Three quests, nested like Russian matryoshka dolls, obsess the main occupants of The Mirror Thief's pages. Each of these imperfect, liminal criminals live in divergent time periods, but are bound together by a glittering chain of events and locales. Curtis works for a shady Atlantic City casino owner and is staying in the post-modern Venetian resort hotel in Las Vegas whil he hunts the Strip for an infamous, aging gambler named Stanley. In 1950's Venice, California, that same gambler as a "juvenile deliquent" grifter searches for the author of a collecton of metaphysical poems entitled "The Mirror Thief." A minor historical figure, Crivano, is the oblique subject of that same book of poetry, as is his attempt to steal the top secret technology of the renowned mirror makers of 16th century Venice, Italy.
A sublte, undercurrent of alchemical magic pervades this novel, but never errupts into the cheap sleights of hand of overt Fantasy. The reader never knows with certainty what mysteries are reflected in The Mirror Thief's deepest shadows. And neither do its characters. The book's real magic lies in Martin Seay's writing, where even incidental descriptions are infused with upretentious poetry. Throughout his book, Seay proves himself to be an alchemist of the first order, transmuting the leaden prose of the average bookseller into gold.
When twenty-year old Leonora Carrington met forty-six year old Max Ernst at a London garden party in 1937 he was already an established, and extremely charming, figure in the European art world -- a hero of both Dada and Surrealism. Considering her creative predilictions and her antipathy toward her authoritarian father's industrialist-conservatism, it was not surprising that she was smtiten. What was surprising was the fact that a seeming infatuation rapidly bloomed into a substantially-rooted reciprocal, romantic and creative relationship.
Too often novels based on real lives and grounded in historic events founder because they are devoid of the compelling dramatic trajectory required to ensnare a reader's empathetic curiosity and generate vicarious immersion. But the saga of Leonora's and Max's intimate alliance is packed with all the enchantment, creative fulfillment, precipitous tension, and unanticipated resolution that a skilled novelist could wish for -- once she's done the research. Michaela Carter more than proves her skills as a writer and her devotion to research with this captivating narrative.
In Paris Leonora and Max are swept up in the outrageous whirlwind of Surrealism's cafe/gallery culture -- Dali, Man Ray, Picasso, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Lee Miller et al. Eventually they settle into a more subdued, isolated and idyllic, creative refuge in Provence, where they inspire each other to their finest works of art. The idyll is doomed, however, by the onslaught of Nazism and the expanding cultural eclipse of World War II. Their aesthetic dream is devoured by a nightmare of forced separation, imprisonment, madness, and hair's breadth escapes that are, miraculously, superseded with the assistance of individual guardian angels, by salvation, and eventual international acclaim.
For Max Ernst, in the male-dominated, post-war art world, that acclaim was a culmination. For Leonora Carrington, who died in 2011 at the age of 94, it was more of a gradual and posthumous revival, with recent republications of her extraordinary surrealist writings and recognition of the allegorical brilliance of her paintings. This novel's roller coaster ride is a worthy extension of that ongoing tribute and rejuvinated fascination.
Alexandra Fuller has painted a large target, in the shape of a medicine wheel, over her fearless heart with Quiet Until the Thaw, her first novel after a 15-year binge of stark, intimate memoirs and biographies. How dare this immigrant white woman, transplanted to Wyoming from England by way of southern Africa, inhabit the minds and characters with honesty, insight and compassion, with ears attuned to a perfect pitch for discordant injustice and dissonant irony -- sharpened by the violent, racist brutality of a childhood in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)? How dare she ignite the spark of life in imagined, divergent, reservation orphans, Rick Overlooking Horse and You Choose Watson, as well as their "Closest Immediate Relations" of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, allowing them to breathe as if under their own agency?
The anti-appropriation army will be after her like the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee, armed with self-righteous hysteria. The absurdity of shackling Fiction with identity politics has been summed up by another iconoclastic, white female novelist, Lionel Shriver, "This is a disespectful vocation by its nature -- prying, voyeuristic, kleptomanical, and presumptuous. And that is fiction at its best." What is relevant to fiction is mis-appropriation: the dishonest or faithless representation, symptomatic of bad writing. Nothing could be more irrelevant to Alexandra Fuller's story-telling ability.
As a novice novelist, Fuller has seemingly chosen to channel Kurt Vonnegut -- a debt pre-acknowledged by one of her book's epigrams. His characteristic blunt observations, steeped in irony, are natural to Fuller's narration. "On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation you don't have to make trouble for yourself. Trouble saved you the effort and came looking for you." The 1970s Wounded Knee conflict is like the Dresden of Slaughter-House Five transposed to the Rez. I imagined Vonnegut's signature sign-off, "and so it goes," on the frozen wind. His template of compressed chapters pervades. But thematically, Vonnegut was never as earthbound as, "the Rez, also known as Prisoner of War Camp #334, also known as the Oglala Lakota Native American Reserve," requires.
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The mythical transition between magic and science has infused much imaginative writing. Several of Stephenson's earlier novels, including his Baroque Trilogy, have touched on the subject -- with alchemist turned mathematician Isaac Newton as a pivotal figure. But in this new novel, Stephenson and his collaborator, Nicole Galland, have placed it center stage, worked out the scientific details, and pinpointed the historic moment that shut down magic for all future days.
As an adjunct professor of ancient and classical linguistics, Melisande (Mel) Stokes is little more than an indentured servant. When she meets secretive Tristan Lyons (with his evident military-ish training) and proves her genius at translating dead languages, she gratefully accepts his generous offer to join the ranks of the "shadowy government entity" known as the Department of Diachronic Operations. The entire novel is narrated in an assortment of compiled documents. The most sigmificant is Mel's "Diachronicle," a diary that reveals, on the book's first page, that she is trapped in the past and that temporal hijinks will be critical to the story's unfolding. This is all a great ploy for enhancing a reader's suspence while exploring historical intricasies -- two of Stephenson's supreme (and usually entangled) strengths as a writer.
The "observer effect" is on of the great mojos of particle physics, in which the status of a thing is determined by the very act of observation. When light is observed as a photon, its "wave function collapses." Such observation is the focus of the Schrodingers Cat thought experiment, wherein a theoretical cat, trapped in a box with a poison pill, sequestered from observable reality, is both alive and dead until its fate is determined by an observer's intrusion. This loophole in physics is what allows D.O.D.O. to build a human-sized Schrodinger's Box -- where a witch's magic still works -- to send agents back in time, and to grow into a thriving (farcical) bureaucracy. Did I neglect to mention witches? The outcome of D.O.D.O's meddling, is, of course, anything but predictable -- that is until observed by the reader.