In the family tree of photography, Edward S. Curtis is close to the trunk of the documentary tradition, even if he eschewed the hard facts of his subjects in order to gussy up the picture. Guilty as he was of erasing all traces of modern life—the automobiles and European dress and twentieth-century settings of his Native American subjects—in order to portray an ersatz tribal authenticity, he was no less beholden to an instrumentalized notion of what the camera could do as a recording device than were the photojournalists and ethnographic filmmakers and street photographers who came after him. In photography’s dialect, Curtis’s images are more declarative sentences than lines of verse— and are, as such, an at-first-glance surprising nail for Marianne Wiggins to hang a story as philosophically nimble as The Shadow Catcher. “Too messy to offer up a possibility for a profit, for a lesson or a parable,” she writes of the medium of photography in her remarkable novel-within-a-novel. “It’s not art. It’s life. And if you were Cartier- Bresson you’d move yourself into position, you’d align yourself along the arc of possibility and wait for a decisive moment when life, itself, composes into art. Or, if you’re Edward Curtis, you dress the mess to play the part. You disguise the truth to make the image you want.”
Truth, image, and their disguises have long engaged Wiggins, and in this, her eighth novel, she takes as her subject the elusive Curtis, the Seattle-based chronicler of Native American life, who between 1907 and 1930 published twenty volumes of images in his “North American Indian” series, which was dedicated to documenting Indian folkways “before they disappeared.” The Shadow Catcher begins en abyme as the story of a novelist named Marianne Wiggins attempting to sell the film rights to a historical fiction she has written about Curtis. But in the nesting-doll telling of his story, it is not the Indians but Curtis who is always disappearing, first as a child, spending months away from his Minnesota home with his scheming father, and later as a husband and father himself. (“Those adventuring types,” one character says about the photographer, “I’ve always been suspicious. What are they running from?”) What Curtis is running from is never completely clear in The Shadow Catcher, even if it is the question at the heart of the character Marianne’s manuscript, but the person left behind is his bride, Clara.
Clara is the daughter of a bohemian painter and his piano-teaching wife, living in Saint Paul. The comfy world of the cultured and content adolescent is shattered when her parents are killed just before Christmas, crushed by a sheet of snow and ice sliding down off a store’s roof like a guillotine blade. With her family’s estate insolvent and with no one to support her and her brother, Hercules, Clara avails herself of the offer made by an old family friend, Ellen Curtis, who has moved with her children (including the second eldest, Edward) across the Great Plains to Washington Territory. Traveling by rail through this sublime, terrifying country (“She’d thought she’d seen a shadow racing on the rising plain and realized she was looking at a running bear, infuriated by the train”), she and Hercules at last reach the Curtis family in the boondocks outside Seattle, but not before she catches her first glimpse of Native Americans, zombielike and selling cheap trinkets outside the station at Bismarck, “having arrived on the platform from godknowswhere in order to enact a play in which they were the scenery, nothing else.”
Wiggins tells Edward’s story through the mouth of Clara, a sympathetic character whose sad trajectory is sketched in tiny but revealing strokes, like one of W. G. Sebald’s displaced emigrants. It is Clara who initiates the taciturn young man first into the history of painting (through one of the few books she has spirited out of Minnesota), then into sex. After Edward injures himself falling from the roof when he espies Clara naked in the bath, the two pass a halcyon few days alone, she nursing him back to health, showing him reproductions of Giottos and teaching him about perspectival painting while he dilates on the lessons. In the penetralia of the family’s barn, she discovers the darkroom he has built, where what she witnesses are a “chemical process, oxidation, like tarnish on a ring,” and the illusory pictures—“as real as rust”—that result. But any relief the lonely Clara finds is fleeting, and as they consummate their intimacy by the light of a lantern, Edward forebodingly crops her body by viewing it through a pair of L-shaped photographic frames, “his unseen gaze on her creat[ing] not a shared experience but a partition.”
Vision, Wiggins makes clear, is as much an operation of mastery and control as it is the source of optical pleasure, and the light that makes vision possible also of necessity creates shadows. The cast shadow, the occlusion that is by definition unilluminated— this negative space is as much a character in Wiggins’s novel as Clara or Edward. In fact, it’s at the core of whatever it is that Edward ultimately seeks in his expeditions to photograph Native Americans (even when he is at his most animated and loquacious in The Shadow Catcher, he remains a shadowy figure), and it is at stake no less in the “other” novel taking place in the book, in which Marianne receives a call from a Las Vegas hospital informing her that her “father” has been admitted, on his deathbed, to the intensive care unit. (We learn over the course of the novel that her real father committed suicide many years before.) The story of the mystery man who passed himself off as John Wiggins for so many decades is interwoven with the historical fiction of Edward and Clara, each tale casting a pall over the other. The Curtis saga darkens the present of Marianne— the memory of her dead father, as well as the tales of the dying black man who pretended to be John and of the Navajo who runs a crafts cooperative and is responsible for bringing the dying man to the ICU. Even the eponymous restaurateur at the Mad Greek, a Saint George–blue, Zorba-flavored oasis of feta and olives in the middle of the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, seems serendipitously illuminated and occluded by the shadows of the past.
Wiggins’s overlaid vision quests—those of Curtis, herself, and the son of the ICU patient, a fortysomething air-force officer who finds his story triangulated by theirs— all ultimately turn on the notion of identity, which seems these days to be as easily boosted as a tube of lipstick. Fewer literary topics are trendier than identity theft— Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance and Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist are just two new novels that consider the subject— but with The Shadow Catcher, identity itself is less plot device than theme. It emerges as a strangely protean concept, less bedrock and more fragile, but one that we can recognize at play in the portrait photographs of all those Hopi and Oglala and Kwakiutl who came to know Curtis as the man who caught their shadow. On this score, Wiggins’s novel feels adequate to Curtis’s arduous project, and the novel she wraps around her historical tale estranges his documentary work into something more complex, more foreign, than the familiar romanticized images of American Indian life.
The spirit that hovers most electrically over The Shadow Catcher is less Curtis’s than Sebald’s. Wiggins’s novel is larded with photos, in the spirit of the late German author— both vintage Curtises and found photographs—as well as details of paintings of the Annunciation and Brueghelian views of ports. Even Wiggins’s lavish descriptions of her feverishly imagined flights over western vistas, triggered, she writes, by an antique drawing of Leonardo’s, recall Sebald’s fanciful encounter with Old Master works at the beginning of After Nature (1988). Wiggins seems a bit chary of committing to the Sebaldian gambit; after a fusillade of photos in the first couple of chapters, she checks herself, and the images issue more slowly. But when she is at full bore, her strategic deployment of what I assume to be personal mementos alongside archival Curtises peppers her novel with a mixture of fact and artifice that is sui generis and inspired. “A novel is, by nature, one long Realization,” Wiggins writes, “which is not to say other pursuits aren’t dependent on discovery.” Memorable in itself, The Shadow Catcher is also part of a longer realization, one that began for the novelist with Babe (1975) and most germanely here includes Separate Checks (1984) and Eveless Eden (1995)—all of which cast photography in a starring role. The power of the “mature novel” lies in, of course, its capacity to look, with correcting hindsight, to earlier work. In the wake of The Shadow Catcher, the aesthetic meditations in Wiggins’s prior novels and stories are diffracted, refocused, and, finally, resolved more meaningfully. The Shadow Catcher is Wiggins’s best novel since John Dollar (1989), if not better than it; but even more impressive, it helps the reader return more appreciatively to her entire body of work.
Eric Banks is editor of Bookforum.