrative themselves. Other times, they are textual tricks in the grammar or use of certain words. These "annotables" do not get in the way of the narrative. They just add to the depth of the experience and the feeling that you are in the hands of a real craftsmen. I really enjoyed the movie, but you should definitely read the book first.


Buzby said...

What's unreliable narrative?

Olman Feelyus said...

I think that's the term. It's when you as a reader can't be confident that the narrator is actually reliable. So the person telling the story could be lying or mistaken or confused or not who he or she thinks they are, etc. As a reader you are then not sure about anything.

In The Separation, for instance, the narrator would narrate one thing happening then you would see that same thing happening from the perspective of a different character and it was totally different, making you the reader not sure what really happened. Christopher Priest is into this. Sometimes it's cool, but sometimes it goes too far for me.

Jarrett said...

Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman is a good example of the unreliable narrator. Good definition, Olman.