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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.

The Prestige

‘You know,’ Carter said, as the cheering faded, hoping this would solve everything, ‘I do love magic. By itself, for its own sake.’

Ledocq nodded. ‘So. If you do a trick and no one notices, does that satisfy? Or is it like a tree falling in the forest without anyone to hear it?’

Carter sighed. His curse in life was to be attracted to people who understood him. With a sip of beer, he said, ‘I feel sorry for that tree.’

I cannot count the number of times I have taken this novel down from a shelf in a book store and then not bought it. For one reason or another, I never made that last trek to the cashier. Since Glen David Gold’s debut novel was first published it has attracted a rake of plaudits and praise. I sometimes suspected this was another one of those popular novels that actually is not all that good, but somehow managed to attract the newspaper literarti. I’m very contrary like that, always plumbing for the obscure over the well known. Turns out I was very wrong.

Gold’s novel is a fictionalized account of events involving real historical persons. President Warren Harding did die suddenly, during an administration notable for corruption scandals and falling public approval. He is still referred to as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. The book’s main character Charles Carter was a popular magician and contemporary of Houdini’s. Gold takes the lives of these two men and intertwines them, effectively ‘framing’, his hero for the President’s death.

For in this revision of history, President Harding attended a performance of Carter’s and after taking part in the show stopping illusion known as ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, returned to his hotel and died only two hours later. The magician flees the scene of the crime, with special agent Jack Griffin in pursuit. The government agent becomes obsessed with the history of his quary and the book skips backward and forwards in time, relating the events in Carter’s life that the search uncovers, as well as revealing his origins as a magician to the reader.

Early in the novel Carter’s first steps as a magician lead him to a fateful encounter in a snowbound house. Still a child, he comes face to face with a madman who captures both him and his little brother James and beats them horribly. Using what he has already managed to learn about escape artists, Carter frees himself and his sibling and rushes to find help – only to be dismayed when no one believes his story. It is a frightening and disillusioning experience for the young boy and his later obsession with illusions seem to indicate a fascination with truth and belief. Magic, he learns, is all about misdirection. The spectacle is designed to exploit human psychology, their willingness to believe what their eyes can see over all else.

Gold fills the books with period details, in keeping with choosing real-life personages such as Harding, Carter and Philo Farnsworth as characters. The early faddishness of psychoanalysis is touched upon, as well as the cult of personality enjoyed by Houdini. Conspiracies and new exciting breakthroughs in technology are revealed. By choosing this period, Gold introduces contemporary readers to an age of wonder, when invention and the need of the status quo to financially control such advances in technology, grappled. Thomas Pynchon brought to light the same conflict in Against the Day and H.G. Welles’ wrote The Open Conspiracy revealing how science could become a tool of control, with the greater public remaining in ignorance of its benefits.

This is a gripping and fascinating historical drama, with thrilling intrigue and murderous plots to keep the pace racing.

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