BY ROB CLINE
Convinced that the world is going to end very soon, Louis Daguerre,perhaps the most famous of the early pioneers of photography, makes a listof ten things he needs to make daguerreotypes of prior to the cataclysm. Thefirst is a beautiful, naked woman; the last is Isobel Le Fournier, his firstlove. The connection between the two women in question and Daguerre himselfis the fulcrum of Dominic Smith’s The Mercury Visionsof Louis Daguerre.
While the list itself seems like the organizing principle early on, Smithhas not written a quest novel, but rather a love story driven by steadfastlove, artistic triumph, stunning coincidence, and the mercury-induced madnessof the title character.
“There’s lots of speculation out there that Louis Daguerresuffered from mercury poisoning to some degree or another. That was mydramatic premise,” Smith said in a phone interview.
Smith, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 1994 after studyinganthropology and taking every undergraduate writing workshop he could,tackled several challenges as he pursued his premise, including the blendingof the historical and fictional. He estimates that the novel ended up aneven split between the true and invented.
“The part that I really wanted to get right was the trajectory ofhis career and the key moments in his artistic life.”
Thus, the book serves as a primer on Daguerre’s efforts to captureimages of the world. Smith nicely weaves the technical accomplishment withan underlying psychological motivation for his character. “He’sreally trying to capture everything that’s fleeting. Everything isdriven by his idea that a single moment can be captured.”
Because Smith imagines his protagonist being steadily poisoned by hisown creation, that effort to capture the world in still images is particularlypoignant. Rendering Daguerre’s madness was another challenge forSmith.
“He had to be mad enough that his delusions were believable becausethey are so integral to the plot,” said Smith, “but not so madthat no one could relate to him.”
He struck the necessary balance by maintaining what he calls the “internallogic” of Daguerre’s delusions.
From the rhythms of 19th century French to the trappings of the 19th centurynovel, Smith labored to create a work that captured the spirit and feelof his subject. Like many of the works he read in preparation, TheMercury Visions of Louis Daguerre hinges on a coincidence that might strike modernreaders as unlikely at best, forced at worst.
“I tried to tap into an inner sense of how these plots arecreated,” he said. “I wanted to make it feel like a 19thcentury novel. It was a struggle to be truthful to stories of thetime without being overly melodramatic.”
On the whole, Smith’s project successfully sweeps readers back toa much different time and place, creating a memorable love story for hisfamous protagonist.
Semken’s Environmental Fable
Area author Steve Semken, well known to readers of this publication,combines his interest in spirituality and the natural world inhis first long work of fiction, Pick Up StickCity.
Harness Trenchold buys an abandoned Midwestern town and sets about restoringit. But this is no ordinary restoration as Harness finds himself regeneratingnot just the buildings, but the people of the town too. He discovers ahistory in which a relentless sun dries up the very residents of the townas well as the original dreams of one of the founders who sought only solitudeand a connection to his environment.
With the help of a steady rain, Trenchold brings the community back togetherlong enough to hear the tale of the town’s destruction—a warningnote against those who would ignore the natural world.
While the book contains several strong images and passages, particularlythe portions in which hydrated town residents relate the tales ofthe town, Semken’s effort is uneven. The potential richness of thiswonder-filled narrative is underserved by the story’s brevity (thetale is told in 117 pages) and the final environmental message is not terriblynuanced. Nevertheless, Semken’s fertile imagination offers much thathints at engaging narratives yet to be written.