September 18, 2006

The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre

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Novels have several examples of noteworthy opening lines. There are those so lyrical and profound, they are instantly stamped in the reader’s memory. Anna Karenina comes quickly to mind: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A successful first line might also work to convey a novel’s tone, define a lead character, or encapsulate
some central drama. Nabokov’s burning introduction follows in this vein: “Lolita, light of my life, fire in my loins.” And then there are first lines that begin with a flurry of detail, a who-what-where-when-why that quickly telegraphs events to come or a past to be recovered.

To be sure, no list of successful opening lines can be exhaustive — mine included. Miraculously, debut novelist Dominic Smith’s opening in The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre veers so far from all of the above, he manages to condense all varieties of bad in a single bound. Unmemorable, canned, manipulative — Smith’s starter reads like something work-shopped in a high school short-story seminar: “When the vision came, he was in the bathtub.” With a line like this, who wants novels? Mobile-phone-delivered headlines, tabloids, and news tickers all fill the same need.

The sentence is too titillating and melodramatic, salacious even, for a first line. It’s not written so much as embossed across the page. In just nine words, we have hallucinations, nudity, leaked fluids. I expected Godot and a trail of nine reindeer to show up next.

Needless to say, he throws out the reader with the bathwater.

The man with the vision, as the novel’s title promises, is Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography. Borrowing rather loosely from Daguerre’s biography (by 1847, the year in which the novel takes place, Daguerre no longer lived in Paris, the novel’s setting), Smith imagines the toxic mercury vapors used in the photographic process gradually diminish the inventor’s reason, eventually producing apocalyptic terrors and sweats. Daguerre believes the year represents the world’s last, and compiles a list of ten objects he’d like to photograph before The End of Time. For a man with such an active imagination, Daguerre’s list is thoroughly ordinary, if not altogether boring. Included among the items are such wildly original ideas as a “pastoral scene,” the “perfect apple,” and “a flower (type to be determined).” In my reviewer’s edition, a handwritten eleventh item was also included. Strangely enough, I don’t think “A Kodak Moment” made the final cut.

Daguerre’s tenth listing is a woman’s name, Isobel Le Fournier, a boyhood crush with whom he wishes to reunite. Unsurprisingly, the love interest forms the main pull of the narrative. Yet, like the flashback scenes uncovering their early romance, Isobel’s appeal and Daguerre’s desire are never fully realized in Smith’s stilted and uninspired prose: “The weeks dragged on and the silence plagued them both. They lived, half dazed and preoccupied, in each other’s troubled thoughts. She dropped vases and dinner plates.” Smith’s writing rolls off the tongue like cracker crumbs. You almost want to shake the flotsam from the page, zip its fly, or hand it a breath mint — the book embarrasses.

Smith possesses little enthusiasm for language, the frisson of a well-wound phrase, and fails to delight in the pleasures of metaphor or the sound of words. When Smith chooses from his wardrobe of images, the selection always looks threadbare. The tingle of winter is “sharp as pine needles”; a rain-soaked slick of boulevard “stretche[s] away like an expanse of oiled slate.” So hackneyed is Smith’s repertoire, he’s at his most striking when borrowing the language of others. At one point, Daguerre refers to his photographs as “mirrors with a memory,” no doubt an arresting metaphor for images minted on silver sheets. Yet the phrase isn’t, in fact, coined by Daguerre, much less by Smith. Oliver Wendell Holmes would use the metaphor first, more than ten years after the time in which the novel is set. So much for self-reflection and memories.

Make no mistake, however, the premise of the novel should excite, especially if you enjoy photography and historical fiction. Smith’s book attempts to picture the political fervor and cultural milieu of 19th century Paris, a moment when apocalypse seemed like a possibility even for folks not fond of mercury huff. In his favor, Smith cleverly chooses the poet Charles Baudelaire to serve as Daguerre’s confidante and companion. In another writer’s hands, Baudelaire’s panache and flamboyance might make for a rich character; yet, in Smith’s, Baudelaire often plays Seinfeld to Daguerre’s Costanza. About Daguerre’s condition, Baudelaire remarks, “‘The nervous attacks are getting worse. You should see a doctor.’ ‘With their invoice pads and leeches — no, thank you.’” We might forget the real Baudelaire possessed a famous distaste for photography, but sitcom banter from the French aesthete is simply inexcusable.

Ultimately, I’d have to say something similar for Smith’s novel. Capturing the earth’s beauty before its demise is too much gravity for Mercury to support.