Guy Grand is (possibly) the wealthiest person alive. He amuses himself by pranking people. Sometimes they’re relatively harmless and the victim comes out of it slightly embarrassed but unharmed and (sometimes substantially) richer. Sometimes the pranks are vile or disturbing and Guy works to stir the crowds up, leading to riots or mass humiliation. A few are actually clever.
“The Magic Christian” is his ultimate prank. He buys an ocean liner, has it redecorated, and installs a closed-circuit television system. The passengers have a view of the bridge. They can watch their captain. Some people see the captain being struck on the head by a shadowy figure and carried off. They panic and are shocked to find the captain at the bridge, hale and hearty, and not abducted. Over the course of the cruise, the interior of the ship starts to decay. Graffiti appears. Propaganda posters are put up. Food supplies run out and they’re left with only potatoes. When the ship returns to port, it destroys the dock.
One problem I had with the book is that these little vignettes are interrupted by a description of Guy’s afternoon with his two elderly, spinster aunts and a friend of theirs. It’s never quite clear if these outrageous pranks are things he’s actually done, or stories he’s making up while ignoring the inane conversation the old ladies are having.
The book does illustrate how easy it is to buy off some people and how easy it is to manipulate large portions of the population so they immediately jump on the newest trend.
I suppose in 1959 a lot of the pranks would have a greater impact. Living in a world where people eat goat testicles on television to win prizes, or humiliate themselves on camera to be a 10-second clip on a cable comedy show, it’s not shocking. It’s just kind of sad.