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For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.
I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.
Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline, that fudging of spectacle and the occult.
The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.
Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.
The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.
This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.
Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?
There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.
The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.
Sorry folks, I’ve been incommunicado for several weeks. I am a little embarassed to look at the date stamp on the Shining review.
As far as explanations go, well, Steph and I moved back to Sydney and had a couple of hiccups with our internet service provider. All good now though and I have a backlog of reviews to get to – so time to kick this off once more!
Here’s a photo of Flann O’Brien…for no reason!
Now he was in a room filled with strange furniture, a room that was dark. Snow spattered against the windows like thrown sand. His mouth was dry, his eyes like hot marbles, his heart triphammering in his chest. Outside there was a hollow booming noise, like a dreadful door being thrown wide. Footfalls. Across the room was a mirror, and deep down in its silver bubble a single word appeared in green fire and that word was: REDRUM.
There have been a few ‘crazy Emmet’ stories relayed to me down through the years, given my characteristic enthusiasm for sundry things occasionally bubbling over into manic rants. One in particular my friends back in Dublin found particularly funny. We were working in a book depot in 2001 and this Canadian fellow had the misfortune to express the opinion within earshot of me that Stephen King’s 1997 television adaptation of The Shining was better than Kubrick‘s. My reaction to this pronouncement was somewhat Torrance-like. The original 1980 movie is one of my all-time favourites, and we’ll get back to that below, so consequently I have avoided the book for years for fear of disappointment.
So if I did not enjoy this book, did I experience a similar emotional upheaval to that time in the book depot?
The story concerns a family on the brink of flying apart. Father Jack Torrance is an abusive alcoholic on the wagon who recently lost his job and is in denial about his role in his misfortune. Wife Wendy tries to see past her husband’s many faults, attempting to force the familial unit to stay together through sheer force of will. Their son Danny is disturbed by the tension in the household – he does not know what the word ‘DIVORCE’ means but knows enough to associate it with the dark silences at the dinner table – but he is also cursed with psychic abilities that only confuse his five year old mind more. He has a spirit guide of sorts called Tony, who his parents write off as an imaginary friend (ironic given their rationale for that assessment actually dovetails quite neatly with the spirit’s actual nature) although their concern is growing that Danny’s relationship with the invisible boy is actually evidence of a mental breakdown.
With all the attendant pressures on the family, Jack decides to avail of an offer from an old friend to become caretaker for a hotel during the off-season. Located in snowbound Colorado, the Overlook Hotel has a dark past buried beneath its refined exterior. Jack begins to study the history of the establishment, while Wendy relaxes at the prospect of some small stability for the near future.
Before the staff of the hotel leave for the holidays, Danny encounters a cook named Dick Hallorann, who shares the young boy’s psychic abilities, which he calls ‘Shining’, and passes on a warning about the Overlook’s nature. There are many ghosts in the building, but he assures Danny for someone with the Shining it is just like looking at pictures – they cannot hurt him.
As the months pass and cabin fever sets in, Danny slowly realizes that whatever lives in the Overlook is far more dangerous than Dick told him. His protection from Tony is wavering, Jack is becoming dangerously obsessed with his role as caretaker and Wendy’s denial blinds her to what is happening to her husband. Danny is all alone in the Overlook.
King is a very problematic writer for me. I keep reading his books in the hope of some day understanding his appeal, but it never really clicks for me. Partly because of his choice of protagonists. They are usually tortured artists with drinking problems who are meant to be blue-collar men of the world I suppose, but seem more deluded than driven to me, selfish instead of inspired. The Shining is yet another clumsily sprawling tale that could do with being tightened considerably. It also features possibly the most irresponsible doctor in fiction. So you’ve been beating your son have you? Oh well, I’m sure that’s all over now. What!?
There there’s the run on psychic asides rendered in parentheses, which stylistically does not work at all. For me this writing is not atmospheric, haunting, or scary. It is just a long, drawn out sequence of unpleasant things happening to unpleasant people. Over and over again.
Kubrick nailed it. I should have stuck to the film.