Paper Conspiracies, Susan Daitch’s third book and second novel (after 2000’s The Colorist), opens with its narrator, film restorer Frances Baum, caught up in a mystery. Her employer wants her to restore a century-old film made by Georges Méliès, a French cinema pioneer who invented special effects and fantasy movies. This particular film, however, is a good deal more somber in its material. Strangest of all, however, is that Frances’s boss wants her to change the ending of the movie, effectively destroying it.
Meanwhile, other forces are at play. Frances begins to receive phone calls and written notes from one Jack Kews, a man who—for reasons of his own which are left unexplained—wants the film preserved in its original state. He seems particularly obsessed, for some reason, with any images that may have been captured on celluloid after the story itself ends. Kews’s contacts begin politely but urgently, soon growing more insistent and, perhaps, borderline threatening. Frances deliberately plods on with her work but can’t help wondering what she’s gotten herself into.
The reader wonders, too. The film at the heart of Frances’s work—and at the heart of this novel—is The Dreyfus Affair, a film—or more properly, a series of short films—concerning the accusation, trial, and eventual conviction of one Albert Dreyfus, a French military officer accused of treason in the late 1800s. A sensation in its day (think the OJ Simpson trial, or the Lindbergh kidnapping), the Dreyfus trial sparked strong emotions, with much of the public convinced of his guilt, but many also convinced that his Jewishness made him an easy target for spurious charges.
The Dreyfus Affair, Méliès’s mock-documentary chronicling the man’s woes, consists of a handful of one-minute “actualities”—staged representations of real events. (Among much else, Méliès invented this, too.) The story is all but forgotten today, but for film restorer Frances and the shadowy Jack Kews, the affair is of pressing importance, maybe even a matter of life and death. Although the details remain frustratingly vague both to Frances and the reader, the promise is held out that all will be revealed before the last page.
Author Daitch structures her novel so as to postpone the revelations as long as possible, however. The reader is introduced to a series of opaque developments that unwind backward in time from Frances’s present-day storyline right back to the studio of Méliès himself. This proves to be both engaging and frustrating. Frustrating, because after a 100-plus pages alongside Frances, the reader grows somewhat attached to her and curious about her particular situation. But this curiosity is thwarted, for a very long time at least, as subsequent chapters peel back the layers of the mystery, bringing the reader back to ‘50s Paris and then the ‘30s until, finally, landing up in the Montreuil studios of Star Films in the early 1900s.
It should surprise no one that these chapters are the most engaging parts of the book. Méliès was a larger-than-life character, and even filtered through the point of view of his less-than-heroic employee Fabien, the man still commands attention. More than that, though, is the sense that Fabien’s story is getting very close to the heart of the matter, whatever it is, that lies within the Dreyfus Affair. Fabien has no way of knowing that a hundred years hence, there will still be mysteries to be parsed from his daily comings and goings, but the reader does, and this lends an effective tension to his episodes. The term for the reader’s knowledge of something that is denied the characters is called dramatic irony, and here Daitch ladles it on by the bucketful.
Despite this abundance of strong material, though, and despite the author’s undeniable skill and clarity, there is an oddly airless quality to this novel. The sentences convey information, but they rarely sing, and despite the many shifting points of view in the various sections, the characters all sound rather monotone. Here is Frances: “She recapped lipstick and pens, clipped shut mirrors and notebooks, dismissed the bicycle messenger service with professional finality.” Here is Fabien, 100 years earlier: “He slapped one hand over his eyes and groped in front with the other, a cartoon blind man whose packages crashed to the pavement.” The sentences convey the necessary information but remain curiously flat.
Perhaps the liveliest section comes in the form of letters sent in the ‘30s. The chatty first person allows for a degree of personality to emerge, even as the reader is intrigued by trying to fit these new pieces into the slowly emerging puzzle. An entire novel in this style would be a chore to wade through, but here it proves an effective change of pace.
Paper Conspiracies is in many ways a demanding novel. Its subject matter is fairly obscure and its structure delays gratification without any of those little “Ah-ha!” moments along the way. Much of it takes place in France, in the past, and is primarily concerned with events that few Americans have even heard of. Despite this, or because of it, the novel manages to spin a compelling story, one that will engage readers looking for something beyond ordinary literary fare.